04 Making Gen Z Disciples

Making Gen Z Disciples


Fewer U.S. teens than adults believe core theological tenets of the Christian faith—and teens who do make orthodox faith claims are not quite as sure about them as adults. Christianity, as we’ve already seen in teens’ religious identification, has less of a hold on Gen Z than on previous generations.

Yet when researchers look at engaged Christians, a different picture emerges—not only of robust orthodoxy (that’s a part of the definition of “engaged Christian,” after all) but also of confident conviction. Across the board, engaged Christian teens are just as likely as their older counterparts to say they are very convinced of their Christian convictions.

This is not the case, however, for churchgoing teens who do not qualify as engaged. Churched teens are not only less confident in their beliefs than engaged teens; they are also less confident than adults in their same faith segment: churched Christians. This strongly suggests that church attendance alone is not enough for Gen Z Christians to effectively counter the prevailing post-Christian narrative that is ascendant in the broader culture.

One difference between engaged Christian and churched teens is church activities beyond worship services. Three-quarters of engaged Christians say they regularly attend a church youth group (76%), compared to less than half of churched teens (47%); two-thirds say they are part of a regular Bible study or small group (66%), compared to just 40 percent of churchgoing youth. Some churched teens may be reluctant to attend because they are less likely than engaged Christians to agree that “My church / youth group talks intelligently about the questions that are important to me” (43% vs. 72%).

Whether or not youth groups are a factor, churched (and to a much greater extent, unchurched) Christian teens are becoming less Christian. They are becoming, as Kenda Creasy Dean calls them in her book Almost Christian, 28 “moralistic therapeutic deists,” whose tenets are:

A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.

God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.

The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a

Good people go to heaven when they die.

If the goal is to impart a vibrant, lasting faith to the next generation, this is not a promising state of affairs. Because we know the vast majority of people who have a biblical worldview in adulthood formed their values and assumptions before the age of 20 (and most before 13), now is the time to assess discipleship priorities and methods—and adjust as necessary.29
In the interest of assessing current priorities and methods—and to get their up-close views of today’s teens—Barna surveyed engaged Christian parents of Gen Z and church youth pastors. Let’s start with what parents have to say.

Engaged Christian Parents

It is very important to engaged Christian parents that their child develops a lasting faith. More than nine out of 10 also say it is important that their child “is equipped to explain the Christian faith” and is “engaged in service”—likely as elements of the overall goal of strong adult faith.

In response to an open-ended question about their hopes and dreams for their child, one-third of these parents cite “living a life of faith” above other priorities like “successful career” (24%) or “being a good person” (17%). Similarly, “remaining faithful in a secular culture” is the top fear or concern of engaged Christian parents with regard to their teen, with 28 percent describing such a scenario. One in five may have something similar in mind when they point to a “hostile society” as their greatest concern (22%).

Who owns the responsibility to develop their teen’s faith? According to engaged Christian parents, they do. Three out of five say that they, the parents, are primarily responsible (59%) and more than one-third that it’s mostly them, with the help of church leaders (36%). They do so in a variety of ways, most often attending church and praying together.

Four out of five engaged Christian teens agree “I can share my honest questions, struggles and doubts with my parents” (79%), far more than any other faith segment. That’s great! According to a majority of parents, these conversations include Christian perspectives on current events and biblical perspectives on sexuality and marriage. Fewer than half, however, have ever discussed (among other topics) healthy media consumption or the relationship between science and the Bible—two subjects certainly at daily issue in their teens’ lives. Additionally, less than one-quarter of engaged parents have talked about integrating faith and career; even fewer have talked with their teen about discerning God’s will in their choice of college. These are areas of utmost concern to many teenagers, especially older teens who are thinking deeply about planning for their future. Understanding how their plans fit with God’s purpose is a big part of keeping a faith that lasts.

But parents, like their engaged Christian teens, don’t all feel comfortable having conversations about difficult topics. Fewer than half report there is no topic about which they feel unprepared to talk with their teen. Surprisingly, one in five says they do not feel prepared to address “tough” questions about Christianity, God or the Bible. One in seven feels unprepared to talk about the foundational beliefs of Christianity. And about the same number struggles to address spiritual and moral relativism—which, as we’ve seen, is a potent challenge to Gen Z faith.

