By now, you’ve seen the headlines: Gen Z is the least religious generation in America. Study after study has shown this to be true. However, most don’t reject religion outright. They simply don’t think about it.
With the surge of the “nones” (religiously unaffiliated) and the dechurching phenomenon in the U.S. (the largest and fastest religious shift in our history), Gen Z’s indifference toward religion shouldn’t surprise us. But it shouldn’t discourage us either. It should motivate us.
Maybe you’ve heard Gen Z is “spiritual but not religious.” Some find that troubling, but we see it as an opportunity. It means Gen Zers are spiritually open. They’re hungry for more than what our culture is offering, and this has increasingly created an opportunity for renewal.
Growing Gen Z’s love for Jesus isn’t without its challenges. An increasing majority are biblically illiterate, anxious, digitally native, and uninterested in church. We must understand these obstacles, but it’s also crucial we see them as opportunities for growth, transformation, and grace.
4 Obstacles and 4 Opportunities
We believe some of the biggest “hindrances” to Gen Z’s faith in Jesus might be how God draws a generation to himself. Here are four examples.
Obstacle #1: Gen Z doesn’t know the Bible.
According to a 2018 study, just 4 percent of this generation has a biblical worldview. This means Gen Zers don’t have accurate answers to the questions of who God is, who they are, where they belong, and what their purpose in life is.
But these are the questions they’re all asking. Which means they’re going to look somewhere for answers. Where will that be?
Despite Gen Z’s low biblical literacy, there’s some good news: 44 percent say they’re extremely curious about the Bible and/or Jesus. So in an era where “truth is relative” prevails, we have an incredible opportunity to guide them not to their truth but to the Truth (John 14:6).
The church must teach the story—the whole story. Gen Zers are curious and thoughtful. They want answers to their questions. It’s tempting to avoid the hard stuff, but this is a mistake. Skirting tough issues won’t make Jesus more palatable; it’ll make him seem less relevant to the issues they’re facing.
Skirting tough issues won’t make Jesus more palatable; it’ll make him seem less relevant to the issues they’re facing.
If we want Gen Zers to know the truth, we must be willing to teach all of it. Doing so will mean we have many difficult conversations. It’ll require wisdom, patience, and grace as we navigate their doubts and fears. We’ll need to be honest about the cost of following Jesus—and dare to discuss the cost of not following Jesus.
They want the truth. Will we help them find it?
Obstacle #2: Gen Z is socially anxious.
Lest we’re tempted to believe the highlight reels and filters, everything’s not fine. Poor mental health is reaching epidemic levels among Gen Z. A recent study revealed 42 percent have diagnosed mental health conditions. Of this group, 9 out of 10 struggle with anxiety and 57 percent are taking medication for their conditions.
Fifteen years ago, this wasn’t a conversation our college ministry was having. But the more we’ve sat across from anxious students, the more we’ve realized how prevalent this is and how confusing it is for them to navigate. Many college students think the Bible’s answer to their anxiety is simply “Don’t be anxious!” But they can’t, and so they feel shame, which leads to hiding or coping with it in unhealthy ways.
The worst thing we can do with Gen Zers’ anxiety is ignore it or explain it away. We don’t know all the reasons they’re feeling the way they do. They might not either. Most likely, it’s complicated.
But again, what some consider an impassable obstacle, we see as an opportunity—to empathize, listen well, be patient, and model a healthy, nonanxious presence in their lives. Most importantly, their anxiety is an opportunity for us to drive them into the arms of the Lord. That’s what he wants. He doesn’t dismiss their anxiety. He invites them to bring it to him because he cares deeply for them (1 Pet. 5:7).
Gen Z is looking for peace that only Jesus can give.
Obstacle #3: Gen Z lives online.
Make no mistake: Gen Zers are being formed. Between social media, TV, video games, and the 24-hour news cycle, they’re being shaped. The question isn’t if they’re being shaped but by what—and how this kind of discipleship is forming them.
In a recent study, 73 percent of Gen Z reported feeling lonely all or some of the time. The digital age has made us more connected than ever before, and yet Gen Z is the loneliest generation of all time. In a world of polished highlight reels, likes, and clever captions, this generation craves the kind of depth that can only come from real relationships.
In a world of polished highlight reels, likes, and clever captions, this generation craves the kind of depth that can only come from real relationships.
Tim Keller touched on this fundamental human need when he said, “To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial.”
Gen Z needs physical spaces to be known and loved—to experience the gospel. In our churches, do we have spaces for Gen Zers to practice the kind of depth and transparency they crave? Are they invited to participate and serve in weekly worship, small groups, Bible studies, and discipleship relationships? Do you have opportunities for young adults to come, connect, and invite others along?
In the longest in-depth longitudinal study on human life ever conducted, researchers found that deep, nurtured relationships are the key to the good life. The deeply relational life is messy, but Gen Z is hungry for it. Are our churches places where Gen Zers can find a more meaningful community than what they encounter online?
Obstacle #4: Gen Z thinks church ‘isn’t important.’
In a 2018 study, more than half of Gen Z said church isn’t that important. When this group was asked why, nearly 60 percent of the non-Christians said, “Church isn’t relevant to me.” About the same percentage of Christians—yes, Christians—said, “I find God elsewhere.” This is a serious problem. Maybe the biggest of them all.
But here’s something to consider: if we want Gen Z to think church is important, then we have to ask our churches, “Is Gen Z important to us?”
When college students walk into our churches, do they feel seen, expected, and welcomed? Do young adults have places in our ministries where they can learn and grow alongside others in their stage of life? Are they embraced in the pews and from the pulpit? Do they feel like they belong?
It’s no secret that Gen Z is looking for places to find their identity, purpose, and belonging. But what does a cycle studio, a local bar, or an online community offer them that our churches don’t? Here’s where we have an opportunity. And the good news is that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
The Jesus movement has always been contagious because of its radical hospitality, countercultural love, and sacrificial service aided by the transformative power of the Holy Spirit. We believe Gen Z will be drawn back to the church by the same.
We’re hopeful for this next generation. They’re spiritually open, curious, starved for deep connection, and craving a sense of belonging that we believe only Jesus can meet. Raising up the next generation will take the whole church not just seeing past these obstacles but meeting Gen Zers in them to bring about the transformative power of God’s grace in their lives.