Figures and stats regarding the downward trend of church attendance in the United States over the last few decades, especially among younger generations,1 are commonly shared in books, articles, and on the internet. That downward trend has not changed with the arrival of Generation Z (Gen Z).
Discussion around any particular generation (including this one) speaks in generalizations over a large population. This may not be every Gen Zer’s experience, but it describes the generational context. Barna identifies Gen Z as a “spiritual blank slate,” atheist, and post-Christian.2 However, Gen Z views Christians as ignorant,3) hypocritical,4 out of touch,5 and judgmental.6 These views don’t sound like a blank slate but a bias against the Christian faith. How did we get here? Where is the church missing the mark in reaching Gen Z? Where do we go from here?
Gen Z is coming of age in a post-Christian, digital world,7 and we need to figure out how to connect the Bible and matters of faith in a tangible and relevant way for the cultural context of Gen Z. We must start by understanding the challenges they face and the questions they are asking8 If we keep using the Bible to answer irrelevant questions or even real questions in an irrelevant way (meaning, it misses the context or core of the question), then the Bible–and likely matters of faith–will progressively be seen as irrelevant by the next generation.
This article will:
- Explain the disconnect between churches and ministries and Gen Z
- Identify five key questions Gen Z is asking about life and faith based on their worldview and values
- Discuss the generational and cultural context of each question9
I propose that if we understand what Gen Z is asking, each of us can figure out how to answer these questions with the gospel, with the triune God, and with the Bible.
Who is Generation Z?
As a brief overview, Generation Z (born 1999–2013) has grown up with social media, a global pandemic, and frequent mass and school shootings. Gen Z has been referred to as “digital natives,”10 having access to interactive technology from a young age, are attuned to the communication and culture in the digital space. Gen Z values safety, authenticity, and social justice, as well as support around mental health.
One reason Gen Z finds matters of faith, the Bible, and Christianity irrelevant11 is because Christian adults use their time and platforms to answer questions Gen Z is not asking while ignoring the ones they are asking. Barna identified a disconnect between aspects of faith and the gospel important to Gen Z and those prioritized and shared in churches.12 This difference between what Gen Z wants and what the church gives them means our evangelism and discipleship steadily miss the mark. Since adolescents aren’t finding answers in the church, they believe God and the church are irrelevant.
Because older generations (Baby Boomers, Gen X, and Millennials) tend to assume the general experience of adolescence is similar for all generations, they may not understand the context for the questions about life and God Gen Z is asking. However, the experiences of Gen Z are vastly different than those of previous generations. For example, parents of Gen Z children did not experience social media, active-shooter drills at schools, and a global pandemic while growing up.
Gen Z feels misunderstood by older generations (and thus by the church), resulting in feeling disconnected from older generations,13 and rightly so. Older generations can start closing the gap of misunderstanding and disconnection by learning about Gen Z’s experience.
The five big questions Gen Z is asking are timeless on the surface, but the context around these questions is different–and requires an appropriately contextualized response.
For each question, we have an opportunity for biblical, gospel-centered engagement to pursue an answer. Hopefully, these questions help us begin to speak the same language as Gen Z so we can translate the Christian faith to a new generation and a new generational culture.
1. Do all people matter to God?
This question is based in the way Gen Z values tolerance,14 acceptance, and inclusivity.15 Gen Z only knows a world that has had female presidential and vice-presidential candidates, a Black president, and legalized gay marriage and marijuana use in a number of states.16
Ultimately, this is a question of social justice: Does God care about the needs, dignity, equity, and belonging of all types of people in all places? This question comes from a caring place, wanting all people to belong and be loved by God.
Due to unfamiliarity with the Bible, much of Gen Z has not been exposed to how God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit interact with power, oppression, gender, race, ethnicity, government, culture, etc., in Scripture.
Because Gen Z generally views Christians as ignorant,17 judgmental,18 and anti-homosexual,19 they project such opinions onto the triune God and the Bible. This question reflects the bias Gen Z brings to the Christian faith overall. For Gen Z, they want nothing to do with a God who does not care for those traditionally or currently oppressed, rejected, and cast out.