Three-quarters of engaged Christian parents say their teen attends a youth program at church at least once a month (74%); two-thirds report they attend weekly or more often (65%). According to parents whose teens attend monthly, the programs have a few strengths in common. Worship and positive peer relationships rank at the top, with “providing a place for teens to ask serious questions about the Bible or foundational Christian beliefs” at the bottom of the list.

Unfortunately, some youth programs also appear to have a few weaknesses in common, according to parents.

Do youth pastors, the leaders of those programs, agree?

Youth Pastors

Youth pastors’ perceptions of Gen Z overall are a window into their experience pastoring diverse groups of students. They are well aware of the cultural challenges unique to today’s teens, particularly in the areas of media consumption and moral relativism.

Just over half of youth pastors mention the impact of social media and technology on the way this generation thinks and on their capacity to interact with others. And, indeed, we saw in chapter 1 how social media has captivated today’s teens and influences their worldview more than ever before. The next most common answer is spiritual and moral relativism and, as we saw in chapter 2, Gen Z has the most relativistic perspective yet on truth and morality.

Youth pastors’ assessments are spot-on. These are defining factors for Gen Z.

But these factors have greater and lesser impact on teens’ lives for a variety of reasons—most powerfully, their parents’ faith engagement, or lack thereof.

In large measure, engaged Christian parents and youth pastors are talking about two different groups of kids. The reality is that youth groups serve teens with a range of spiritual maturity levels—non-Christians to engaged Christians, and everyone in between—so by necessity leaders do not generally communicate at a spiritually or biblically sophisticated level. This is an important strategy for coaching new believers, but not so much for a teen whose parents regularly read the Bible and discuss matters of faith at home with her. It’s therefore understandable why some engaged Christian parents perceive their teen’s youth group as weak in some discipleship-focused areas.

We can see the tough spot youth pastors are often in by looking at their most common struggles: The top contender by far is “parents not prioritizing their teen’s spiritual growth.” By and large, youth pastors are not talking about engaged Christian parents! Nearly three in 10 admit that “balancing the needs of unchurched teens with growing those who do have faith” is a struggle, and one in 11 says “too much time dealing with practical life topics and not enough time talking about foundational beliefs” is a problem for their group. So at least some youth pastors are aware that the youth program is not ideal for in-depth discipleship with teens who already have a faith-engaged family.

When we look at the topics youth pastors have covered during the past year, it’s clear that most are trying to plant seeds of ideas and habits in teens that will grow into mature faith. This is in line with their stated priorities, which focus on basic theology, Bible literacy and devotional habits.

Prayer / devotional habits
Basic theology
How to read / study the Bible
Sexuality, dating and marriage
Origins, history, reliability of the Bible

Comparing youth pastors’ discussion topics with engaged Christian parents’, it becomes clear that youth pastors are more likely to have talked with teens about most subjects on the list. This is partly due to the nature of their different roles: It is literally a youth pastor’s job to talk about these things.

That being the case, how prepared do they feel? Nearly all think they are at least somewhat prepared for each of the four specific worldview topics addressed at length in the survey—but more are very comfortable talking about the evidence for Jesus and the origins of the Bible than about science and dialog with people of different faiths and backgrounds. (These four topics were chosen because each of them is perennially significant for Christians in any generation and of particular importance for Gen Z, given the cultural challenges they face.)

Considering the climate in which Gen Z is coming of age, all youth pastors (and Christian parents) need to prepare for robust conversations on these and other topics relating to biblical worldview. Teens may not be entirely at ease talking about these subjects, but that doesn’t make them any less urgent.

Q&A with Joivan Jimenez

Singer-Songwriter, Actor and Ministry Director at Meadowbrook Church

Joivan is a singer-songwriter and actor born in Panama City, Panama. He serves as Spanish Ministry Director and Worship Leader at Meadowbrook Church in Ocala, Florida, and worked as a student pastor for more than 15 years. Joivan is a 2017 Dove Awards nominee for his single “Generación de Fuego,” nominated as Spanish Recorded Song of the Year. He enjoys cooking, watching movies and traveling with his wife, Lucianne, and their three children, Yessaira, Joilianne and Joivan Alexander. He is proud to hold both Panamanian and American citizenship, and is a voice for a comprehensive immigration reform in the United States.

