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’ 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
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.