In June 2018, the Viewpoint Online ran a piece entitled Why is Gen Z Disconnecting from the Church? The current article takes another look at how to engage those born after 1997 in the church today.

As the Barna Group and Impact 360 Institute have discovered in their research, “Gen Z” (those born after 1997), makes up the first truly “post-Christian” generation. Of course, this doesn’t mean there aren’t many faithful and committed young people engaged in church communities — there are. 

But it does mean that there are still many other young people who, while craving meaningful community and transcendent purpose, have found today’s faith communities lacking. And while the reasons for this are nuanced and complex, there is no doubt that part of the blame falls on the church’s inability to highlight the beauty and truth of Christ’s call to discipleship in ways that resonate with them. How can older generations in the church do a better job of reaching them and drawing them in?

Creating Space for Young People

The Fuller Youth Institute, a research institute of Fuller Theological Seminary, conducts extensive research and develops resources for the purpose of attracting, engaging, and supporting young people in the church. Institute colleagues and authors Brad Griffin, Kara Powell, and Jake Mulder released a book called Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church. The book is the result of over 10,000 hours of extensive research that includes the review of over 80 books and articles containing academic research and popular writing as well as surveys or interviews with 474 young people and 799 adults from various Christian denominations and regions around the country. 

This insightful (and important) book poses six commitments for engaging young people in a local church community, which include  

  1. Employing “key chain” leadership to empower young people to take active roles
  2. Fostering empathy
  3. Highlighting the central message of Jesus
  4. Nurturing warm and welcoming relationships
  5. Prioritizing young people across all aspects of the church
  6. Befriending and serving diverse neighboring communities

Of course, as the book explains, the goal isn’t for every church to implement all six strategies at once (a likely impossible feat), but to determine which ones can best shore up areas of need in a church’s effort to minister to young people.

PLNU alum Jennifer Guerra Aldana (13) serves as the Coordinator of Multicultural Initiatives at the Fuller Youth Institute and is also a pastor of an intercultural, bilingual, and intergenerational congregation at First Church of the Nazarene called La Fuente Ministries. Much of what she does at the institute is aimed at equipping adults to better serve adolescents and young adults within the church. As a pastor, she works directly with young people, giving her both theoretical and practical insight related to ministering to young people in the church.

“If the story is not compelling enough then young people are not going to connect with it,” Guerra Aldana said, clarifying that we need to be able to satisfy young people’s hunger for truth and meaning. “They are asking complex questions, and if we respond with canned answers they will turn away, seeing that what we’re saying is not a compelling enough story.”

This relates directly to Growing Young’s insight about the need to make the message of Jesus central. It’s tempting for churches to try and draw young people with culturally-relevant, popular, or superficial strategies: tattooed young pastors, hip worship music, fog machines. While there is nothing necessarily wrong with these things in and of themselves, they will not be enough to capture young people if they are not ancillary to the main message of Jesus: his radical call toward a life of adventure, discipleship, and service.

PLNU theology professor Montague Williams, Ph.D., agrees that young people want to be fed the truth, not frothy substitutes to it. He is currently working on two books that focus on the intersection of theology and youth ministry.

“One thing that seems to be very important for young people from junior high through college is that they are really hungry to be about something significant,” Williams said. “They may not be able to name what they’re looking for before they see it, but when they see it in a mentor or some other adult who is excited about living a certain way, it reveals to them that they can be part of that way of life, too.”

Fostering Relationships of Empathy and Openness

It’s not enough to merely talk about the message of Jesus. Adult members of the church must model what that message — and its implications — looks like for young people. 

Some of the more obvious and practical ways of connecting with young people and modeling discipleship are mentorship and intergenerational communal activities (Bible studies, worship services, etc.). In this manner, an intentional practice is put into place to connect young people with older members of the faith community. Older members actively seek out young students to mentor through a regulated, safe, and intentional mentoring program. Or young people are able to meet a host of older adults in a weekly intergenerational Bible study.

“How often do you remember what it was like to be a young person?”

As Growing Young affirms, the key to reaching young people rests on empathetic and warm relationships that arise organically and authentically. This means that, while it’s important to create a situation where young people and adults can interact and form relationships, they should be allowed to occur naturally.  

Guerra Aldana highlights a barrier that often gets in the way, though, of these organic and authentic relationships.

 “When I sit with a local church leader having a hard time with young people I ask them two questions. The first is, ‘When was the last time you had a conversation with a young person and you didn’t feel the need to have the answers?’ Often times the answer is, ‘I don’t remember.’ I see adults who are inundated with things people say about young people without actually having conversations with them,” Guerra Aldana continued. “The second question I ask is, ‘How often do you remember what it was like to be a young person?’”

Guerra Aldana suggests that it can be helpful to remember what it was like to have a first crush, get rejected from your “dream” college, or be excited and terrified to move away from home. Many young people are also struggling with difficulties in their life, and therefore they need an adult who is willing to listen and understand as opposed to judge and assume. As Growing Young highlights, a “recent study showed that 13- to 17-year-olds are more likely to feel ‘extreme stress’ than adults.”

