New Generations and the Church

New Generations and the Church March 15, 2023

Series: The Big Questions

Generation Z is just as “spiritual” as other generations and open to religion. But when churches have embraced LGBTQIA+ and other divisive issues, churches have continued in decline. Critics might say that they went the wrong direction, pandering, worldly, even against the Bible.

Others are left scratching their head, believing they did the right thing but why didn’t it work. Research by major institutions give major insight into the attitudes of these groups and why they might be considered “separatists” who are reluctant or opposed to joining churches, yet the bulk of them consider themselves Christian or spiritual. They like Jesus and what he stood for.

Separatists is defined as: a person who supports the separation of a particular group of people from a larger body on the basis of ethnicity, religion, or gender.

Image by DALL·E of Generation Z attitudes, informed by thousands of images.
Image by DALL·E of Generation Z attitudes, informed by thousands of images created by others and found on the Internet.

In this article I explore these issues. I rely on Hartford Institute research of 1500 to 11,000 congregations from many denominations for their insights, plus Pew Research, Princeton University research, Springtide Institute, and some research from American Enterprise Institute and Barna.

Hartford relies on its major study in 2010 and smaller studies done since. It’s launching a new major study in 2023 which should be very insightful of Generation Z. Harford has research that focuses on New Adults age 18 to 30 but terms them “young adults.” They are Millennials and early Generation Z. Others like Princeton with Pacific Standard magazine focus on Generation Z. Generation Z was born in the 1990s or the early 21st century, making them in their 20s or younger today.

Hartford found in its study of 11,000 congregations regarding significant young adult participation:

“Across all faiths, a total of only 16% of all congregations had significant young adult (18 to 34 years of age) involvement.”

A more complex world view

They are different. Statistically Gen. Z has a much higher rate of loneliness, made worse by the isolating effects of Covid and possibly by overuse of technology. They have higher rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide. They can’t stand injustice and this is something they see the world is full of. Their reaction to injustice is critical to understanding them.

For example, one belief many Christians have propagated with high intensity is that anyone who hasn’t accepted Christ is going to hell, therefore everyone in all nations should be converted to Christianity by hook or at gunpoint. Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell didn’t believe this, knowing that this decision is up to God. Nor did Pope Francis. It’s a misunderstanding about what Jesus said, which I explain on Patheos and in my books – God and the law is in all of us, every single person. Yet this false doctrine is one of the alienating teachings that drive people away.

The worldview in Gen. Z is much wider than in previous generations. As writer Samuel Clemens said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Gen. Z is widely travelled intellectually. “Exposure to diverse perspectives challenges the claims of any particular worldview, which is why people in multicultural, cosmopolitan societies tend to be less religious. Gen Z is the most ethnically, racially, and religiously diverse generation in the United States, according to the Public Religion Research Institute.” – GEN Z IS THE LEAST RELIGIOUS GENERATION. HERE’S WHY THAT COULD BE A GOOD THING.

Gen. Z response to religion

From the article How Gen Z’ers Are Remaking Religion to Suit Their Values: “One important aspect of Gen Z’s response to religion is the values this generation associates with organized worship. Some mention intolerance or dogmatism; others raise sexism and homophobia. Their own values have a hugely important role for young people today. They are a compass in a world in which many of the old frameworks no longer work. If an institution or community clashes with those values, Gen Z’ers might tend to stay away. They’re much less likely than previous generations to say, “I disagree with most of what my church does, but I still belong.”

“Another common remark in interviews and focus groups with Generation Z is that although spirituality—a word they often use in preference to “religion”—interests them, they haven’t had time to consider it seriously. It’s as though they file it away in what another researcher, Tim Clydesdale, calls an “identity lockbox.” They regard spirituality as a useful resource they might look into one day, but not now.”

Generation Z has had it

They have different values from previous generations … well from some of us.

It isn’t that some people in previous generations haven’t tried to change the values in the US and have succeeded to some extent. But this is a different era.

It’s the zeitgeist of the times – that is by this definition: the time has come, the time is pregnant with these possibilities, critical mass has been reached, it’s multiple little storms comprising the perfect storm. The implication is, the past shortcomings won’t be tolerated or continue. This is very important to realize for both politics and religion.

I describe many of these changes in my books, Preparing For The future of Work, Education, and Economy, and New Generations Walk with Jesus: The missions in a changing world. In New Generations… I try to fully explore the religious objections Gen. Z has to views expressed about Christianity and fully explain why they are correct and the Bible doesn’t say what people try to push on others. I’ve walked that path myself. I similarly do this on Patheos in my column New Generations Explore Faith.

Their different values are expressed well in the article, Gen Z Is Turning Away From Religion In Order To Live Out Their Values: “Generation Z, or those born roughly between 1995-2010, have come of age during two vastly different presidencies; the legalization of gay marriage; numerous school shootings and the protests that followed; the murder of George Floyd and the rise of Black Lives Matter; #MeToo and the women’s march; battles over trans rights; a Muslim ban and a historically low refugee ceiling; unprecedented threats on abortion and contraception access; and now a global pandemic.

