How the church can reach Generation Z - Reflections on "Meet Generation Z" by James Emery White

I was born in 1990. That makes me nearly 27 years old. I’m at the age when I look at high school and college students and start feeling old. Has it already been almost ten years since I graduated from high school?

Over the past decade, there has been a lot of talk in the church world about my generation, the Millennials, those born between 1980 and 1994. I’m sure you have seen plenty of articles floating around online about what Millennials are looking for in a church, or reasons why Millennials are leaving the church. While many of these articles make unhelpful generalizations about my generation, I do appreciate the attempt to understand younger generations for the sake of building the church and sharing the gospel. If your church is still trying to figure out how to best reach Millennials, I have good news and bad news. The good news is you can stop worrying so much about Millennials because we’re no longer the biggest influencers of culture. The bad news is you have a whole new generation to learn about and start strategizing how your church is going to reach them.

Recently my friend Spencer, a youth pastor here in Colorado, recommend that I read James Emery White’s new book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World. Being someone who is passionate about the latest research and trends in ministry, I knew I would find this book intriguing, so I immediately downloaded it to my Kindle app and read it in a couple of days.

In his book, James Emery White does a fantastic job helping us better understand the youngest generation among us as well as provide insight on how to reach them effectively. If you and your church care about reaching the next generation, then read this book. You’ll learn that the issue is not so much figuring out how to reach a particular generation. Rather, the primary challenge the church in North America faces in the next few years is effectively communicating the gospel in an increasingly post-Christian society. Rather than cover all of the topics in his book, I want to share with you some basic information about Generation Z as well as my three biggest takeaways from White’s research.

Who is Generation Z?

This generation consists of kids born between 1995 and 2010. You may have heard some people consider this age range to include Millennials, but after reading Meet Generation Z, kids born in this date range did grow up in a world different than even a younger Millennial such as myself. I remember life before personal computers were even a standard household item. I remember life without cellphones and smartphones. Apple released the iPhone my junior year of high school in 2007. I also remember dial-up internet, slow cellular data, and Wifi hotspots being a luxury rather than a necessity. For most of Generation Z, they do not remember the world without smartphones, Wifi, and instant access to the world’s information via Google.

Aside from the technological distinction of Generation Z, there are a few cultural and moral differences as well. The kids in Generation Z were born into a time of unfortunate events. They have already lived through the catastrophes of 9/11 and the Great Recession. It makes you wonder if that is why dystopian stories such as the Hunger Games and Divergent are so popular among this generation. They have also been the first generation to grow up in a sexually fluid culture.  73% of Generation Z is for same-sex marriage. Generation Z is the most racially diverse generation the United States has ever seen due to the rapid growth of the Hispanic population in the last decade.

Finally, the most important distinctive of Generation Z is they are the most spiritually illiterate generation Western Civilization has ever seen. Since they are the children of unchurched or de-churched Generation X, they have absolutely no knowledge of anything spiritual. In previous decades, most people had some exposure to religion and Christianity. Preachers like Billy Graham and the leaders of mega-church movements we see today have appealed to people’s general knowledge of the concepts of the Christianity and from there have guided people into a life-changing and personal relationship with God. With Generation Z, the church can no longer lean on the crutch of cultural Christianity. In reaching this generation, we must assume that our audience has zero knowledge of who Jesus is and what he has done.

After reading this book, here are my biggest takeaways in how it is going to affect my ministry.

First, I think the spiritual illiteracy of this generation provides one of the greatest opportunities the church in the west has ever seen.

In previous generations, the church had to help cultural Christians who were de-churched overcome their preconceptions about faith, Jesus, and the church. With Generation Z it’s like working with spiritual blank slate. We do not have to waste time undoing false popular theology or their preconceptions about the church because they do not have any! Their spiritual illiteracy will prove to be the strongest bridge to connecting this Generation with God. Although they are spiritually illiterate, we can see that this generation has a deep longing for meaning and purpose in life which is expressed in their heavy involvement with movements dealing with civil rights, politics, or the environment. The church has a tremendous opportunity to provide them with an alternative to the world’s attempt to live a fulfilling life of meaning and purpose. That does not mean the church needs to start shoving the Bible and theology down this generation’s throat. Instead, the church should create environments for this generation to ask questions about spirituality and let those questions determine the type of content the church can create to engage non-believers.

Second, the church is going to need to have a voice of conviction.

It’s ironic that despite the political correctness required in public discourse today, the talking heads with the most authority and greatest following in our culture today do not beat around the bush when it comes to sharing their convictions. John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, Dennis Prager, and Ron Paul, are just a few public figures I follow that prove you do not need to be politically correct to have a significant influence on a lot of people. Even though I do not agree with all or any of what these public figures have to say, I admire their conviction. It’s tempting for the church to lose her prophetic voice for the sake of evangelism, but James Emery White warns against doing this. Not only will this result in watering down the truth of the gospel, but no one will want to listen if your church has no conviction. Generation Z wants to grapple with opinions and ideologies. Even though some or many will disagree, people will only take the time to listen to words of conviction.

Finally, the church must create snackable content to engage with Generation Z.

I love watching Casey Neistat’s vlog on Youtube.Almost every day he posts a 5-10 minute video that documents his life as a creative entrepreneur in New York City in an entertaining way. Apparently, 7 million other people feel the same way about his videos because that’s the number of subscribers he has. Something that he and other successful YouTubers have discovered is the power of snackable online content. Whether it’s creating entertaining but informative videos on YouTube or writing brief but intriguing articles, I see this as the future of online ministry for the church. Too many churches, especially ones with big budgets, make the mistake of capturing their Sunday morning content, posting it online, and expecting to make a significant impact that way. While posting services online is not a horrible idea, the church must look at what is working in the secular world to build an engaged audience who is excited to consume content that will add value to their life.

To sum up my takeaway from James Emery White’s book, I believe if churches want to effectively reach Generation Z, they must start creating engaging, informative, and creative content that answers spiritual questions with a voice of conviction. I’m excited to start doing this in my ministry, but honestly, I do not yet know what exactly this will look like.

I highly encourage you to read Generation Z yourself as there are many other takeaways in it for your ministry that I did not cover here. What are your thoughts on how the church can effectively reach the next Generation? If your church has found innovative and effective ways to reach Generation Z, let me know in the comments below!