The decline in church attendance in the U.S. over the last few decades has been widely discussed and written about. Young adults who have rejected a religious identity or affiliation have been called “nones” because of their choice to be non-religious. Joining the “nones” are what sociologist Josh Packard in his book Church Refugees called the “dones,” or those who have not lost their faith but no longer attend church. Making up a large percentage of these groups is the youngest generation transitioning from adolescence to adulthood, Generation Z.

While some have differing views over what range of birth years make up this new generation, as well as a final name for the cohort, the Pew Research Center recently defined it as including anyone born from 1997 onward. So the oldest members would be just nearing college graduation today.

But though they are young, the trend away from church attendance among members of Generation Z doesn’t seem to simply be a function of their age — it’s truly a characteristic of their generation.

In a landmark study conducted by the Barna Group in partnership with Impact 360 Institute, titled “Gen Z: The Culture, Beliefs and Motivations Shaping the Next Generation,” Generation Z was identified to be the first truly “post-Christian” generation. The study found the amount of individuals in this generation who identify as atheist to be double the amount of the U.S. adult population. Other findings include the trend toward relative truth and the fact that more than half of this generation says church involvement is “not too” or “not at all” important to them.

Most alarming for churches is the rise in atheism among today’s teens as well as their movement away from church involvement and attendance, which is at an even higher rate than that of Millennials. While this generation is still taking shape, these discussions beg the question, why are so many members of Generation Z disengaging from the church? And how can churches reach this younger generation that seems to be turning away from the Christian tradition? At PLNU, we believe this is worth paying attention to for both young adults and churches as they continue to grow and develop in this changing world to bring about God’s kingdom.

Related Article: A look at Millennial alumni from PLNU and how they’re serving their communities.

Why is Much of Gen Z Turning Away from the Church?

Hudson Knox, a junior psychology major at PLNU, is one of the oldest members of Generation Z. He is also the 39th member of his family to attend PLNU and grew up in the Church of the Nazarene. While he still attends church at home in Bakersfield and at college, he cares deeply about this issue and plans to devote his senior thesis to the disconnect between younger generations and the church.

From his point of view, Knox believes those who forego church attendance and involvement do so because of two main reasons: a widening generational gap and the fact that some church leaders do not act out what they profess to believe in regards to social issues like sexism and racism.

“I think when [young people] see situations like that, it continues to scare people away from the church, especially when a lot of [leaders] are silent about what’s going on, and they aren’t up front about the issue,” he said. “I think silence surrounding these issues and the disconnect between older generations and younger generations is what is really driving people away from the church.”

The disconnect between generations that Knox sees is what he calls a kind of “Timothy situation” — the perception is that members of older generations find it easy to look down upon younger generations simply because they’re young.

However, Knox knows churches that have been successful in reaching Millennials and members of his generation. For instance, at First Church of the Nazarene, PLNU alumni Tim (03) and Shawna Songer Gaines (06) were influential in Knox’s own personal development, taking him under their wings and providing him with a leadership role in worship.

“I think they were a big reason as to why I’m still a part of the church and often go to church,” he said. “Because they put me in a leadership position at such a young age, I felt like they trusted me, and I think if you can build up that trust with the younger generations — you don’t have to put them in leadership — but just look at them like, ‘you have these talents, and we’re going to use these talents.’ I think that’s how you cultivate relationships between older generations and younger generations.”

“I think silence surrounding these issues and the disconnect between
older generations and younger generations is what is really driving
people away from the church.”
– Hudson Knox

Melissa Tucker (99, MA 15) oversees young adult ministries as associate pastor of First Church of the Nazarene and wrote her master’s thesis on the changing religious landscape in the U.S. Across her 14 years in this line of work, she has also seen a significant shift among members of Generation Z and is passionate about not only keeping them engaged in church, but also helping them flourish.

Like Knox, she sees that many members of Generation Z are not tolerant of churches that avoid important issues. In leadership, they want transparency as well as more diversity across ethnicities, gender, and ages.

“They’re more comfortable with the notion of leaders being flawed, real people like them,” she said. “Tech, globalization, and the Internet — the world getting smaller and them knowing so much about what’s happening on the other side of the world and having more agency than anyone’s ever had before — tells them they can get a lot done, too.”

She has also noticed that the young adults she works with place less importance on traditional spiritual rituals, milestones, and creeds — a shift Tucker feels is a result of the way they’re being taught these spiritual practices. For example, baptism is a practice Tucker feels is not being fully understood among this generation.

Tucker explained that there has been a personalization and privatization of corporate sacraments in some churches, and because of that, many have come to understand baptism as only a person’s individual statement to God that he or she is a Christian. After getting dunked in the water, it’s understood that the person comes out clean and ready to be a Christian. But she finds the individualistic nature of that idea to be problematic, especially among members of younger generations who she has seen place more value on community and relationships.

“To dip ourselves in [the water] and come out means we want to be immersed in the Holy Spirit, but this isn’t for the person alone,” she said. “You can’t baptize yourself. There has to be another person present who’s holding you and dunking you, to say, ‘I’m going to lift you up and remind you the Spirit is surrounding you, and when you come up, your crowd is cheering for you, and they will always be with you.’”