Worldview Discipleship

We’ve looked throughout this report at various inputs and aspects of Gen Z’s worldview: the values, allegiances and assumptions that are the (often invisible) eyeglasses through which they perceive their world. George Barna, founder of Barna Group, has long maintained that developing a biblical worldview is an essential pillar of unshakeable faith. And because that’s a view shared by Barna’s research partner for this study, Impact 360 Institute, researchers took a deep dive into the four biblical worldview topics introduced above. Youth pastors and engaged Christian parents were asked about teens’ exposure to and views on historical evidence of Jesus, origins of the Bible, and science and the Bible. Youth pastors were also asked about having conversations with people of other or no religious faith.

Across the board, engaged Christian parents tend to perceive that their engaged Christian kids have fairly well-developed views on the topics and that, for the most part, their views are quite similar to their parents’. Youth pastors, on the other hand, say most of their students come into conversation on these topics with less-developed views, and that those views are only somewhat similar to the youth pastor’s own positions.

According to the engaged parents and youth pastors who have talked with teens about these worldview issues, what would they say was the outcome? How well are teens able to marshal facts, evidence and persuasive arguments in support of their views?
According to engaged Christian parents, pretty well. According to youth pastors . . . not as much.

Again, the significant disparities we see here are due, in large measure, to parents talking about a smaller subset of the whole youth group that pastors have in mind. We can see similar gaps in Christian teens’ self-reported confidence in their ability to support their views on a different topic: the existence of God. Engaged Christians feel much more confident than churched and unchurched teens.

What can we take away from these assessments by parents and pastors?

Analysts believe these data are strong indicators that worldview discipleship is absolutely essential for lasting faith. To return to the metaphor of “digital Babylon” introduced by David Kinnaman early on in this report, the kids whose parents are consciously, intentionally training their minds and hearts in the ways of Jerusalem are much better prepared than “culturally Christian” teens to thrive in Babylon as the people of God. Youth pastors’ unique vantage point gives us a bird’s-eye view of moralistic therapeutic deism’s inescapability in Gen Z—even and especially in those who merely identify as Christian.
They simply are not confident enough in Christian orthodoxy . . . yet.

Q&A with Troy Earnest

Area Director for Young Life

Troy has been on staff with Young Life for 13 years, where he oversees adults who invest in the lives of kids in Atlanta, Georgia. Under his leadership, Young Life’s outreach on the eastside has increased from two schools to seven, and from 10 volunteers to 80. When he isn’t running around with leaders, kids and folks in the community, Troy works on photography, listens to vinyl records and supports the Georgia Bulldogs.

Hope for Their (and Our) Future

It may go without saying, but today’s teenagers are not growing up in their grandparents’ or their parents’ world—not even in their twentysomething cousin’s world. Rapid changes in technology, communication, science, law and worldview are creating a world for teenagers that leaves many parents, church leaders and other mentors feeling flummoxed.

Of course, changes to culture are not changes to the essence of what it means to be human. Teens today, like teens of long ago, wrestle with insecurity, bullying, boredom, loneliness, raging hormones, paralyzing doubt. They navigate their first crushes, question their parents’ beliefs and dream of their future. Perhaps what adults need first and foremost to remind ourselves is this: We were there once, too. They are not so very different from us at that age.

Yet it is foolish to believe teens—even Christian teens—are immune to the surrounding culture. Confusion about what it means to be good and do good is not confined outside of church doors or Christian homes; virtual connections fling wide the doors whether we like it or not. “How can we protect our kids?” is, therefore, not the crucial question to answer. Rather, the most urgent question for parents, pastors and teachers is, “How do we prepare them to follow Christ?”

In some ways Gen Z’s generational ethos naturally resonates with a life of Christian faith, and in others their collective worldview clashes with the Church’s traditions and beliefs. By looking squarely at both would-be clashes and resonances, those involved in making disciples among the next generation can be most effective.

Let’s start with an overview of potential clashes, based on the findings of this research.

