Gen Z and Millennials in Church: Why we are Failing New Generation Christians
A Glimpse of Childhood: Gen Z Christians and Millennials, Who are the Youth in Church?
The Good memories
Kat and I were sitting on the couch one night, looking at pictures of our two sons as babies; reminiscing on all the things that have happened over the last 30+ years. We can both easily remember a time when the personal computer wasn’t a thing and most of our childhood was spent outside. Our only concern was rushing back home before the sunset. Looking back at our early childhood, trading baseball cards and playing family board games all seem like things of the past now.
I can remember my classroom huddled around the first personal computer we had ever seen, a boxy IBM. And I laughed about how I had to always have a quarter so I could call my parents to come get me after practice. We couldn’t believe that neither of us had a cell phone until well after starting to drive. But she could easily see my skinny 16-year-old self with my pager clipped to my belt. Either way, we both agreed that one of our fondest memories was sitting in our room, contemplating life while listening to music on our “boom” box that played CDs! Before that, we were rewinding cassette tapes in our Walkman.
The bad memories
But computers and video games soon became a vital part of our later childhood. Then the Gulf War broke out and everything changed. It seemed like a school shooting was happening weekly while we watched metal detectors installed at school entrances, armed guards walking the halls and bullet proof glass surrounding our lunchrooms. Right as the world seemed too horrible to be real, 9/11/2001, a direct attack on our faith and way of life. The day the world stood still in disbelief I had just started college. I joined the military soon after, knowing it was where I needed to be at that time.
Next came the two longest wars in American history, civil unrest, heightened racial tensions, and not to forget the housing crisis and world-wide recession. All happened just as we were graduating college and entering the workforce. And we can’t leave out the current COVID19 pandemic right as our children are entering school.
We are millennials. A generation who is often written off as lazy, self-centered, addicted to social media, and consumed with activism over patriotism. Also referred to as the “Generation Y or the forgotten generation.”
Millennial and Gen Z outlook
Generation Z is really too new to even predict what the future will hold for them, but they are already facing hardship as those entering the workforce have an unemployment rate of 15.1% and only getting worse. Millennials aren’t seeing many more jobs with 12.8% unemployment compared to the 4.9% national average. If anyone has had trouble looking for a job, you know how discouraging it can be to continually be rejected. But for newer generations, rejection is a lifestyle we have faced since graduation.
With this age of communication, these two generations are the most informed and quickly becoming the most educated of any generation in history. But that availability to information has led them to a better awareness of world events. This awareness along with the inability to get into the professional workforce has caused unprecedented levels of anxiety, stress and depression. Even for millennials in church.
It’s not the parents’ fault
Parents did a great job preparing their children for the world, many gen Z Christians and millennials were even raised in church. The problem is we were raised for a world that no longer exists, a world we never expected. Kat and I are millennials raised in church, and we were always told we could accomplish anything we set our mind to. But now that isn’t necessarily the case. Graduates expected jobs, opportunities and assumed that the world would be the same place we grew up in; but it’s not. Kat and I are very blessed but only received a job early on thanks to my military experience. That was an answered prayer but obviously isn’t the case for everyone.
These generations are seeking new outlets to find purpose as, particularly millennials, are no long looking in church for answers. Due to a term now dubbed “millennial burnout,” new generations are not looking so much to the future as trying to enjoy the present. They want work-life balance, vacations, and instant gratification. This isn’t out of greed or entitlement so much as a loss of hope in tomorrow and an appreciation for today. Those currently under 40 are now marrying later, staying in school longer, and delaying home buying. They have a serious fear of long-term financial commitments. Along with lower average salaries they are unable to pay the rising home costs.
Social media became an addiction, but it was originally an outlet to share their lives and have a sense of community and acceptance. Their self-confidence and accomplishments are tied into their online profiles because they do not know a better outlet to find self-esteem. Even if they consider themselves Christian, many Gen Z and Millennials just don’t see a need in church.
Christian Discipleship- Getting Gen Z and Millennials in Church
It’s important to understand these generations if we hope to reach them with our ministry. The qualities that make a millennial or gen Z are ripe for Christianity, almost a natural fit. These generations need hope, love, community, purpose, and comfort. But other generations joke that they are entitled, lazy, and only concerned with themselves and their smartphones. All while young generations are out protesting for human rights, taken stances on political reform, and living their lives to the fullest with no expectation of tomorrow. They have a natural drive for helping others and make a difference. Imagine what they could accomplish if they saw spreading the gospel as their mission.
The need for change
As we evangelize the same way we have for generations, millennials and Gen Z’s are pushed away from the church. Then, finding comfort in everything from social media to drug addiction to handle their stress and depression.
Many Christians believe that bringing someone to Christ means quoting confusing NKJ scripture and confronting someone with truth and logic; that is the last thing that will reach them. Newer generations are looking for a sense of community and purpose. They want a way to cope with stress and anxiety. They long for an unshakable foundation, on which, they can finally trust something that will never fail them. Currently, we shake our bibles at millennials and tell them about Heaven and Hell. This is when all they need to hear is how much Christ loves them unconditionally. That he loves them for who they are, and through him, they can become the person they are meant to be.
The best example I can ever give someone on newer generations is to see them as the Israelites traveling in the desert to the promise land. They are aimlessly wondering, making mistakes along their way, and hopeless from the long journey. They put one foot in front of the other because that’s what they have always been taught to do. But they continue their journey out of hope that the promise land is on the next horizon. That promised land isn’t Heaven for them, it’s fulfillment in Christ.