“This is also the social and political context in which Gen Z developed their values, while enjoying access to an enormous volume of information on social media about the inequities in our society that perpetuate human suffering. As they’ve seen and heard their peers of nondominant identities testify to the discrimination they experience, many young people have taken up causes to dismantle the societal systems and norms that oppress them.”

We can change the church but not its reputation

Once an oppressor always an oppressor? I encourage people to read the above article, Gen Z Is Turning Away From Religion In Order To Live Out Their Values, to get a full grasp of their very different values. I’m beginning to define them as separatists who will stand apart from the bad reputation of the church.

They like Jesus but not the church

It’s an old saw at this point. Young adults like Jesus but they dislike Christians. They see Christians and the church as dogmatically rigid and inflexible and as judgmental and critical of them. Books have been written about it since the 1970s.

The survey group of Barna found that “… in the United States 65 percent of teenagers identify as Christians—a notably high number when compared to declining rates of religious identity. Globally, 52 percent of teens identify as Christians. Beyond that, the majority of teens surveyed have positive things to say about Jesus, and roughly six out of ten say they are motivated to know more about him.” This survey agrees with a similar survey done by the American Bible Society.

Barna also found that 57 percent of millennials who were raised Christian dropped that religious identity later. This really points to the question, “What is going on?”

The decay since 1900

The industrial revolution helped exacerbate criticism of religion. And some in scientific and educational circles also propagate a bias against “superstition.” Since it can’t be examined under a microscope it’s dicey (unpredictable and potentially dangerous.) and not respectable.

The endless wars in Europe also led to mental fatigue and disbelief over spiritual things that offered hope but didn’t alleviate the endless suffering, and so an existentialism settled in. It slowly filtered over into the US.

The Baby Boom generation and those after were less likely to instill the habit of attending church, with the resulting indoctrination of young adults. They preferred to let young adults find their own way. This likely contributed to the slow demise of church attendance and belief.

As mentioned in this article, the lack of critical thinking is one thing Generation Z is upset about. 5 Things that Frustrate Gen Z Christians.

Train wrecks

The train wrecks of life caused by toxic beliefs are something I regularly see in groups dedicated to helping people get rid of these toxic beliefs through deconstruction or other methods. It’s no wonder people sour on religion. I’ve been there and done that.

For example one woman said in Why is Generation Z leaving the Church? she “… discerns in the Church an innate hostility towards women. She is outraged by this injustice and an experience of sexual assault by a member of the church brings a crisis to her life. “My church failed me in my abuse.” This type of comment is something I hear regularly from the more strongly evangelical church individual disaffiliates.

What is important to Gen. Z?

New is important

Keep in mind that previous studies found that young adults aren’t comfortable with a sea of gray hair. They want to be with people who are like them, just as peers become more influential than parents in teen years, young adults want to experience with their peers and not feel criticized for being different. Many have a distrust of the older generations.

“Nearly a quarter of the congregations located in newer suburbs had a significant level of young adult participation, as did one in five of the congregations located in cities and older suburbs. Only 12% of the congregations located in small towns and rural regions outside the metropolitan areas reported the same level of young adult participation.”

Is it geographical?

While many think the “Bible Belt” and areas where Southern Baptists are prominent are the leaders in retaining young adults, the survey doesn’t agree: “The highest proportion of congregations with significant young adult participation was in the west. The South and Midwest were near the national average, while a lower percentage of congregations in the northeast gave the same report.”

Correlation with activities for young adults

“There is also a clear correlation between young adult participation and offering a menu of programs and activities.” But it isn’t specifically about offering programs, it’s about emphasis on young adults: “Congregations that reported the greatest emphasis on young adult ministry, were twice as likely to also report engaging a significant number of young adults.”


Previous studies have shown a split between young adults liking more modern music and instruments as opposed to traditional music. “The relationship between new worship styles and young adult participation is clearer about the use of the electric guitar or bass and projectors. Congregations that reported using these items in their worship “often” or “always” were about twice as likely as those who never used them to have significant numbers of young adults participating.”

As seen in other survey evaluations, having a guitar doesn’t bring people in. It’s just a symbol of their focus on the younger generations. (Or the focus on me since around 1950.)

Spiritual Vitality

Young adults want spiritual connection and to know that there is spiritual vitality in the church, and authentic experiences. “There was also a strong correlation between the spiritual vitality of a congregation and engagement with young adults.”

Participation in services

Previous studies showed a clear correlation between whether young adults were simply being ministered to or were actually involved in work in the church and planning activities. Those who worked in the church were much more likely to stay.

What do existing churches focus on?

Hartford Institute studies of many denominations indicate:

For 25% of congregations their biggest concern is growth. [They see their congregations dwindling or feel that their mission is evangelical.]