Empathy is also important because young people today are unlike the young people of any previous generation, especially with respect to their cultural, socio-economic, and ethnic diversity.

Young adults from Guerra Aldana’s church spend time together in her home.

“It’s important for us to realize that students of color and students with a migrant journey have more polycentric identities, and while research on young people can illuminate patterns, we can’t let that replace the individuality and uniqueness of the young person in front of us, especially those with diverse backgrounds.”

While a lack of empathy can be one reason adults fail to connect with young people, there is another reason: fear.

“Fear plays a major role in the breakdown of relationships between adults and young people. For example, you may have some teenagers who are afraid that the adults volunteering in youth ministry care more about keeping them in line rather than truly knowing them. And you might have an older adult who is past the stereotypical youth ministry leader age who is afraid that teenagers won’t get him,” Williams said. “But this isn’t about who you were as a high schooler but who you are now as a Christian. They don’t care if you were cool in high school. Ultimately, young people want to know that your care for them is stronger than your fear of not fitting in with them.”

This fear of not being able to relate to young people might explain the prevalent assumption that to grow a young church you have to be a young church. But young people don’t care about young or cool congregants; they want to connect with people with an authentic identity in Christ. As Growing Young details, young people “aren’t looking for leaders who frantically change their wardrobe or their lingo in order to connect. Young people want leaders who are honest and comfortable being themselves.”

Other Ways of Serving Young People

While forming mentoring and intergenerational spaces that allow adults to form authentic relationships with young people is important, there are countless other ways for adults to serve the young.

“One way is to simply offer your home as a space for an event. If you have a pool for instance, you can allow the space for helpful interactions between young people and others,” Williams shared.

“The simple act of creating space can be used by God in powerful ways.”

This is a simple example of how an adult could help serve the church in its mission of attracting young people, even if they don’t feel particularly called to explicitly mentor or minister to the young. And, as Guerra Aldana detailed, forming a space for young people to connect can bear tremendous fruit.

“I serve in the Latina church context as a pastor and our reality is that our young people are entering the labor force younger and experience a complex web of pressures, so we respond to that pressure by offering leisure time for young adults. And we opened up the gym for soccer, a space where they could just breathe,” Guerra Aldana said.

From the group that gathers to play soccer, three young men ended up being baptized, encountered Jesus, and found a sense of belonging. The simple act of creating space can therefore be used by God in powerful ways.

Williams also cited the need for adults to speak positively about youth ministries, in order to breed a culture that appreciates, affirms, and desires to serve young people. He has noticed that sometimes the responsibility of telling the good stories from young people and youth ministry falls on the shoulders of the youth workers. However, anyone in the congregation can take time to learn about and tell these stories to have a positive impact on young people and youth ministry.

Related Article: What does it look like to follow God’s call to minister in the midst of a shifting world?

Another powerful way of serving young people is to give young people real and un-sanitized testimonials. Young people need to hear true and relatable stories about God’s grace, and adults with many more years of experience can provide this.

“Sharing testimonies is not as common in congregations as it once was. That’s partly because of shifts in cultural norms of communication, but it is also because the practice of sharing testimonies often required people to fit their lives into set narratives. If adults embrace the complexities of their stories, acknowledge the tension of joy and pain, and allow the endings to be more dynamic than ‘happily ever after,’ testimonies can be helpful in connecting with young people and helping them connect with their faith. If adults at the various stages of life can allow their stories to be more about how God is continually working in our lives rather than simply how God once worked in our lives, young people will be able to more clearly see their lives in the broader context of the church,” Williams said.

Guerra Aldana (center) shares a meal with young adults from her church.

Honoring the Gifts of the Young

While the church is concerned with drawing all ages into community, it’s important to appreciate the specific gifts and charisms that young people offer the church.

“Young people have a freedom to imagine in ways that we don’t always have or accept as we get older. Young people have a particular capacity for Kingdom imagination that we all need to learn from and take seriously,” Williams said.

Young people prevent the church from becoming stale, outdated, rigid, and less open to the creativity of the Holy Spirit. They model for other generations the wild hope that God desires for all of us.

“I am constantly thankful for and in awe of young people’s bold and courageous words and the way their faith is lived in real-time,” Guerra Aldana shared. “It was young people who called me back to my own vocation and I’m eternally grateful for that middle schooler who proclaimed words of identity over me when he referred to me as ‘pastor’ before I realized this is what I was called to be,” Guerra Aldana said. “If I ever get too cynical, I find a way to have coffee with a young person. God gifts us with bold and prophetic words through young people, encouraging us to be a more faithful church. And that is the role that young people also have had in my life.”

Related Article: Too young to make a difference? See how Generation Z is challenging that notion by investing time, money, and support towards fixing problems and making the world a better place.

Christopher Hazell is a writer and editor. He is the author of Ends in Mind, a newsletter about culture, technology, Christian spirituality, the arts, and more.