As you can see, one-third selects a cross, a relatively neutral symbol, but one in five chooses an image that strongly suggests judgment, condemnation or “Bible thumping.” One in seven believes a diverse group of young people holding hands and praying is most representative of the Church, and one in 10 says so about a crowd of worshippers with their hands raised.
There are some interesting differences by ethnicity on this question. Generally, African American and Hispanic teens tend to select images that have a communal feel (and greater diversity), whereas whites are substantially more likely to pick the cross.
Among Gen Z churchgoers (those who have attended one or more worship services within the past month), perceptions of church tend to be more positive than negative. Strong majorities of churched teens say that church “is a place to find answers to live a meaningful life” and “is relevant to my life,” that “I can ‘be myself’ in church,” and that “people at church are tolerant of those with different beliefs.” Negative perceptions have significant currency, however. Half of churchgoing teens say “the church seems to reject much of what science tells us about the world” and one-third that “the church is overprotective of teenagers” or “the people at church are hypocritical.” Further, one-quarter claim “the church is not a safe place to express doubts” or that the teaching they are exposed to is “rather shallow.”
The positive attitudes outweigh the negatives by far. There are, however, plenty of negatives that church leaders must address—especially because some of these perceptions have, among Millennials, contributed to the dropout problem in young adulthood. (See You Lost Me by David Kinnaman for a comprehensive look at Millennials’ perceptions of church.)
More than half of Gen Z says church involvement is either “not too” (27%) or “not at all” important (27%). Only one in five says attending church is “very important” to them (20%), the least popular of the four options.
Why is church unimportant? Non-Christians and self-identified Christians have different reasons. Among those who say attending church is not important to them, three out of five Christian teens say “I find God elsewhere,” while about the same proportion of non-Christians says “church is not relevant to me personally.” The non-Christians’ most popular answer makes sense (they’re not Christians, after all), but Christians’ reasoning is an indicator that at least some churches are not helping to facilitate teens’ transformative connection with God.
In 2013 Barna conducted a landmark study among Millennials to find out what kind of worship spaces appeal to them. (The findings were published in Making Space for Millennials: A Blueprint for Your Culture, Ministry, Leadership and Facilities.) It turns out that Gen Z has a lot in common with their young-adult counterparts when it comes to their “ideal” church—but also a few differences, just to keep things interesting! Like twentysomethings, community (in contrast with privacy) is deeply important to today’s teens; if anything, they are even more drawn to the idea than Millennials. Sanctuary (compared to auditorium) also appeals to them, but not to the same extent as to young adults. They are about equally likely to say casual (over dignified) but are a bit more likely than Millennials to choose flexible (over authentic). And, surprisingly, traditional (more than modern) appeals to Gen Z, and they are a bit less enamored of quiet (over loud) than twentysomethings, to whom quiet is very important.
Like Millennials (and other adult generations), Gen Z expects to see something of themselves when they walk into a church. While they appear collectively to have less intense spiritual aspirations than the age cohort immediately ahead of them, those who connect with a faith community want to know they belong.
Which brings us back around to the issue of racial and ethnic diversity. As we saw in chapters 1 and 2, Gen Z is the most diverse generation in American history—and most churches, by and large, are not. But that’s not the only problem: There is also a notable lack of faith engagement among Hispanic and Asian Christians in both teens and adults. Hispanics / Latinos make up more than 13 percent of the total U.S. population but represent only 7 percent of engaged Christians among teens and 10 percent among adults. (One reason is that Catholics are less likely than Protestants to qualify as engaged, and Hispanics are disproportionately Catholic.) Similarly, Asians are nearly 6 percent of the overall population but 3 percent or less of engaged Christians.
Imagine that an unchurched or non-Christian teen or young adult visits a local church for the first time. The church is overwhelmingly white. Even if she is also white, it’s conceivable she will not feel at home there because the faith community does not reflect the multicultural world she most likely lives in.
American churches’ overall lack of racial and ethnic diversity could become a major stumbling block for a generation that has already begun to see church as irrelevant to their lives.
Irrelevance is a key word for this generation when it comes to faith, truth and church. Not only does Christianity stand in direct contrast with many of the beliefs and attitudes of Gen Z—on the existence of objective morality and spiritual truth, for example—but the practice of the faith, especially as part of a Christian faith community, seems to many teens simply not to be relevant. It doesn’t seem to have a bearing on their real day-to-day lives.
Clearly this is a challenge for those who care about making disciples in the next generation: How can you get people to pay attention to something that feels extraneous or nonsensical to their everyday lives? How do you talk about truth in a way that “feels” true?
Where & When Are
We Losing Young Men?
While young men and women tend to report equal attendance at youth group, Bible studies and church during their teens years, and fall into Christian faith segments relatively equally, historic tracking shows that adult men are significantly less likely to practice Christianity (by going to church and saying their faith is important to them) than women. Is there something churches are doing, or not doing, that might explain this phenomenon? Can we stem the tide of de-churched men in our culture?
It’s possible that engaging them in demanding conversation about tough topics, such as theology and morality, could make a difference. Here’s why.
Gen Z males are somewhat more likely to feel they need factual evidence to support their beliefs (51% vs. 41% Gen Z girls). Additionally, young men are more likely to perceive conflict between science and the Bible (47% vs. 34%), while young women are more likely to consider science and the Bible complementary or independent (66% vs. 53% Gen Z boys). Among non-Christian teens, males are more likely than females to doubt the evidence for Christianity, with about one-quarter saying their main objection to Christianity is “I don’t believe in fairy tales” (vs. 14% non-Christian Gen Z girls).
Except for a few notable exceptions, the theological beliefs of teen boys and girls are similar. But slightly fewer young men than women believe in salvation by faith in Jesus: “When you die you will go to heaven because you have confessed your sins and have accepted Jesus Christ as your savior” (29% vs. 36%). And fewer have an orthodox view of God: “God is the all-powerful, all-knowing, perfect creator of the universe who rules the world today” (47% vs. 55%).
Young men are a bit more likely to say religious people are too judgmental (20% strongly agree, 33% agree somewhat vs. 13% strongly agree, 44% agree somewhat among Gen Z girls). Some may feel this way because they harshly judge themselves: Self-identified Christian young men are more likely to feel distanced from God when they err. Three in 10 feel “like God loves you less when you do something wrong, selfish or hurtful to others,” (31%) compared with one in five young Christian women (19%).
When it comes to moral questions, teen boys are less likely than girls to say lying (32% vs. 37%) or cheating on a spouse (66% vs. 80%) is wrong.
What do we get when we add up all these data points? At least for some young men (and likely a few young women), the Christianity they know as teens is not rigorous enough to bother with as they get older; in addition to providing comfort, faith worth living must be a challenge. Many need to discover for themselves that God’s love for them has no limits and that a biblical worldview can stand up to tough scrutiny.
What are we doing to strengthen young people’s grit, courage and resilient faithfulness? What are we doing to challenge young men to do the hard things that following Jesus requires?