In 2021, Springtide Research Institute put out a report on the “State of Religion and Young People.” From the data, the institute identified a trend they called “faith unbundled.”
- 53% of young people said, “I agree with some, but not all, of the things my religion teaches.”
- 55% of young people said, “I don’t feel like I need to be connected to a specific religion.”
- 47% of young people said, “I feel like I could fit in with many different religions.”
These figures weren’t a surprise to me. Gen Z is at once the most racially and ethnically diverse and the least religious age cohort in American history. In 2019, the polling firm Barna Group found that, among practicing Christians, millennials “report an average (median) of four close friends or family members who practice a faith other than Christianity; most of their Boomer parents and grandparents, by comparison, have just one.” I’d presume this figure is even higher among my Christians peers, as we find ourselves in community with those of other faiths and with “nones.”
Data also shows that members of Gen Z are wary of traditional religious spaces. From the Springtide report:
- 55% of young people said, “I don’t feel like I can be my full self in a religious congregation.”
- 45% of young people said, “I don’t feel safe within religious or faith institutions.”
- 47% of young people said, “I don’t trust religion, faith, or religious leaders in those kinds of organizations.”
- Almost 50% of young people told Springtide they don’t turn to faith communities due to a lack of trust in the people, beliefs, and systems of organized religion.
When older Christians hear about the ways that Gen Z is “unbundling” or “deconstructing” their faith, they can become fearful. Perhaps open-mindedness equates to moral relativism. Perhaps lost trust can’t be regained.
As a member of Gen Z myself, I don’t share this concern. Oftentimes, being in dialogue with people of other perspectives leads us back to—not away from—objective, capital-T “Truth.” As we come of age in the faith, we need older believers to support us in our reckoning, rather than shying away from our questions and concerns.
This fall, as part of our NextGen Initiative and in partnership with TENx10, CT hosted a series of writing workshops for Christians in their late teens and early twenties. Our hope: to see more young people appear in our pages, reflecting the generational diversity of the church, and allowing older believers to better understand the strengths and challenges of their younger brothers and sisters in the faith.
As a start, we’ve selected a handful of responses, submitted by workshop participants, to the following prompt.
—Claire Nelson, Impact Project Coordinator, CT
How can older believers better support Gen Z Christians?
Older believers can better support Gen Z Christiansby letting go of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” mentality around sex and intimacy that has pervaded Christian circles in recent decades.
During my middle school and high school years in the 2010s, I endured many of the repercussions of purity culture—body-shaming, the sexualization of young women, and the use of fear tactics to ward teens off from premarital sex. My experience in youth group was a bizarre fusion of a hyper-fixation on women’s bodies and the “threat” we posed to our male counterparts, combined with an aversion (and often fear) of topics like intimacy and sexuality.
The narratives I was taught in church led me to believe that my body was dangerous, that men were lustful monsters who couldn’t be trusted, and that as long as I waited until marriage, my sex life would be blessed and fulfilling. I stumbled into my twenties without any practical knowledge on how to approach healthy relationships or sexual brokenness. The only thing I knew for certain was that the women in my church didn’t feel comfortable discussing the things I needed to talk about.
Recently, as I have begun to shyly approach topics around sexuality with women my own age, I have found that we are all desperate for wise counsel on our bodies, on marriage, and on godly womanhood. I have also discovered that most of us don’t feel there are many women in the church who are safe to discuss these topics with.
As I began to date, I realized that men my own age are searching for help too. The men of Gen Z are searching for help with sexual brokenness, yearning for male mentorship as they consider marriage and fatherhood.
As Christ said, “The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few” (Matt. 9:37). The older generation can better support Gen Z by caring enough to overcome their own embarrassment on these topics and to foster vulnerable conversations with the younger generation. The secular world has plenty to say about what it means to be a man or woman in the modern world. Popular culture is not shy when it comes to sex, and the church shouldn’t be either.
Gen Z Christians want and need older Christians to get honest about what it means to be a woman of God. What it takes to overcome sexual addiction. What it means to have a Christ-centered marriage. It’s not a question of whether or not the younger generation will get taught about marriage or sex or pleasure. It’s a question of who’s doing the teaching. My plea to the Christians who come before me is: Please, let the teacher be you.
Olivia Voegtle is a writer, musician, and freelance editor living in New York City. She received her BA in English from The King’s College.
We can’t let generational gaps impede our “spiritual siblinghood.”
Older believers attempting to support Gen Z shouldn’t be thinking about how they can better cater their discipleship methods and ministry strategies to youth culture. That too quickly feels artificial and pandering. Instead, how can older believers be constructive to Gen Z culture?
So much of the conversation around generational differences is about how the divide is irreparable. What if Christians were a demographic that countered that trend? What so many Gen Z believers are looking for is to no longer be viewed as children but to be given a measure of respect. Not the honor earned by professionals, professors, or politicians—but the respect naturally allocated to adults.
An effective but often overlooked way to respect someone is to consider them worthy of friendship. Often, older Christians want to “disciple” younger believers without any kind of preexisting relationship. Young Christians don’t want to be discipled by just any older Christian but by someone they want to emulate. How can they know they want to emulate someone without knowing them?
If we are mindful of the fact that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, there is room for those who are one, two, even three generations apart to be genuine friends. When older generations approach a connection with someone in Gen Z as an opportunity for service or outreach, that often leaves the younger generation feeling pitied, demeaned, even likened to a project (1 Tim. 4:12). What would be far better is if an older generation of Christians could look to Gen Z as their brothers and sisters in Christ; their very own family (1 Tim. 5:1–2; Eph. 3:19–22; Gal. 6:10; Titus 2:1–8).
It wouldn’t be unreasonable or unimaginable, but in today’s culture, this cross-generational friendship would certainly be unconventional. Practically, sharing coffee, meals, and authentic conversation are ways to foster this “spiritual siblinghood” (1 Pet. 4:9). Imagine the influence that would emanate from a church that could successfully foster these kinds of relationships. Life not just as peers or equals but as spiritual siblings, parents, cousins, aunts, uncles—spiritual family reflective of the kingdom.
Elijah O’Dell is an associate preacher and worship leader based in the Midwest.
In Titus 2, Paul presses godly men and women to not only live in accordance with God’s Word but to also teach, train, and encourage younger believers to live the life to which God has called them.
When Gen Z believers flourish spiritually, that flourishing doesn’t stay in their churches or campus ministries. It extends beyond their Christian circles, implanting seeds of God’s Word among the people around them. Not only does spiritual mentorship strengthen a young Christian, it also equips a young believer to share love and wisdom with the nonbelievers around them, allowing them to be beacons of light and truth for the gospel.
In Matthew 5:16, Jesus says, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” By living in Christlike love, holiness, and righteousness, believers reach the world.
If there isn’t fellowship and genuine friendship between older believers and Gen Z, young believers lose encouraging examples of God’s power.
Hannah Davis is a college senior studying English. She spent last summer in South Africa on a Christian journalism internship.