Q&A with Jonathan Morrow

Director of Cultural Engagement at Impact 360 Institute

Jonathan has been equipping students and parents in biblical worldview, apologetics and culture for 15 years, and is passionate about seeing a new generation build a lasting faith. He holds a Master of Divinity, Master in Philosophy of Religion and Ethics, and a Doctorate in Worldview and Culture from Talbot School of Theology. He is the director of cultural engagement at Impact 360 Institute (Impact360.org) and an adjunct professor of apologetics at Biola University. He is author of several books, including Welcome to College, and contributed to the Apologetics Study Bible for Students. Jonathan and his wife have been married for 16 years and live with their three children near Atlanta.

Gen Z Clashes with Christianity

TRUTH. At the most fundamental level, classic Christianity and Gen Z as a whole are deeply divided on how to know what is true (and, in some cases, on if there is such a thing as “what is true”). Christians throughout history have contended we can know God because God reveals himself in creation, in the Scriptures and, most fully, in Christ. But, as we’ve seen in this study, many teens express confusion and uncertainty about truth and their grasp on it. It’s conceivable, even likely, that the relativism ascendant in Gen Z is based less on a general deficit of moral values and more on thin, insufficient ideas about what truth is and how to find it. More broadly, buying in to scientism and hostility toward religion doesn’t so much prove the failure of Christian belief and ways of knowing, as it reveals careless, unexamined assumptions about knowledge and truth.

SEX. Relatedly, the sexual ethic embraced by so many teens and young adults is not, for most of them, a carefully considered rejection of traditional Christian ethics but blind, unthinking acceptance of consent as the ultimate ethical standard, which many are convinced renders any and all sexual activity morally neutral. (This is one reason porn is so ubiquitous among Gen Z and Millennials—not only because mobile technology has made it easily accessible, but also because it appears not to break the inviolable “law of consent.”) Christianity insists there is an inescapable moral dimension to sexual desire and activity far beyond mere consent—and that insistence clashes with the limited “do no harm” ethic prevalent in young America today.

MONEY. Another generational value that cuts against the grain of Christian teaching is Gen Z’s focus on personal happiness and financial success. There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with having enough money to care for family and meet financial obligations. But the New Testament writers are clear that making pursuit of wealth one’s primary life goal is spiritually dangerous and even destructive. Gen Z is certainly not alone in their battle to put wealth in its proper place—this is an arena where American Christianity overall has struggled to maintain its prophetic witness to a culture consumed with consuming. Perhaps walking alongside the next generation will also help older Christians rethink their own relationships with material success and personal happiness.

TECH. Parents and mentors may feel it’s too late to slam shut the Pandora’s box of mobile devices, yet perpetual use of technology to mediate relationships could be the biggest clash of all with a Christian way of life. From its earliest days after Pentecost, the Church has been in conversation about what it means to be the Body of Christ—and how. While leaders have managed to disagree on just about every other particular, the historical consensus has been notably lasting and robust when it comes to God’s people gathering in unity to share in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. (In case you’re wondering, Christians should definitely set aside time to do that on a regular basis.) The Church’s persistence in this practice is based on myriad theological and historical arguments, not least of which is that physical presence matters. The Lord was raised to new life in a physical (albeit glorified) body. He instituted the Eucharist or Communion, a physical act that nourishes human bodies, and baptism, a physical act that washes human bodies, as signs of his presence living in physical people. His apostle to the Gentiles wrote to faraway churches about longing to be physically present with them—in fact, Paul compared being physically separated from the Thessalonian Christians to being “orphaned” (see 1 Thess. 2:17).

Mobile devices and social media are fine, as far as they go, but they are no substitute for relationships IRL (that’s “in real life” for those who don’t speak text). Yes, caring adults should connect with teens in virtual space— Gen Z needs oversight and coaching on how to relate well with and through these technologies (and some teens may only feel comfortable asking hard questions in that “safe space”). But virtual connection cannot take the place of real, human, physical, face-to-face connection. Depressed, anxiety-ridden screenagers hiding out in their bedrooms need an escape hatch that opens into the Body of Christ.

Gen Z Resonance with Christianity

Gen Z is not simply at odds with Christianity, however; their shared worldview resonates with Christian values and priorities in some regards. And it’s just as important for pastors, parents and other leaders to celebrate and encourage (and learn from!) these resonances with the faith as it is to break up the clashes.

