2. Their Worldview Is Post-Christian
It is not breaking news that the influence of Christianity in the United States is waning. Historical Barna data show that rates of church attendance, religious affiliation, belief in God, prayer and Bible-reading have been dropping for decades.
Consequently, the role of religion in public life has also diminished, and the Church no longer holds the cultural authority it wielded in times past. These are unique days for the Church in America as it learns what it means to flourish in a post-Christian era.
There are a few different ways we can look at the post-Christian phenomenon. Using a classification of faith based on widely accepted, orthodox Christian beliefs, Barna developed a profile of people with a “biblical world-view.”* The percentage of people whose beliefs qualify them for a biblical worldview declines in each successively younger generation: 10 percent of Boomers, 7 percent of Gen X and 6 percent of Millennials have a biblical worldview, compared to only 4 percent of Gen Z.
Americans’ beliefs are becoming more post-Christian and, concurrently, religious identity is changing. (See previous page.) Within the self-identified Christian population, the percentage that qualifies as evangelical according to Barna’s definition, which is based on nine points of theological and personal belief, has remained stable over the past two decades. However, those whom Barna classifies as “born again” (who say they have faith in Jesus and believe salvation comes through faith alone) have dwindled, especially in the last six years. During the same period, the percentage of those with no religious affiliation has risen, mostly thanks to the growing number of Americans under 50 who say they are “none of the above.”
In Gen Z we see more of the same trends, except for one glaring difference: The percentage of Gen Z that identifies as atheist is double that of U.S. adults. We’ll dig into this massive shift in an upcoming chapter. For now, here is a generational breakdown of how Americans identify today:
Many in Generation Z, more than in generations before them, are a spiritual blank slate. They are drawn to things spiritual, but their starting point is vastly different from previous generations, many of whom received a basic education on the Bible and Christianity. The worldview of Gen Z, by contrast, is truly post-Christian. They were not born into a Christian culture, and it shows.
You will notice throughout this study that we refer to various faith categories. These groups are a combination of religious self-identification and Christian beliefs and practices. When researchers segment Gen Z by faith, we find that, while a majority of teens still self-identifies as “Christian” (58%), only 43 percent have recently attended church, and just one in 11 is an “engaged Christian,” with beliefs and practices that put faith front and center in their lives.* This is a significantly smaller percentage than their grandparents: 14 percent of Boomers are engaged Christians.
*For a complete definition of “engaged Christian” and other Barna categories, see Appendix B.
In Meet Generation Z, James Emery White agrees that Gen Z is the first “truly post-Christian generation.”12 The rise of the religiously unaffiliated, or “nones,” is symptomatic of a growing cultural apathy toward religion. He suggests that nominal Christians—those who identify culturally with the name if not with the commitment—are no longer the “center” between the poles of the religious and the atheist; the culture is secularizing, and those in the middle are shifting away from the religious pole. “As the cultural cost of being a Christian increases, people who were once Christian only in name likely have started to identify as nones, disintegrating the ‘ideological bridge’ between unbelievers and believers.” 
As we will see in later chapters, the bridge between believing and unbelieving teens is nearly nonexistent.
3. “Safe Spaces” Are Normal
As we will see, Gen Z teens do not like to make people feel bad—which is not, in and of itself, a problem. Their collective aversion to causing offense is the natural product of a pluralistic, inclusive culture that frowns on passing judgment that might provoke negative feelings in the judged. Two timely examples of this value are trigger warnings (written notices that content could provoke negative emotions such as fear or anger) and safe spaces (designated areas where such content is banned, either online or in physical space). The original intent of these concepts was to encourage awareness of content that could be psychologically harmful to victims of trauma or those with mental illness. Over time, however, use of trigger warnings has expanded in media and in classrooms. It’s not unusual to see notices about material that might be offensive or simply emotionally distressing. Safe spaces, in turn, have become designated areas not only to avoid information that could induce or remind one of trauma, but also to opt out of discussions that may in any way upset or provoke an individual.
The creation of trigger warnings and safe spaces was inspired by empathy, compassion and sound psychological principles—yet, when misused or overused, they ultimately do more harm than good. As Alan Levinovitz writes:
There is a very real danger that these efforts [to institute trigger warnings and safe spaces] will become overzealous and render opposing opinions taboo. Instead of dialogues in which everyone is fairly represented, campus conversations about race, gender, and religion will devolve into monologues about the virtues of tolerance and diversity. Even though academic debate takes place in a community, it is also combat. Combat can hurt. It is literally offensive. Without offense there is no antagonistic dialogue, no competitive marketplace, and no chance to change your mind. 