A cry for help
There is so much hope and even more potential in reaching these generations. They are missing something in their lives and have a giant hole that only God can fill. They are trying to fulfill their lives with anything they can, but we can show them that Christ can fill that void and give them life purpose. That’s all they want in life, a purpose. But they feel something is lacking in them; we know the answer is Jesus.
So, what do we do?
We don’t force gospel down like a horse pill but discuss God with them and how he is the foundation for them to build their faith. We tell them our own story of how we found God and how God has changed our lives. Kat and I are always honest with these generations, letting them know that we have sinned, and still have moments. That at one time we searched for anything that would fill what was missing in our lives until we found Jesus. From that point on, we grew in God’s purpose, love, comfort, and always have a friend who is always listening. Millennials need to hear that Jesus loves them and he wants a relationship with them. Keep it simple and they will learn the rest as they go.
Let them talk
Let them tell you what they think and keep an open mind to their opinions and questions. We should never deviate from the Word, but this allows us to see their perspective, equipping our ministry in a way that is geared toward them. We cannot be quick to judge, but always quick to comfort. All of us must be God’s voice and his loving arms here on earth so they can see what God’s love looks like. This generation isn’t going to be the “alter call” salvation generation. Getting saved is going to be a process because they will question until they get that moment of clarity. Just like the beginning of any relationship, it takes time to break down walls and build trust.
Provide a sense of belonging
Who doesn’t want to be comfortable in their environment? We must create an atmosphere where younger generations feel comfortable and welcome. Many churches do an outstanding job of this with a simple hello from a greeter, helpful staff, and welcome packages that provide a way to study material at home. As a parent myself, the childcare alone is a win in my book! But many youth groups are transforming to meet the needs of their students and surpassing expectations.
Speak of Today
Let’s make sure we are talking about what Christ is doing in our lives right now. How can Christ help with their anxiety, depression, stress, and emptiness? They are coming to Christ broken and it’s hard to focus on heaven and hell when they need help day by day. We must show them how Christ is the Comforter.
Philippians 4:6-7 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
What we don’t do…
We do not downplay their opinion
This is tough only because we want to stay on point and not lead anyone astray. Often, this means hearing them out and providing worldly examples to support or redirect their thinking without attacking. These generations are well educated and very critical thinkers, but it takes a back-and-forth discussion to learn. They talk things through to come to conclusions.
We love to have things organized but this is a group we are trying to reach through relationships and give them a sense of belonging. We want them to contribute, not alienate them and make them feel they have nothing to offer. Companies like Google aren’t voted top places to work by millennials because of their cubicle farms. It’s because they create fun, energetic, inviting atmospheres to stimulate comfort, creativity, and cooperation.
Be closed minded
This will send a newer generation running for the hills. A millennial is going to explore new avenues of thought and think outside the box, and that’s great. Many times, they are going to ask questions that we may not be able to answer. They aren’t going to see anyone as ignorant if we must walk away and come back armed with research and answers. In fact, they will feel validated that they asked a question worth exploring further. Many times, they may look a little too close at bible passages and it will require looking into other translations to find the answer. At the end of the day, they are seeking answers, not on a mission to destroy Christianity. They just aren’t going to take much for granted.
Never tie age with ignorance
Compared to prior generations, these two new groups are basically data processors. They know how to research and utilize technology to stay extremely well informed. By the time I can open find what I am looking for in a Strong’s Concordance, I could have read multiple bible verses online, read an article on the subject and glanced at that article’s cross references. I spend a lot of time reading and studying the bible and sermons. But when someone new to the faith has an idea, we must hear them out.
They may have valuable insight, taking a position that we may not have thought of. Many times, they are considering context that we, as lifelong Christians, may have just always accepted and taken at face value. An example is the necessity to sacrifice in the Old Testament. A newer Christian may see these sacred acts as morbid without understanding the context for which they were necessary. Understanding the Old Testament prophecies is vital to understand Christ’s sacrifice for us. Taking these questions seriously only helps us reach this generation in the future.
Wrapping up, Gen Z Christians and Millennials in Church
As Millennials are entering the faith, let’s look to their example to see how we can reach more in these age groups. New Christian music is taking the faith by storm. Titles like “Hold on to Me,” “Rescue,” “Love Like This,” “There was Jesus,” and “Holy Water.” These are topping the charts with youth and are all relationship driven messages of inspiration and encouragement. Songs like “Farther Along” and “When we all get to Heaven” are great songs I vividly remember singing as a child, but their meaning isn’t going to resonate like “Amazing Grace” or “Blessed Assurance.”
Balancing a new approach
We are at a crossroads in the church. We can continue to hope that previous methods of discipleship will continue to draw new souls to Christ, or we can see the need to customize our approach based on who we are trying to reach. I have been a member of church since I was a child and have seen the worst of both sides. One way, a study can be too open to everyone’s opinions on the bible and scripture can become watered down through feelings without research and study.
But the other side is strict, overly structured studies where comments were cut off, opinions were downplayed, and the only thing keeping younger members in the group was the relationships of other younger members. If it wasn’t for the relationships I had, I would have left the group right out of the gate. Remember the millennial is about relationships. The relationships were so powerful that even disliking the class, I still continued.
But this isn’t discouragement, it’s an opportunity for explosive growth. And it’s not a call to water down doctrine, personally, I would leave a church if it wasn’t feeding me. Kat and I have been so fortunate to be a part of a wonderful church in Newnan. Here, the youth’s hands are in the air during worship, and they are so attentive for the pastor. They are volunteering, going on mission trips, and bringing friends to church to share God’s message. So, it is possible. And what you will see is sweeping energy, enthusiasm, and an appreciation for the wonderful things God is doing. But that means getting out of the mentality of how things have always been done and finding any way possible to reach out and create the next generation of followers.
But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect