Every generation has a story told about them. Here’s what I mean . . .
The elder generation (obviously named by a millennial) was the generation that many of us call “The Greatest.” Their Depression was The Great One; their war was The Big One; their prosperity was the legendary Happy Days. Shaped by World War II, they were known for hard work, commitment to family and living an honorable life. Or maybe you’ve heard the story of Gen X. The children of parents who grew up in the sixties, their story looks a little different. Born after the horrors of the Vietnam War, Gen X was one of the first and last generations to enjoy relative peace during their childhood. Why does that matter? Because, generational trends don’t form in a vacuum. Instead, they are often the result of the historical events or cultural trends that develop during that period of time. Here are a few more recent generations. See if these sound like you (or your parents).
What’s the Deal With Generations?
Gen X was raised valuing family and religion above all else. They were raised in the transition between written-based knowledge and digital knowledge archives. In other words, most remember being in school without computers for a time before the introduction of computers in middle school or high school. It was in this generation that divorce rates began to quickly rise, and there were more women in the workplace than ever before. Because of that, this generation is sometimes called the “latchkey” or “MTV Generation.” With both parents at work, many were left to fend for themselves after school and beyond.
The Millennials (formerly known as Generation Y) are one of the most talked about generations in history. The first to experience the wonder of the Internet, Millennials grew up with the most public lives in history. So, of course, they became intensely image conscious, exchanging the authenticity of Facebook for the pristinely filtered, perfectly angled Instagram shot as they got older.
They also are said to hold the value of family in high regard, but many replaced religion with professional or educational achievement. The Millennials are said to have had a very negative interaction with the church and loads of them still continue to walk away from their faith. As they grew up, their generation marked the milestone of adulthood as reaching emotional maturity. Two major historical events defined this generation: the 9/11 attacks and subsequent War on Terror and the Great Recession. This generation was consumed with digital technologies and the introduction of social media. They experienced an enormous amount of academic pressure (possibly why achievement became so valued for this generation), yet were still a part of the generation where “everyone gets a trophy.”
So who is next? Well, of course if we follow the alphabet, after Generation X and Y comes . . . Z.
The story of Gen Z is one currently being written—one that will continue to morph as they continue to grow up. We can’t predict their defining moments or the key cultural and historical movements that will shape their story, but that doesn’t mean they are unknowable. In fact, maybe our best bet at understanding where Generation Z is going is to take a glance at where they come from.
After all, the characteristics that define a generation tends to be a reaction to, not a reflection of, the generation that came before them. If this is true, then it’s safe to assume that Gen Z is a product of their Gen X and Millennial parents.
So what does that mean for Gen Z?
GEN Z is DIVERSE
For the purpose of this blog, let’s define Gen Z as anyone born in the year 2000 or after. Gen Z is the most racially, religiously, and sexually diverse generation in American history. A few quick facts on our youngest friends from Gen Z according to Barna research:
- About half of Gen Z is non-white.
- Only 4% claims to have a biblical worldview.
- The number who claim to be “atheists” has doubled compared to older generations.
- 33% of teens say gender is how a person feels inside, not their birth sex.
If those statistics are staggering to you, you are not alone.
Just like any culture that feels a little foreign, it’s important to understand the values of a new generation. How did they get to those assumptions? Where did they develop that worldview? In order to lead them well, part of our job is to determine what matters to them, and maybe more importantly, WHY?
While I am certainly no expert on Gen Z, there are a few things about them that have jumped out at me as I’ve learned.
Barna refers to Gen Z as the “first post-Christian generation.” That means this generation has not been heavily exposed to Christianity or the church. The days of the big white book on Grandma’s coffee table that you don’t put your drinks on is over. And it has been for an entire generation.
I’ve noticed a number of people talk about this as if it’s a bad thing. And at first glance, I have to admit it sounds like we are going in the wrong direction. But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if it could possibly be a good thing? Could it mean that our potential influence and impact as the church is greater than ever?
As Barna mentions, Gen Z really is a spiritual blank slate. Meaning, unlike their Millennial parents, they don’t necessarily have a negative experience or view of the church. They just don’t really have any experience at all. Because this generation has no imprint from the church, it means we don’t have to undo as much damage. In my experience, starting from zero seems to be easier than starting in the negative!
GEN Z is FINANCIALLY FOCUSED
Gen Z has swapped out the primary mark of adulthood from emotional maturity to financial independence, and I think that makes sense. Imagine being raised by parents stressed out by the painful financial crisis of 2007-2008? What values would you develop? What fears? Additionally, many Gen Z students are the children of single parents or divorced households, which means parents must work more hours to make ends meet for two individual households. For a generation who values financial independence so highly, we as the church must talk about finances, which historically has been a touchy subject or one reserved for the adults.
One thing I found so interesting about Gen Z from an article in Forbes Magazine is that this generation expects brands to be loyal to them, unlike their Millennial parents, who were raised to be loyal to a brand (think loyalty programs). Generation Z isn’t very interested in having to pledge their allegiance to any one brand. They’d rather be given options so they can get what they want, when they want it. In other words, they value independence.
What that means for us as church leaders is that Gen Z may not feel loyalty or connection to the church (or their specific Small Group), unless the church (or Small Group) shows loyalty to them. So rather than downloading and broadcasting information they need to know or expect them to come to our programming on a regular basis, the church needs to dive into their world. It’s not about kids and teenagers coming to us on Sunday; it’s about us going to them on Monday! This generation doesn’t want to feel marketed to; they want to feel like they’re part of something. Which means Small Group Leaders and Small Groups have never been more important than right now.
GEN Z is DIGITALLY DIFFERENT
According to multiple studies (check out this one from Google), roughly 80-95 percent of Gen Z is on YouTube over every other social platform on a daily basis. Why? Because they have no tolerance for something that is fake. Their values, including their values in a digital culture, hinge on one thing: authenticity. They are naturally suspicious of anything that is over-produced. They see their favorite YouTube influencers as more relatable than traditional celebrities. If you aren’t authentic, they don’t trust you. We’ve seen this play out even in the way Gen Z uses Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook. Take the story feature on Instagram for example. Instagram stories are used as a way to portray reality, as opposed to the grid or wall which is just the highlight reel. It’s why teenagers create Finsta accounts (a fake Instagram account where they post all the things they would never post under their real name or the account their parents follow). They are looking for a place to be real.
So what does all this mean for us as church leaders?
If we are serious about wanting kids to have a better future by making wiser choices, building strong relationships, and developing a deeper faith, we can’t wait for them to come to us. We have to meet Gen Z where they are already.
Because we know Gen Z has been raised apart from the church, they’re expecting loyalty, and one of their greatest values is authentic connection, there has never been a more important time in history for the church to partner with parents than right now.
Parents who may or may not have experienced the church.
Parents who have had both positive and negative experiences with the church.
Parents who might not understand the values of the next generation.
Parents who don’t themselves have the biblical literacy to teach their kids the basics.
If we really believe the parent is the number one influence in the life of a kid—both positively and negatively—and we want to maximize our influence on this next generation of kids and teenagers, let’s not miss the opportunity we have to partner with the people who have the most influence in the lives of these kids and teenagers.
Two combined influences always have more impact than two influences working separately.