In their book Good Faith, Barna president David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons argue, “Protecting people from ideas they’d rather not hear is not only laughable but also ultimately harmful to society. Religious liberty and freedom of speech are rights that can only be put to the test at the distressing intersection of differing ideas. If we run away from that crossroads, these freedoms are simply hypothetical.”15 (Kinnaman and Lyons were writing about Millennials, but the phenomenon has only grown more extreme since Good Faith was published.)
In focus groups for this study, Barna researchers heard time and again from teens, “I don’t know; I’m so confused” and similar remarks in answer to seemingly basic questions like “Who was Jesus?” (You will also see in this report that “not sure” is a popular option on a majority of multiple-choice questions.) Many teens are deeply reluctant to make declarative statements about anything that could cause offense, and thus they struggle with anxiety and indecision when it’s time to give an answer, or time to act on it. In many ways they are the postmodern version of ancient Nineveh, about which God asked the prophet Jonah, “Should I not pity that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left?” (Jonah 4:11, ESV).
4. Real Safety Is a Myth
Although the tolerant inoffensiveness of “safe spaces” is a norm for Gen Z, the underlying anxiety that so many experience has led to a collective suspicion that true security is unattainable, or at least outside their control.
The Harry Potter books are, for many Millennials, a touchstone. Young adults came of age with Harry, who fought against and ultimately defeated the evil Lord Voldemort with the help of his friends and his magical abilities. If magic is a metaphor for inborn talent and “specialness,” Harry’s journey could be seen as an aspirational prototype for many twentysomethings—who, generationally speaking, are interested in working together to defeat the evils of social injustice.
Gen Z are not so optimistic, and are not altogether clear on what evils need defeating. Their social awareness began to dawn right around the Great Recession of 2008, and there is a dystopian slant on the books and movies popular among today’s YA audience that is very much at odds with the epic hero fantasy of Harry Potter. Many of these books are set in a post-apocalyptic future in which humanity has nearly destroyed itself and the earth. The resulting violence and loss of freedom offer bleak, authoritarian visions of humanity’s future. The best that the heroines of The Hunger Games and the Divergent trilogy can hope for is a quiet country life tinged by trauma and a violent death, respectively. Teens have never personally experienced a time when the norm was a dependable job with a livable wage and a reliable social safety net. After seeing their (mainly Gen X) parents struggle in the workforce only to earn financial stress, many young people express a strong sense of responsibility and entrepreneurial drive, likely in an effort to feel more in control of their future.
Financial expectations are only one of the cultural norms that have drastically shifted over the last several decades. Most in Gen Z do not remember the years before 9/11. They do not recall ever having lived in a country at peace. “As a group raised in constant war, contemporary youth may view the world with the belief that the world is ‘unsafe,’ yet at the same time, they may have greater global awareness as a result.”16 Between the financial crisis and perpetual war, they are apt to be distrustful of the future. According to analysis in Forbes:
Generation Z never had the luxury of a threat-free perspective so they’ve been forced to view life through a more guarded lens from the start. . . . The wary worldview of this group is further shaped by generation X parents, who came of age in the post-Watergate and Vietnam years amidst a time of economic and global uncertainty.17
Complementing, or perhaps exacerbating, their controlling streak are shifting cultural expectations about sexuality and gender identity. Not only are they collectively supportive of those who identify as LGBTQ but, as we’ll see in a later chapter, they are also more likely than adults to personally express some level of sexual fluidity or non-binary identity.18 As far as Gen Z is concerned, when it comes to gender expression and sexual orientation, there is no norm—and that can be deeply unsettling. If even your own body cannot reliably represent you to the world, is anything trustworthy?
5. They Are Diverse
As The Hunger Games and Divergent—not to mention Wonder Woman, Moana and Hidden Figures—demonstrate, the Age of Women in entertainment may have arrived at long last. And female success is ascendant elsewhere, too.
Where men at one time went to college in proportions far higher than women—58 percent to 42 percent as recently as the 1970s—the ratio has now almost exactly reversed. This fall, women will comprise more than 56 percent of students on campuses nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Some 2.2 million fewer men than women will be enrolled in college this year. And the trend shows no sign of abating.19