The Pew Research Center conducted a survey in 2021 study which showed that 29% of members of the general adult population of the United States describe themselves as unaffiliated with a particular religious tradition, otherwise known as “nones”. Additionally, 49% of Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) and 49% of Gen Zers (born between 1997 and 2012) also consider themselves “none”.
But does that mean they have no interest in Christianity at all?
Surprisingly, this is not the case.
However, the conversations they want to have may be different than you might think. My colleague, Justin Brierley, recently discussed this issue with Mikhaila Peterson, famed YouTuber, podcaster and daughter of author Jordan Peterson, and Jon McCray, the “Whaddo You Meme” YouTuber, in the season four finale of The Big Talk,”Are Millennials and Gen Z ready to believe in God?”
Encouraging news is that millennials and Gen Z are looking for authenticity when it comes to religion.
For those of us who want to reach younger generations, we need to understand how the identity and worldview of these young people influences their view of faith. Members of both generations find their identity in a desire to help people. They want to shape the world by doing good. So when they see the pain or division inflicted on someone by the church or by those who are affiliated with religion, they no longer want to be associated with such people or organizations.
If we don’t demonstrate our love for others through our attitudes and actions, we will lose the right to be heard by younger generations.
That doesn’t mean, however, that Gen Z and Millennials are universally ignorant of faith and spirituality. There is always a desire and thirst for religious thought and exploration, but religious figures must be authentic if young people are to give credence to their teachings. They ask tough questions and seek honest answers that may not be clear about what religion means to their personal lives. But that’s okay – they’re more comfortable living in this space of ambiguity than previous generations. But the death knell for any influence you might have on them would be giving them a black and white answer that isn’t 100% honest and genuine.
In the “more good news” category, Gen Z and Millennials are looking for a welcoming community where they don’t feel they have to give up a part of themselves to be present. Church leaders need to find a way to create meaningful meaning or connection with what is happening in our world, instead of being oblivious to or dismissing the world’s problems. With all the cultural and social influences on our young people today, they have sincere questions and sometimes a lot of confusion about their feelings and relationships. To humiliate and condemn them for it, or to demand that they leave that part of themselves out of the church, is not only ineffective, but damaging to seekers, fellow worshipers, and the church itself.
Another fact to celebrate is the waning influence of the recent “New Atheist” movement of people like richard dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who tended to disparage the faith and intelligence of anyone who chose to believe. Instead, today’s atheists, like Alex J. O’Connor, otherwise known online as “CosmicSkeptic”, are more open-minded and willing to engage in friendly dialogue, recognizing that brilliant intellectuals can also be committed believers. The title of Alex’s blog, “question everything,” is indicative of his generation’s expectation that some of life’s big questions come with life-changing answers. Questions lead to truth. This encourages me, because I know that these questions, this skepticism and these doubts all lead to conversations that will eventually point to God’s truth.
How to restore trust in the church for a younger audience? Authenticity, transparency and honesty. The younger generations are not categorized as rebellious and godless, but rather seek accountability and hold religious authorities to a higher standard. These generations want to see us lead by example – not just preaching love to the least of them, feeding the poor and seeking justice for the oppressed, but actually being on the ground leading the way to action.