2. What is true?
Being globally connected and surrounded by digital media provides an influx of information–good, bad, and ugly–that has left Gen Z asking, “What is true?”
Gen Z has had a different relationship with truth than generations past. Truth, for Gen Z, is interconnected with their generational values of acceptance, tolerance, and personal freedom. In their view, subscribing to truth results in the oppression of those who do not ascribe to that truth.20 As a result, Gen Z’s cultural context of personal truth then does not recognize universal and absolute truth.21
Simply holding up a Bible and stating that it is truth has the potential to unintentionally provoke feelings of intolerance, exclusion, and oppression. Understanding this disconnect can prevent creating and perpetuating such misunderstanding and division. Gen Z would rather uphold tolerance and acceptance than believe in a truth that does not align with other people, values, or belief systems. They often hear truth articulated in personal terms:22 “my truth,” “your truth,” or “their truth.” Gen Z is searching for truth,23 while believing in moral relativism.24
At the same time, Gen Z highly values social justice.25 One complexity for Gen Z is the value for truth in the context of personal freedom comes in direct conflict with the value for social justice. I have watched Gen Zers wrestle with trying to figure out what social justice looks like, what is right and what is wrong, without an anchor of truth: How do I fight against what is “wrong” when the individualized idea of truth says each person can define what is right? The result is a generation that wants to fight for what is right without any truth dictating what the right thing is. It is reasonable to conjecture one reason Gen Z seeks to identify truth is to satisfy their longing for justice.
3. Am I safe?
Dr. Jean Twenge identified Gen Z’s value of safety by explaining this generation is always asking: “Is it safe?”26 A natural extension of this question is to apply it to personal experience by continuously asking: “Am I safe?” Though safety includes physical safety, like from a global pandemic or school shooting, but safety also extends beyond the physical: emotional, psychological, or perceived safety as well as safety from shame, embarrassment, risk, or failure.27
The relationship between social media and cancel culture, or “call-out culture,” surrounds Gen Z with an audience and cultural atmosphere that feeds off of the public shaming of others. Though most visible cancellations seem to target public figures, the canceling environment impacts the everyday personal lives of Gen Z.28
Watching high profile cancellations causes Gen Z to believe their own sense of safety, identity, and belonging is constantly at risk.29 With smartphones and social media, anyone’s mistakes can be recorded, published, and shared without consent or knowledge, which contributes to continuing to ask: “Am I safe or will I be shamed, canceled, and embarrassed?”30
Similarly, Gen Z wants a place to ask questions about the Bible, the triune God, and faith without feeling shame, judgment, or embarrassment.31 Because Christians are viewed as judgmental and intolerant, it makes sense that Gen Z questions whether or not they are safe in churches or even with God.
The difficulty around the topic of safety is it is individually defined, and most of the time it is not verbalized. Each person gets to decide what safe means and to expect safety from others. It becomes even more difficult when we can see that God’s definition of safety is often different than ours. As C. S. Lewis wrote of the lion Aslan, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
4. Can I trust you?
Gen Z is aware they are surrounded by altered, skewed, or even false information. This includes carefully curated photos on social media,32 a medium Gen Z is well aware is full of fakeness and “not real life.”33 This has left Gen Z in a skeptical place.
They know people can have multiple social media accounts reflecting different personas. They are aware people can be one way in person and a different way online. They have witnessed public figures get exposed for private activities that contradicted espoused values or boundaries. The question of trust can also be expressed in a familiar saying: “Do you walk the walk or just talk the talk?” They want to know: “Are you who you say you are?”
The question of trust is also grounded in the Gen Z values of authenticity and safety.34 Gen Z upholds authenticity as a highly regarded value,35 wanting, almost demanding, honesty, genuineness, and gritty reality from others. Credibility is directly proportional to the amount of transparency and authenticity observed or perceived.36 When this value of authenticity is combined with the value of safety, the investigation of trust is a natural result.
