Gen Z is spiritually illiterate and abandoning church: How did we get here?
Our society is in the midst of a massive cultural shift. According to the Barna Group, “rates of church attendance, religious affiliation, belief in God, prayer and Bible-reading have been dropping for decades. Americans’ beliefs are becoming more post-Christian and, concurrently, religious identity is changing.”
This is the environment in which Generation Z is growing up.
This conglomeration of young people – born anywhere between 1995 and 2015 depending on which study you read – has several defining characteristics. They are “the most ethnically diverse generation in American history.” They are individualistic, lonely, and social justice oriented. They were raised on technology and their lives are often built around the online world. They are activists and volunteers who want to make an impact on the world. They were raised during the Great Recession and value financial stability. They are sexually fluid. And they account for 25.9% of the American population.
The oldest members of Generation Z are entering their twenties and stepping into either the workforce or the world of higher education. And they will change the landscape of our society with their ideas and values – many of which omit the idea of Christian faith and the prospect of church membership.
A POST-CHRISTIAN GENERATION
James White, in his groundbreaking book Meet Generation Z, notes “the most defining mark of members of Generation Z, in terms of their spiritual lives, is their spiritual illiteracy…They do not know what the Bible says. They do not know the basics of Christian belief or theology. They do not what the cross is all about. They do not know what it means to worship.”
This knowledge gap is the result of a massive cultural value shift from the sacred to the secular, and it has led to increasing numbers of students abandoning their faith and losing interest in the church.
According to Jean Twenge, this secularizing of society has manifested itself in Gen Z as “disconnecting completely from religion, spirituality, and the larger questions of life” (iGen). In fact, the Barna Group characterizes Gen Z as the “first truly ‘post Christian’ generation,” with only 4% adhering to a Biblical worldview.
As a result, scriptural authority has come under fire and fewer teenagers are trusting what the Bible has to say about contemporary issues. Sean McDowell and J. Warner Wallace, both prolific apologists, observe that “young people today have grown up in a culture that places the individual as the highest authority…and individual feelings often trump facts” (So the Next Generation Will Know). Moral relativism has been noted as one of the defining trademarks of Gen Z as they move away from traditional values that fail to account for their everyday experiences. Thus, it is the general consensus that sincere belief equals absolute truth.
BARRIERS TO FAITH
As Christian values decline in their cultural context and a desire for tolerance surges, Gen Z articulates several barriers to faith and church membership. First, the problem of evil and the existence of suffering is the largest deterrent to a belief in the existence of God (29%), which one third of non-Christian teens believe cannot be ultimately known. Second, while Gen Z is less likely than previous generations to claim church hypocrisy as a reason for avoiding faith, 23% still articulate concern. Lastly, the history of injustices within the church bothers 15% of surveyed teens.
But it isn’t just the unchurched who are exhibiting less interest in traditional spiritual ideas and institutions. These trends also impact Christian teens. Of churchgoing Gen Z members, 82% consider church to be “a place to find answers to live a meaningful life” that is “relevant to my life.”
However, half of students believe that the Bible has exhibited incompatibilities with science (49%) and that churchgoers are hypocritical in their practice (36%). These statistics indicate that the new generational trajectory, aimed toward post-Christian ideas, spiritual illiteracy, and moral relativism, is not merely manifesting itself in unchurched, unbelieving teens. Those who have grown up in church are also at risk.
Overall, barriers to faith and loss of interest in the church have led to increasing rates of atheistic and agnostic beliefs. The Barna Group discovered that “the percentage of teens who identify [as atheist] is double that of the adult population.”
While 59% of Gen Z identifies with some sort of theistic religion and 7% associate themselves with another faith, 35% percent articulated some form of skepticism. Perhaps most alarmingly, 14% of teenagers classify themselves as “none of the above”–denying any form of ideological or practical alignment with Christianity, Catholicism, atheism, agnosticism, or other religions.
In light of large bodies of research, it appears that Generation Z doesn’t really know what to believe or why to believe it.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
I am a member of Generation Z, and I have seen firsthand the loneliness, passion, and confusion of my peers. We are people who long to see change to unjust systems and are actively seeking to solve problems through innovation. We value community. We want to make a difference and see the world become a kinder place. We want to build our identities around something that will last.
But so many of us are ill-equipped to step into a post-Christian culture. With little knowledge of Scripture or orthodox Christian doctrine, many quickly fall away into apostasy, unbelief, or apathy. Those who remain struggle to cultivate a shallow faith based upon fun activities and a misunderstanding of what the Bible really teaches.
If the church desires to reclaim Gen Z and reintegrate them into the Body of Christ, then we must educate our children and youth. We must actively seek out the lost and meet them where they are with their questions and concerns. If we remain silent, these trends toward atheism and spiritual illiteracy will continue to grow – and our culture will complete the shift from sacred to secular until Christian thought is no more than a trivial relic of an intolerant, uneducated past.
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