Only 4% of congregations, worry about inclusivity and diversity—especially regarding LGBTQIA persons and around race and ethnicity (4%), and concerns about engagement and combating apathy (4%).

As a sense of pride, around 44% feel best about things relative to their congregations. Thirty-one percent feel best about their outreach into the community to serve or minister to others. Of those around 42% of them (not overall) are concerned with growth and missionary zeal.

The Harford study concluded: “By and large, religious congregations worried about their aging members and the associated troubles that came along with this—dwindling attendance and financial concerns, among other things. However, congregations also felt great pride in their members. Among the most common sentiments were the beliefs that congregation members were inclusive, loving and caring, and dedicated towards one another and their congregation.”

New generations today are about changing things, radical change, activism, no longer putting up with toxicity in churches and irrelevant messages. The things that churches say they are interested in or take pride in or are concerned about don’t collate with what younger generations want.

Do we even know what the spiritual is?

I research and write a lot about what is spiritual. What is spiritual vitality? Why does the younger generation find this missing in churches and avoid them? We seem to limit church to exposition on Biblical texts and how they apply to life. Perhaps spiritual things are too mystical and superstitious for an enlightened and authentic world? But maybe, just maybe, this is where authentic lies.

The question I’m not seeing addressed in what churches value is the spiritual. Christ offered us abundant life so what does that mean? Do we seriously look at what the needs of congregations and our communities are? God is love and spirit. Within the spiritual what kind of assistance and guidance are we giving people or going on their journey with them?

What is spiritual?

New generations want genuine spiritual experiences. Are we helping them find it? I describe the spiritual as compelling elements of life. Spirit mostly comes from God. God is power, love, creativity, and knowledge. Spirit is the very essence of God and love is God’s most compelling characteristic.

Compelling means forceful, evoking interest, attention, or admiration in a powerfully irresistible way. The spirit is compelling.

Unless driven by need and attitude (experience and emotion), then love, creativity, life, our quests, our interests, our focus, our knowledge, all are driven by spirit.

The spirit compels us into our life pursuits, reactions, and quests. It’s the unseen nature of love, truth, justice, empathy, helping others, ideas, beauty, and creativity – things that we can’t touch or feel or study empirically but they exist.

“God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” – John 4:24 (NASB)

The spiritual includes things that can’t be examined by science because they aren’t physical properties – they are more abstract but apply directly to living life. They are distinctly human endeavors and shaped by both human and spiritual influences. These include but aren’t limited to:

  • love (Eros – Romantic, Passionate Love (Of the Body), Philia – Affectionate, Friendly Love. Storge – Unconditional, Familial Love. Agape – Selfless, Universal Love. Ludus – Playful, Flirtatious Love. Pragma – Committed, Long-Lasting Love. Philautia – Self Love.)
  • Justice – both social and criminal
  • Life: meaning, purpose, pursuits, joy, accomplishment, psychology, sociology, life coaching
  • Truth – solid evidence for different things in life leading to better than and more reliable, rather than misleading quests and illusions
  • Beauty and ethos and aesthetics
  • Creativity and new ideas in various fields – abstract thought

In the paradigm of who we are, which includes religion, education, culture, family, neighborhood, profession, politics, experiences and attitudes, and many other things, it’s the spirit of these things that gives us meaning and purpose. Some more than others. We are made in God’s image.

God Is Spirit

A bit about working with new generations

Communication with Young Adults is problematic as are meeting times. “Half a dozen of the case-study congregations use Facebook or Twitter to communicate with people” “congregations with significant use of technology were twice as likely to be young adult-heavy as were congregations with minimal use of technology.”

Meeting at local restaurants or bars, and having talent nights, are some of the things that work. Acceptance of others without judgment is common.


Religion is situated in identity, culture, community … and importantly in ethos. (Ethos: the characteristic spirit of a culture, era, or community as manifested in its beliefs and aspirations.) Times change and changes are made.

At some point the young separatists may return to the church when it is stable after expunging the intolerance, religious exclusiveness, hypocrisy, judgmentalism, racism, sexism, LGBTQIA+ rejection, rigid doctrines and traditions, and other toxic elements loudly propagated by very vocal elements in the wider church. Or they may create their own path forward. It remains to be seen.

Also see:

Understanding the iGeneration by Princeton University and Pacific Standard.


FACT Case Studies of Congregations Engaging Young Adults

Best Practices for Congregations

A summary of the best practices for young adult ministry based on the following case studies and our research.

Springtide Research multi-year research campaign create and share new blueprints to help you care for young people better, wilinclude visiting innovative practitioners who are having success in engaging youth and young adults. 


The standard of belief and conduct for Christianity is love. God is love. We’re asked to be like God.


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If I’ve challenged your thinking, I’ve done my job.


Our answer is God. God’s answer is us. Together we make the world better.

– Dorian




About Dorian Scott Cole
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