As discussed earlier, Gen Z describes Christians as hypocritical, the opposite of authentic and trustworthy. The question then moves to matters of faith: Can I trust God exists? Can I trust God is good? Can I trust Jesus is who he said he is? The key here is not to just tell Gen Z: “Yes!” The key is to help them come to such conclusions by showing them through stories, passages, and interactions within the Bible.
We do this better when we first listen to our Gen Zers. We let them ask, process, and share without interruptions or knee-jerk responses. This not only gives us the right context to answer their questions, but ultimately builds trust.
5. Am I enough?
This is a question of self-worth and value. In fact, a parenthetical qualifier can be added: “Am I enough (to be loved and valued)?” As seasoned followers of Jesus, we may first interpret this question as it relates to sin and to the holiness of God. We may hear this question as we hear that of the rich young ruler: “What must I do to inherit eternal life” (Matt. 19:16). But this is not the angle through which Gen Z is asking the question.
Adolescents and young adults are forming identities in an environment where there is an influx of digitally-delivered input, providing a crowd of voices who are ready to judge whether or not any of us are “enough” by their standards. Accomplishments and measurable success have a large role in identity formation for Gen Z, and they wrestle with how much success is “enough” to be loved, valued, and to be able to rest. Social media determines value and status in terms of measurable metrics of likes, comments, retweets, views, and follows. The digital world in which Gen Z is immersed expects perfection, records failures, and most often denies mercy or forgiveness. Gen Z is constantly receiving the message that there is no room for error. If you make a mistake (and you will), it means you are not enough.
Gen Z may naturally wonder: does God weigh my accomplishments and failures to determine my value the way digital world does? This could lead Gen Zers to conclude that they will never be enough for God to love them. Love and value are tied together for Gen Z, and this impacts their sense of belonging and acceptance: being “enough” will lead to being accepted and loved. Acceptance can be defined as being wholly seen and received, regardless of one’s flaws, accomplishments, and other measurements or qualifications that could be applied.
Gen Z wants to know God loves them in the midst of their failures and imperfections, especially since that is not what they are experiencing in this cultural moment.
The next step
These five key questions aren’t the only questions Gen Z is asking, but they provide opportunities to learn and engage with the young adults in your life. The next crucial step is how to answer or respond to each of these questions. That is the larger work, but let’s dip our toes into the water here.
Of course, the good news is that God reconciles us to himself through the death and resurrection of his Son–God’s plan for atonement was determined by His love, and we experience the fullness of God’s love and goodness because Christ was and is more than enough.
The Christian faith, in fact, answers all the questions Gen Z is asking:
- Do all people matter to God? God is a just God and creates all people in his image. He sees the poor and oppressed (e.g. Luke 6:20–26, James 1:27). Jesus interacts with the powerful and powerless, rich and poor, male and female, groups and individuals, religious and pagans, Jews and Gentiles, and so on. It is through each of these interactions we see how God cares for people.
- What is true? This is a question that is asked in Scripture, of course–see Matthew 11:1–5; John 3:1–2; John 18:38. Talking through such passages opens a doorway for further conversation; it will help Gen Z engage with their worldview in their discovery of biblical truth. They are not alone in their questions about truth.
- Am I safe? We find ourselves in a place where we are needing to redefine safety. When Jesus invites Peter to step out of a boat and onto the water–is safety the lack of storm or avoidance of sinking, or is safety being on the water with God the Son who will catch you?
- Can I trust you? The triune God reflects the authenticity and integrity Gen Z is looking for: God does not change; he is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Malachi 3:6, Hebrews 13:8). He keeps his promises, and he is who he says he is. We will need to help uncover that truth for Gen Z throughout Scripture.
- Am I enough? The good news is that God reconciles us to himself through the death and resurrection of his Son–God’s plan for atonement was determined by His love, from the beginning, and God’s decision to do so was not determined by our response or performance. We did not have to be “enough” for God to enact his loving and just sacrifice. We experience the fullness of God’s love and goodness because Christ was and is more than enough.
