When it comes to faith, the Bible, and God, the research is clear: Generation Z desires to learn and express themselves through open and honest conversation. They’re not looking for easy answers; they don’t want hand-me-down beliefs. They need space to wrestle their way to their own conclusions, and they’ll do it with or without us.
Unfortunately, many are choosing to do it without us. We’ve all heard the numbers: a predicted 42 million young people will walk away from their faith by 2050; 60% of church-going youth by another estimate. Among the top reasons they cite for leaving the Church is that “it feels unfriendly to those who doubt.” One survey of atheist college students found that many walked away from the Church because “they felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions.” It wasn’t primarily the doubt or any intellectual disagreement that caused the break. Rather, they were dissatisfied with their churches’ lack of response.
Clearly, Gen Z is hungry for deep truths, and they’re not going to stick around where they don’t expect to find them. However, we as youth pastors and leaders are eager to share those deep truths with our students. The question that leaves us to ask ourselves is, what’s causing the disconnect?
One factor is obvious: miscommunication. Youth are speaking a language that is much different from that of older generations. And while it’s nothing new that young people are at the forefront of cultural and linguistic evolutions, the increasingly rapid rate of change characterizing the last two decades has left an unprecedented communication gap between the Church and its next generation.
If we want to be effective at transmitting a lasting faith to today’s youth, we need to be aware of and respond to three ongoing trends in particular.
Trend 1: Communication
Consider the rise of memes as a form of communication among youth. Memes represent how popular language continues to be compressed, moving from pages to words to characters to images and videos embedded with text. This progression has occurred because memes, with their layers of meaning, help youth to contextualize and share ideas in an age where context – i.e. an unchanging reference point – is hard to find.
Trend 2: Filters
Youth today have an increasing tendency to filter out all information and opinions except for those they already agree with. Moving beyond confirmation bias, teens have become skilled at blocking topics that they or society have already considered closed. People have always processed information through the lens of their own worldview, but when worldviews prevent their adherents from even receiving information for processing, the result can only be extreme polarization.
Trend 3. Relabeling
Our language is undergoing a constant relabeling. Words which once meant one thing now mean something (or nothing) else entirely. The forces of relabeling lead us to a place of absence, a place where we can never be confident of what is real, what is true, and what is good. As a result, the Church can’t assume that words such as “love,” “God,” and “truth” are being understood by young listeners as intended.
These trends are changing the game when it comes to speaking about God to young people in a way they understand. With Generation Z seeing through an increasingly compartmentalized, filtered, and subjective view of reality, we can no longer simply communicate head knowledge from the stage. Instead, let’s consider how we can train their perceptions and intuitions, teaching them how to unpack, de-filter, and recognize truth in the onslaught of communication that bombards them every day.
One of the most effective ways we can begin to do this is by asking and inviting questions in the context of open and honest conversation.
Jesus knew the power of questions to lead his disciples into wonder, discovery, and discomfort as they explored the Reality of the Kingdom while wrestling with old assumptions, traditions, and ways of thinking. Jesus asked 307 questions, was asked 183 questions, and answered only 3 questions. Clearly, he valued questions – or at least what they lead to – more than simple answers.
“Who do you say that I am?” “Why do you call me Lord, but do not do what I tell you?”
Rather than eliciting immediate responses, Jesus’ questions prompted careful consideration and challenged listeners to reassess their perceptions of the world. Of course Jesus already knew the answers. Yet He still asked the questions. He was more interested in the faith formation of the listeners as they reflected on the question than on the answers shared. Jesus always engaged the heart of the questioner behind the question. What’s more, this asking and reflecting happened in the context of a newly forming community, drawing members close to each other and their teacher as they sought answers together through conversation and eventually came to have shared beliefs.
We should be using questions in our youth ministries the same way, allowing them to operate as translators between youth and leaders. “Do you understand?” “What do you mean?” “Why do you think that?” Questions help us to understand the meaning – and feelings, filters, and experiences – that hide beneath words. We should be teaching and encouraging students to ask their own filter-removing, assumption-testing questions. Make no mistake, having good answers is still the end goal, but students can’t find the answers they are hungry for until they’ve figured out the right questions to ask.
Questions to Consider:
- How do you see trends of communication, filters, and relabeling expressed among the students in your youth ministry?
- How can you teach your students to ask good questions?
- How does your youth ministry currently foster an environment between students and leaders that is safe for asking questions? Do any shifts need to happen?
- What are ways your youth leaders can more effectively navigate difficult questions and thoughts of doubt from students?
- Check out Feed Lead where you can gain practical insights on how to handle students’ doubt, have hard conversations, and equip leaders.
- The Feed Team would love to connect with you as you seek to make changes in your youth ministry. Reach out to us at [email protected] to find out how we can partner with and support you in your ministry.
“The Great Opportunity Mission For Youth.” Pinetops Foundation. Accessed March 2, 2022. https://www.greatopportunity.org/
“The State of Youth Ministry.” Barna Group. Accessed March 2. 2022.
“Six Reasons Young Christians Leave The Church.” Barna Group. September 27, 2011. Accessed March 2, 2022. https://www.barna.com/research/six-reasons-young-christians-leave-church/
“Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity.” The Atlantic. Larry Alex Taunton. June 6, 2013. Accessed March 2, 2022. https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/06/listening-to-young-atheists-lessons-for-a-stronger-christianity/276584/