DIVERSITY. Teens’ assumptions about the goodness of diversity, for example, naturally resonate with Christian faith and priorities. The Scriptures are clear that people of all races, ethnicities and nationalities belong in God’s family (see Rev. 7:9), and Gen Z tends to be more comfortable than older generations with practicing diversity-in-unity now, as well as in the age to come. Perhaps they can coach older sisters and brothers to be respectfully at ease with different views, a key to turning aggressive polarization into confident pluralism. Yet the discomfort some teens feel with the everyday, nitty-gritty of diversity is also an opportunity for the Church. If God’s people, sharing in his Spirit, can actually figure out how to belong together, given their real and sometimes intense differences, Christ’s peace and reconciliation can be an unassailable witness to the most culturally diverse generation in American history.

EMPATHY. Perhaps because diverse views and experiences are the social norm for Gen Z, their tolerance threshold tends to be high and their appetite for antagonizing low. Older adults may perceive this as oversensitive or “politically correct,” but teens’ instincts resonate with the second half of the apostle Peter’s guidance on how to live as exiles, citizens of God’s kingdom scattered in a pagan empire. “If someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way” (1 Pet. 3:15-16). Instead of criticizing teens for majoring on “gentle and respectful,” older believers might instead consider how they can help get Gen Z “ready to explain it”—and reflect on what they, the grownups, can learn about empathy from a gentle, respectful generation.

OPENNESS. While teens’ overall ignorance of the Bible and a basic Christian view of the world may appear to be an unmitigated loss for the Church, there are some upsides. For example, many teens do not have spiritual baggage from bad Sunday school teachers or hypocritical Christians— which saves the arduous and painful task of unpacking hurtful experiences, having to “undo” what a previous church did to them. Likewise, most in Gen Z don’t have deeply held bad theology to release before they can trust the Good Shepherd. Plus, a generation lacking confidence in what is true may be open in a profound way to a personal experience of God, much as those on the religious and cultural margins were often open to encountering Jesus during his earthly ministry.

EMPTINESS. Another way Gen Z’s worldview welcomes the Church is deeply counterintuitive: Moralistic therapeutic deism, examined in chapter 4, can’t save people. It can’t rescue anybody from bondage to sin and fear of death. It doesn’t invite anyone into the very life of God, filling them with the Holy Spirit and calling them to a life of eternal purpose. It can’t even deliver on its own priorities of happiness, self-esteem and general niceness.

And that’s good. The inevitable failure of moralistic therapeutic deism to bring anything resembling life everlasting or transcendent fulfillment is a welcome mat laid out for the people of God to bring the only One who can fill the emptiness.

Making Disciples for Babylon

But how can Gen Z become disciples in a post-Christian culture? Thankfully, the Church has centuries of experience communicating the gospel across religious, linguistic and cultural divides. We call it “missions.” When a missionary immerses herself in a culture different from her own, she doesn’t expect the people who live there to speak and act and think like people from home— in fact, she expects quite the opposite: that she will have to change in order to connect with people.

A similar situation confronts churches today. Will older Christians insist that the youngest generation must speak, act and think like us, long-time residents of Jerusalem? Or will we help young exiles become and remain the people of God in Babylon?

If the latter, then pastors, educators, mentors and parents will have to give up entertaining kids into the Kingdom. Pizza parties, silly games and worship nights may be attractive outreach events but they do not instill lasting faith. Disciple-making in Gen Z must, by necessity, involve formation in the basics: There is a God. Truth exists. This is how the world is. This is who we are. This is what Jesus does about it.

But Gen Z disciple-making must also actively engage a two-way dynamic: faith in light of culture; culture in light of faith. How we follow Christ is inevitably shaped by the culture in which we find ourselves. But it is at least equally true that the surrounding culture is transformed as we are transformed in Christ. How can mentors equip Gen Z not just with information about faith but also with critical thinking and experiences that deepen faith? Parents and educators, especially, are positioned to proactively guide growing teens to think well about living for Christ in a post-Christian culture.

The pace of cultural change may feel overwhelming, but don’t be discouraged. Even the gates of hell cannot prevail against the Church—and that promise is for God’s people in Generation Z, too.

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Appendix A - Notes

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