For the last decade, church experts have been wrestling over the best ways to reach and retain “millennials,” which is a phrase the describes individuals born from the early 1980s through the mid-1990s. Data shows that many millennials leave the church during their college years, and some never return. The fastest growing religious identifier among this generation is “spiritual but not religious.”
But as millennials age, get married, and start families, they are no longer the only “young people” that churches must consider. A new cohort has risen: “Generation Z” or individuals born between the mid-1990s and early 2000s. Generation Z diverges from millennials in many ways and presents unique challenges and opportunities for churches who hope to capture their attention.
For this reason, I decided to speak with Pastor James Emery White about his new book, “Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World.” Here we discuss what sets these young people apart from their elders and what he believes it means for modern ministry, evangelism, and apologetics.
RNS: What do you mean when you say that the church is at the beginning of a ‘seventh age?’
JEW: During my studies at Oxford, I was introduced to the writings of a Catholic historian named Christopher Dawson. He had an intriguing thesis he introduced just after WWII that I have come to appreciate: that the history of the Christian church can be divided into segments of 300-400 years, and that each of these “ages” began — and then ended — in crisis. The nature of each crisis was the same: intense attack by new challenges, if not enemies, from within and from without the church. Apart from new spiritual determination and drive, the church would have lost the day. Dawson accounted for six such ages at the time of his writing. I believe we are now living at the start of another — a seventh age.
RNS: Everyone keeps talking about millennials, but you’ve chosen to talk about Generation Z. Who are they, and why are they so important?
JEW: They are the youngest generational cohort on the planet — and the largest. This means that in the coming years they will not simply influence culture, but be culture. Added to this is the fact that they are the first post-Christian generation in American history. I would argue that this makes them the most pressing generation to study. They will be the most influential religious force in the West and the heart of the missional challenge facing the Christian church.
RNS: You say that Generation Z is the first truly post-Christian generation. Yet more than 70 percent of Americans are Christian and more than a third of Americans attend church regularly. How are they ‘post-Christian?’
JEW: I would push back a bit on 70 percent being “Christian,” at least in light of how the majority of that 70 percent are self-defining and self-designating the term. If we mean Bible-believing, heaven-and-hell existing, Jesus-resurrecting Christians, the number would drop rather precipitously. If you are going to contend for 70 percent of the American population being Christian, the majority of that number would be “Christian” in name only.
The latest research shows that for those between the ages of 18-29, 39 percent would actually place themselves in the “nones” or religiously unaffiliated category. As for a third of Americans attending church regularly, that means that two-thirds (again, a majority) do not. The word “post” means “past” or “after,” so “post-Christian” means “after” the dominance of Christian ideas and influence. To my thinking and observation, this is where we are culturally.
RNS: What are the unique concerns and questions Generation Z has about faith?
JEW: I’ll give you three, though there are many more. First, they have a strong desire to make a difference with their lives and are attracted to what will enable them to make that difference. A faith that is privately engaging, but socially irrelevant, will not attract them. Second, traditional morality will be a tricky conversation, as they are not only sexually fluid themselves, but consider relational acceptance and lifestyle affirmation to be synonymous. Individual freedom is simply a core value. Third, a final faith question will revolve around their amazingly deep sense of awe and wonder about the universe. More than any other generation, Generation Z has an openness to spirituality via cosmology.
RNS: How well equipped are most churches to meet the needs of Generation Z?
JEW: Sadly, the majority are not well positioned at all. On the most superficial of levels, most churches are divorced from the technological world Generation Z inhabits. But on the deeper level, they are divorced from the culture itself in such a way as to be unable to build strategic bridges — relationally, intellectually, aesthetically — to reach Generation Z. The church simply has too many blind spots.
RNS: What are the church’s biggest blind spots when it comes to Generation Z?
JEW: The first one that jumps to mind is how truly post-Christian they are. They really are biblically and spiritually illiterate. I’ve often described how most churches have an “Acts 2 mindset,” referring to Peter speaking before the God-fearing Jews of Jerusalem, as opposed to an “Acts 17 mindset,” which is Paul on Mars Hill. Two radically different contexts and two radically different approaches.
Unfortunately, we have churches with an Acts 2 approach in an Acts 17 world. Added to this is the “curse of knowledge”: once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it’s like not to know it. Too many Christians have forgotten what it’s like to be apart from Christ. Generation Z needs us to remember.
RNS: How will evangelism need to change when it comes to Generation Z?
JEW: It must move from being event-oriented to being process-and-event-oriented. For the last several decades, evangelism capitalized on a unique state of affairs. Namely, a culture filled with people who were relatively advanced in their spiritual knowledge and, as a result, able to quickly and responsibly consider the event of entering into a relationship with Christ as forgiver and leader.
In light of today’s realities, there must be fresh attention paid to the process that leads people to the event of salvation. The goal is not simply knowing how to articulate the means of coming to Christ, but how to facilitate and enable the person to progress to the point where they are even able to consider accepting Christ in a responsible fashion.
RNS: What about apologetics?
JEW: I often talk of “old-school” apologetics as opposed to “new-school” apologetics. The old-school apologetics was very evidentialist in mindset. Think Josh McDowell or Lee Strobel answering Enlightenment-era questions about whether you can believe the Bible or whether God exists. This is all well and good and still needed, but new-school apologetics answers different questions.
Instead of, “Did Jesus rise from the dead?” the question is now, “So what if he did?” Instead of asking, “Does God exist?” the question is now, “What kind of God would call for the killing of an entire people group?” Instead of testimonies about lives changed through Christ, their question would be why lives currently lived by Christians aren’t more changed, but are instead marked by judgmentalism, hypocrisy, and intolerance.