What Pastors Should Know About Generation Z

Generation is a moving target. There is no single, set authority on it, so sociologists classify generations based on major cultural shifts or world events that seem to differentiate one range of people from another. Not everyone agrees that these cohorts are the most helpful way to classify people, but it’s hard to argue there is no discernable difference between those in the US who grew up before the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and those who remember only a post-9/11 reality.

Though this latter cohort—referred to by sociologists as post-millennials, iGen, or most commonly, Generation Z—may resemble previous generations in many ways, their worldview breaks from their predecessors’ in a few key ways. Depending on where you draw the line (most mark the start of Gen Z between 1999 and 2001) the oldest members of this generation are now entering college. In many churches, they’re graduating from student ministries and participating in the life of the church as young adults for the first time.

How should pastors think about this emerging demographic? Should Gen Z push us to adopt new approaches to ministry, or will they help us appreciate our tried-and-true methods like never before? Pastor Maina Mwaura convened a panel of experts to learn about what pastors should expect from Gen Z. Their conversation touches on the exciting opportunities these young people bring to the church, the challenges they will face, and the ways in which they may help pastors better shepherd everyone.

Meet the Panel

Brooke Hempell: Senior vice president of research at Barna Group.

Allen Jackson: Senior pastor at Dunwoody Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, and served as professor of youth ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary for two decades.

Jody Livingston: Youth ministry veteran of 20 years in the Atlanta metro area. He cohosts the youth ministry podcast, The Longer Haul.

James “Jimmy” McGee III: President and CEO of The Impact Movement, a campus ministry for black students around the country.

Dan Scott: Director for 252 Kids and 252 Preteen curriculum at Orange and author of Caught in Between: Engaging Your Preteens Before They Check Out(2018, Orange Books).

Let’s start with the basics. Who do we mean when we talk about “Generation Z”?

Hempell: Barna draws a line at 1999. Anyone born in 1999 or later—currently 19-or-20-year-olds—are Gen Z. And that goes down to somewhere in elementary school. We haven’t decided where to draw the line between Gen Z and the generation after them.

Over time we’ve started drawing the generations smaller and smaller, in terms of years, because the world is changing so fast. When we talk about Gen Z, we’re mainly talking about early college students, high schoolers, and middle schoolers right now, but some younger kids will probably make the cut, too.

I am a parent of young Gen Zers. My daughter was born in 2007, the year the first iPhone came out. That’s a pivotal year for this generation. Members of Gen Z in the US are very different from the generations before them. They are the most diverse generation we’ve seen yet. This year’s kindergarten, first-grade, and second-grade kids are the first cohort of elementary students where the minority ethnicity populations are larger than the white ethnicity populations.

What does that do to their perceptions of the world, especially in the context of the church?

McGee: Gen Z, in particular, wants to see change. They aren’t sheltered. Older Gen Zers saw Philando Castile bleed out in front of his girlfriend all over Facebook. There’s a collective trauma building up in this population. Gen Z, on the whole, sees ethnicity as something to be celebrated.

Gen Zers, like millennials, don’t care much what’s said in church on Sunday morning if they don’t see it walk over that chasm into Monday through Saturday. They want to see the impact of faith and identity apart from a Sunday morning experience. If they don’t see transformation in society, they’re going to question the reality of what we say we believe. Millennials have brought to Gen Z the idea of an integrated reality. They want to see how their faith speaks life into the places where they work, where they play, where they worship, and every aspect of their humanity.

Whether we’re ready for it or not, Gen Z is going to force us to engage the issues that matter to them.

Livingston: In previous generations, you had more of a top-down influence. That still exists, but because this generation is so tech savvy, the influence is flipping a bit. Generation Z is now starting to push the older generations in influence. As the church, we have to be ready for that.

Hempell: If we want to help them navigate the integration of their faith with their everyday experience, churches are going to have to make a lot of changes. When students go into a typical Protestant church, they look at the congregation and the leadership, and these churches don’t represent the diversity present in their world. For those who haven’t grown up with a church background, that’s going to feel strange. This is a generation where so many have not grown up in the church, and you can imagine them walking into a church and thinking, What is this bizarre place where everyonelooks the same? I don’t think this is for me.

Jackson: There are a lot of other spaces, though, that are just as segregated. What about college campuses? I don’t think they’re unfamiliar with spaces that don’t represent their generation. The bigger problem is that they haven’t been in the church at all.

We used to assume a Judeo-Christian starting line. I wrote a book a long time ago that said, “Just because somebody is not a Christian doesn’t mean they’re stupid. They have heard of Jesus, they have heard of Christianity, and they have heard the basic points of the biblical story.” But that’s not necessarily the case today. It’s feasible that, because their Gen X and millennial parents didn’t have much to do with the church, their kids may not have heard God’s story at all.

They don’t know the differences between Islam and Mormonism and Christianity. They’ve vaguely heard of Jesus and Mohammed and Martin Luther King Jr., and Gandhi. But they aren’t sure how they all fi t together or what country they’re from. So their faith is fragmented at best. We in the church use words we think they should know, but they don’t. So if we want to help them integrate their faith, we have to stop assuming they have one.

Does it worry you that many members of this generation don’t have Christian faith as their starting point?

Jackson: It does. But it’s a good worry because for a long time churches had certain advantages. Football wouldn’t practice on Wednesday nights because that was a church night. And Sunday morning was a church day. That isn’t true anymore. There used to be a respect for Sunday, but now joggers will come into the lobby of our worship center looking for water. There’s no such thing as a protected day.

The new normal for church attendance is one-and-a-half times a month. That means I only get to see some of our families 18 times a year.

So you’re saying we have to be flexible when it comes to dealing with this new norm.

Scott: Yesterday my son needed a book. He needed it right then, so I couldn’t use Amazon. I had to go to Barnes & Noble. But I didn’t want to risk not finding it. So I went online, to their digital channel. I saw that the book was at the Barnes & Noble across the street. So I ordered it to pick up later. I started digital, but then I had a personal touchpoint where I talked with someone who recommended a second book. I ended up leaving with two books because of the relational touchpoint.

When it comes to engaging Gen Z, we need digital and physical connections. One is the invitation, and the other is the follow up.

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Source: Christianity Today