A 2018 report from Barna Group, Gen Z: The Culture, Beliefs, and Motivations Shaping the Next Generation, notes the differences in Generation Z (born between ~1999 and 2015) and older generations - especially in regards to feelings about faith and religion. One statistic stuck out to me as I read Barna’s report:
61 percent of Gen Z Christians do not think that attending church is important and say that they find God elsewhere.
Many would read this statistic in Barna’s report on Gen Z and be surprised, especially church-goers and leaders in the church from older generations. As a Gen Z Christian myself (born in 2000, raised in the church since birth), I am not surprised in the slightest by this shift. In response to data like this, we as Christians must ask ourselves “Who is the church for?” -- and more specifically “Is the church no longer fit for younger generations?”
Barna visualizes the data about the various reasons why Gen Z individuals do not find church attendance or involvement to be important to their lives:
When we analyze the top reasons that Gen Z people do not find church to be important in their lives, we see a trend of belief that the church is lacking in what it provides (or does not provide) for those who attend. I encourage church leaders and goers to consider two major areas of progress in order to best fit the needs of a changing world: Radical Inclusivity and Commitment to Social Justice.
“Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” - Romans 15:7
This verse in Romans tells a simple truth: welcome all. Despite the clear instructions in the Bible to love one another and include everyone in the activities of the church, we still exclude others and attempt to justify their exclusion with scripture taken out of context and used for harm. One reason for the decline in church involvement by younger generations is that they are either being excluded themselves - pushed out for reasons such as their gender identity, sexual orientation, or values and beliefs - or angered at the church’s exclusion of others.
Everyday, young people are being excluded from the church for who they are as individuals or how they support and love people of all walks of life. Blame and shame are put on those being pushed out instead of on the institution pushing them out. Here is where the problem lays.
Instead of criticizing those who are being excluded, we must shift our focus to the congregations that are not practicing an attitude of full welcome and love as Christ instructs us to embody.
As Christians, we should be holding each other accountable for the actions of fellow congregations in our denomination or beyond. We should be offering our support for churches who welcome all, and we should be in conversation with churches who are exclusionary about how their practices are harmful and contrary to Christ’s message of love and inclusion.
I am continuously inspired by ReconcilingWorks: Lutherans for Full Participation, an organization that has “advocated for the full welcome, inclusion, and equity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual/aromantic (LGBTQIA+) Lutherans in all aspects of the life of their Church, congregations, and community” since 1974. ReconcilingWorks and similar groups make known their position as a place of radical inclusivity. I argue that each church should be working toward doing the same in their congregation.
Commitment to Social Justice
“Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” - Isaiah 1:16b-17
In addition to radical inclusivity in church communities, I argue for a lived commitment to social justice in every congregation. In the past year, factors including the COVID-19 pandemic, continued police violence against people of color, and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement have exposed areas of injustice and inequality in our nation and world that demand immediate action.
The responses of church communities have been closely-watched through this period and many people, especially those in younger generations, have been disappointed and angered by the inaction of many churches in response to violence and unrest. I personally know a great number of Gen Z individuals who have left their congregations due to inaction about social justice issues. If the church wants to keep Gen Z engaged, congregations and church leaders must make it a point to do the necessary work for justice.
Our God is a God of justice.
If we are to live as followers of Christ, we must commit to justice in our individual lives and in our participation in the social and civic life of the larger community. If the church wants to live the mission of Christ and keep younger people engaged and involved, the church must be committed to social justice causes - both when a specific issue arises and in the continuous work towards racial reconciliation and the support of the unsupported.
Where Do We Go From Here?
In today’s blog, I have given my thoughts on why people like myself are unsatisfied with the church currently. Gen Z individuals desire a congregational community that is radically inclusive and committed to social justice. If churches are not willing to change their ways and put in the work towards progress in the walls of their sanctuaries and into the community, nation, and world beyond, they will have to reckon with the lack of young people within their communities. Scripture is clear about how to bring people to the church: be welcoming and love all.
Be reminded of God’s desire for us in Micah:
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”
- Micah 6:8
Holly Beck is a senior at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota who is double-majoring in History and Religion. This summer, Holly has been working as a Marketing and Communications Intern for Church Anew, and has spent much of her time helping to develop and write a Bible study on the book of Genesis. During the school year, Holly works as an Interfaith Fellow in St. Olaf’s Lutheran Center for Faith, Values, and Community and in the St. Olaf Department of History as the Social Media Manager. Holly finds inspiration in the words of Julian of Norwich, Thomas Merton, Annie Dillard, and Mary Oliver.
Church Anew is dedicated to igniting faithful imagination and sustaining inspired innovation by offering transformative learning opportunities for church leaders and faithful people.
As an ecumenical and inclusive ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church, the content of each Church Anew blog represents the voice of the individual writer and does not necessarily reflect the position of Church Anew, St. Andrew Lutheran Church, or Day1 on any specific topic.