Take these questions and search for the answers in the Bible; God provides answers through the gospel. When it comes to sharing on topics like the mysteries of the triune God, the concept and consequences of sin, or redemption and sanctification, we can look through the lenses of these questions to provide answers and direction that meets our Gen Z audience where they are at. I have found that when looking for the answers to these questions, I notice things in the Gospels that I hadn’t noticed before. The Holy Spirit reveals new (ancient) truths to me through the lens of Generation Z, and for that I am so grateful!
By engaging with the questions and values of Gen Z, churches communicate they see, value, and respect a generation that feels unseen, de-valued, and disrespected. We can offer an opportunity for Gen Z to reflect the image of God with their values in a biblical way for the kingdom.
- Beyond “A People, Not a Place”: What the Church Really Is
- Deep Discipleship in a Digital Age: Rethinking Church, Ministry, and Life Together in an Online World
- When Going to Church Is Tough: 5 Tips
- Barna Group, Gen Z: The Culture, Beliefs and Motivations Shaping the Next Generation (Ventura, CA: Barna Group, 2018), 24–25.
- Barna Group, Gen Z, 25–26.
- David Kinnaman, UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), 135.
- Barna Group, Gen Z, 29.
- Paul M. Gould, Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019), 18; Barna Group, Gen Z, 29.
- Kinnaman, UnChristian, 185; Barna Group, Gen Z, 30.
- Barna Group, Gen Z, 15, 24.
- Octavia Esqueda, “What Every Church Needs to Know About Generation Z,” Talbot Magazine.
- The topic and the ideas in this article are addressed more extensively in the author’s doctoral thesis on file at Phoenix Seminary in Scottsdale, AZ. The research conducted for this article was primarily conducted while the author was student at Phoenix Seminary.
- J. Walter Thompson Intelligence, “Gen Z: Digital in Their DNA,” April 3, 2012,)
- Barna Group, Gen Z, 74.
- Barna Group, Gen Z, 32.
- Barna Group, Gen Z, Volume 2: Caring for Young Souls and Cultivating Resilience (Barna Group and Impact 360 Institute, 2021), 56.
- David Kinnaman and Aly Hawkins, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 93.
- James White, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2017), 92.
- Sarah Weise, Instabrain: The New Rules for Marketing to Generation Z (Sarah Weise, 2019), 24.
- Kinnaman, UnChristian, 135.
- Kinnaman, UnChristian, 39.
- Barna Group, Gen Z, 29.
- Paul Copan and Kenneth Duncan Litwak, The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas: Paul’s Mars Hill Experience for Our Pluralistic World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 50.
- Barna Group, Gen Z, 65.
- Andrew Root, Faith Formation in a Secular Age: Responding to the Church’s Obsession with Youthfulness (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 101.
- Tracy Francis and Fernanda Hoefel, “‘True Gen:’ Generation Z Characteristics and Its Implications for Companies,” McKinsey and Company.
- Barna Group, Gen Z, 2:52.
- Rachel Premack, “Millennials Love Their Brands, Gen Zs Are Terrified of College Debt, and 6 Other Ways Gen Zs and Millennials Are Totally Different,” Business Insider Australia.
- Twenge, IGen, 149.
- Twenge, IGen, 149, 159.
- Emily Weinstein and Carrie James, Behind Their Screens: What Teens Are Facing (and Adults Are Missing) (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2022), 151.
- Jolene Erlacher and Katy White, Mobilizing Gen Z: Challenges and Opportunities for the Global Age of Missions (Littleton, CO: William Carey Publishing, 2022), 65.
- Erlacher and White, Mobilizing Gen Z.
- Rachel Dodd, “Serving Today’s Anxious Generation; 5 Ministry Perspectives,” Fuller Youth Institute,
- Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (New York: Penguin Press, 2018), 154.
- Weinstein and James, Behind Their Screens, 42.
- Witt and Baird, Gen Z Frequency, 46–47.
- Twenge, IGen, 235.
- Witt and Baird, Gen Z Frequency, 46.