One of the most recent studies from the Pew Research Center shows that 70-75% of Christian youth leave the church after high school which begs the question – why are they leaving? Some say it’s because the church is irrelevant. But keep in mind, they said the same thing twenty years ago when many of the first Millennials also left triggering thousands of churches to bring out the haze, light shows, worship bands, and the Starbucks coffee. However, they kept leaving.
Today, church trend researchers say it’s due to intellectual skepticism, citing that only four percent of Generation Z (see Get to Know Gen Z below) have a biblical worldview (see below How A Worldview is Determined). Whatever the exact cause, many blame the church (including the church experts) for not providing the fertile soil of biblical truth for youth to grow strong spiritual and moral roots that would sustain their faith through their teen to adult transitional years. But for a moment, let’s examine that argument and possibly consider a model that Jesus might use in solving the Gen Z church exodus crisis.
First, let’s admit the modern-day church is not beyond fault. Keeping pre-college and college age young adults in church is not exactly a high priority for a lot of churches. Most churches give little time and attention to worshippers in this age group. Maybe it’s because we have no easy answers or possibly because of the lack of financial potential they possess. Whatever the reason, it’s fair to say that at this most crucial time in a young person’s life, the church often becomes a nonfactor.
However, it’s important to consider how little time and few opportunities the church gets with today’s youth compared to the three major influences in most young lives: their parents, the schools, and social media.
Let’s be brutally honest, for many church attending parents, faith is not a high priority in raising their children. Sports, academics, extra-curricular school activities, working a job, and even a child’s social life seem to all rank higher than their children being actively involved in a church. Consider also, that many students are on school campuses from 7 am to 7 pm throughout the week along with practices and school events on the weekends.
Thirdly, when you consider the average student spends nine hours a day on social media – there’s little time left for worship and church activities. Consequently, the message is sent by every major influence in their young, impressionable lives that building and growing their Christian faith is a low priority, if any priority at all. Is it any wonder that three-fourths of church-going high school students stop attending church when they leave home? Could it be that the church really never was a influencing factor in the first place?
On the somewhat bright side, approximately 25 percent are staying in the church while hopefully growing in their faith journey. More than ever, I talk with young pastoral leadership in the church who seem to be a part of an organic movement who see the need for intimate, mentor-discipleship type relationships for young believers. And the research seems to support the movement, recent studies show that 28% of students (the younger millennials) stayed in the church because of an adult mentor-discipleship relationship or personal friendship in the church (other than the pastor) versus only 11% of students that did not have such a relationship. In other words, if youth have a personal Christian mentor or friend, they are three times more likely to remain in the church than a young person who is without such a relationship. Maybe this is why the Apostle Paul encouraged the older men to model and teach the younger men and the older women to model and teach the younger women the sound principles of the Christian faith.
1 But as for you, speak the things which are proper for sound doctrine: 2 that the older men be sober, reverent, temperate, sound in faith, in love, in patience; 3 the older women likewise, that they be reverent in behavior, not slanderers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things– 4 that they admonish the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, 5 to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be blasphemed. 6 Likewise exhort the young men to be sober-minded, 7 in all things showing yourself to be a pattern of good works; in doctrine showing integrity, reverence, incorruptibility, 8 sound speech that cannot be condemned, that one who is an opponent may be ashamed, having nothing evil to say of you. – Titus 2:1-8, NKJV
I know in my own pre-teen years growing up in Greenfield (Indiana), I was fortunate enough that a young adult from our church and a close friend of our family, Gary Robinson, would consistently pick me up and take me to the nearby basketball court at the park including me in pick up games with guys his age. The impact it made on me as a young believer was influential as I was able to observe an older Christian friend model how to be Christlike in a setting where young men were behaving like young men do before they are born again.
In my mid-teen years, the Lord brought another young adult into my life who happened to be our church’s youth director (pastor). Once again, Danny Tompkins would play basketball with me and the other guys in the youth group; before worship services, after worship services, and often sacrificing time with his family to hang out with us. He and his wife, Melinda, were instrumental in encouraging me during my latter teen years when a lot of my friends were getting jobs and leaving the church. Even after turning twenty and getting married to my wife, Annette, it was Danny who called a year later giving us an opportunity to be on staff at his church he pastored. For the next three years in our early twenties, my wife and I were blessed to sit under the Tompkins and not just learn how to do pastoral ministry but I was able to continue the Christian mentoring relationship that began in my teen years.
Is there hope for Generation Z to keep them in the church while even growing in their faith in Christ through the difficult transition years? Absolutely, and the solution is the same as it was in Jesus day when he spent nearly three years discipling twelve young men through intimate, relational discipleship. Is it easy? No. Is it messy? Yes. Is success guaranteed? No. Jesus wasn’t one hundred percent successful and we won’t be either. But it was Jesus’ method and it’s the only hope for Generation Z or for that matter every generation past or present.
Get to Know Gen Z
- Generational Z was born in 1996
- Immediacy – “expect it now”
- Older generational bias – i.e. “Okay, Boomer”
- Tech dependent
- Get information: 29% news outlets, 27% word of mouth
- Fear: do not personally remember 911 but see violence in real time through technology
- Freedom…”be what you want to be” (do not see diversity except when it is absent)
- Sexual (no boundaries) – many have been raised in in different types of cohabitation homes
- Interracial – they see interracial marriage and relationships as normal
- Religious – the more variety of beliefs, the better. Less Christian and more confused about moral and spiritual truth than ever.
- Fidelity: High value on connecting but mainly through technology, which is a barrier to intimacy
- Financially conservative and cautious
- Social ingenuity is a high value
- Spend on average 9 hours a day absorbing social media
- 70% learn by some form of social media/texting
- 4 percent have a Biblical worldview (Barna Research)
Suggestions in doing ministry in a Multi Generational Church
- One study showed that all generations place the same value on becoming a leader, concern about how their personalities fit into the place they work, and all worry about stress and work life balance.
- Empathy and Listening: the key to harmony and effectiveness
- Be mindful of Generational Bias: “Our way is the best way.”
- Avoid stereotyping when serving or working together: common stereotypes are that Millennials are entitled and lazy, the Gen Xers are bitter, Baby Boomers mess up things for everyone else.
- Understand life stages
Suggestions for Gen X and Boomers: How to work with Millennials and Gen Z
- Understand the value of relationship and mentoring
- Extensive hands on orientation in how to serve and do ministry is appreciated
- Discipleship and Ministry training should be personal and practical
- Brief training videos are valued
- Utilize updated communication methods when appropriate
- Give frequent, short, informal feedback instead of scheduled formal reviews.
- Understand that they have been raised in a post Christian era.
- Start with the end (the purpose, the why, the goal) and work back to the beginning step by step
- Help them to see that they matter.
How a Worldview is Determined
Worldviews ask and answer questions like:
- Does God Exist? (God)
- How Did Everything Begin? (Origins)
- What’s Wrong with the World? (Problem)
- What’s the Ultimate Solution? (Solution)
- Who Am I? (Identity)
- Why Am I Here? (Purpose)
- Am I Living a Good Life? (Morality)
- What Happens After I Die? (Destiny)
A worldview is a web of habit-forming beliefs about the biggest questions of life that helps you make sense of all your experiences.