As something Jesus commanded his followers to do, baptism has always been a sacred and beautiful action among church communities. Not only is it an act of receiving love from God, it is an act that displays reception into a community, reminding each member they are loved by God. And Tucker feels this can resonate deeply with Generation Z.

Elev8 2018
Elev8 2018

How are Churches Reaching Gen Z?

After serving as a youth pastor for seven years, Derek Taylor, M.Div., now serves as Field Youth Coordinator for the Southwest Field Nazarene Youth International for the Church of the Nazarene and teaches youth ministry at PLNU. Through his work with youth leaders, he is aware that many members of Generation Z share a deep concern for authenticity in church leadership, though he doesn’t think this is necessarily unique to their generation.

“Authenticity is a value that those of us committed to follow Christ are especially attentive to,” he said. “I think specifically with Generation Z, they know when a leader is being real and honest with them. The less authenticity they pick up, the less inclined they are to stick around and stay under the leadership of that individual.”

Taylor explained that, like most generations growing up, Generation Z is watching to see how the professed commitments and values of leaders translate in their actions.

Authenticity in church leadership is also a main theme found in Growing Young, a book published in 2016 by Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), and the focus of this year’s Youth Worker Day event at PLNU, hosted by the Center for Pastoral Leadership (CPL). The book is based on groundbreaking research conducted by the FYI with over 250 leading congregations in the U.S., and was chosen as the focus of this year’s Youth Worker Day because of its helpful research impacting churches and youth workers across the country.

“We’ve seen a strong interest in young people to be a part of teaching and discipleship making,” said John Calhoun, D.Min., director of the CPL. “Growing Young is a result of a few years of research over a lot of different sized churches across America, and so many of them are creating environments that put people across generations together.”

“I think specifically with Generation Z,
they know when a leader
is being real and honest with them.”
– Derek Taylor, M.Div.

Growing Young takes a look at a diverse amount of churches that are successfully growing and retaining young people and therefore, more members across all generations. The principle outcome of its research is that the investment in young people is vital to the overall health of a church because of the energy and passion they bring to all members. And successful churches do this while effectively reaching other generations as well. The authors write, “In a kingdom win/win, stronger ministry to young people bulks up the ministry muscles of the entire congregation, and vice versa.”

According to Taylor, a main theme in this research is young people need to be given opportunities for leadership.

Youth Worker Day 2018, Growing Young
Youth Worker Day 2018

“When [young adults] can be empowered to take up their own authority and develop that in a practical, hands-on way, there’s a better chance they will claim ownership of the church and be involved,” he said.

Like Tim and Shawna Songer Gaines did for Hudson Knox, church leaders can entrust their young members with responsibility and as a result, young people will develop and contribute to the growth of the congregation as a whole.

As the authors of Growing Young put it, “if you are willing to entrust your keys to young people, they will trust you with their hearts, their energy, their creativity, and even their friends … if you give them your access, you have the opportunity to touch a whole generation.”

Adaptability is also needed in order for churches to reach this younger generation. Taylor feels the biggest but most important challenge for churches is learning how to more accurately assess the needs of a particular group in its particular context.

If members are sectioned off into different silos within the same church, it can feel as if multiple congregations are happening under one roof, which can leave many young adults feeling stunted, bored, isolated, or undervalued.

“That’s why I think Growing Young is really valuable; it calls churches to reassess how much investment and intention they have with regard to their young people,” he said. “The way we have divided ourselves with vocation-specific, generation-specific jobs and programs in the church — I’m not sure it’s doing us a lot of favors when it comes to the holistic development that’s needed to have a fully committed disciple of Christ by the time he or she is ready to leave home.”

If members are sectioned off into different silos within the same church, it can feel as if multiple congregations are happening under one roof, which can leave many young adults feeling stunted, bored, isolated, or undervalued.

An effective way for churches to address this issue would be to re-envision the entire church’s participation in the development of youth.

Related Article: Considering the spiritual benefits and dangers related recent technology and online platforms like Instagram and Facebook for both younger and older generations.


Elev8 2018
Elev8 2018

Intergenerational Solutions

Taylor believes many churches need an integrated church family experience. But while this approach is more holistic, it is often more difficult and can bring about conflict and tension, especially between different age groups.

“The generational differences are going to come through and meet head on and clash — but that’s exactly where our faith gets to shape how we do life together,” he said.

Focusing on integration would look like church services that meet the needs of all generations, resonating and connecting to all age groups in some way.

Taylor also thinks churches can create opportunities for older members to have the ability to share their stories of faith and how they’ve learned to translate their beliefs into action. This would give younger people a window into where their faith “hits the pavement.”

Tucker agrees that if churches can harness mutual respect among generations, then people of different ages can be in the same space talking about what it is to be faithful — which she believes is one of the most important needs of the church today.

Qlehd Guiwa, a Christian studies major at PLNU and member of Generation Z, attends All Peoples Church in San Diego. Like Knox, she has witnessed a disconnect between generations in many churches, due to what she sees as a changing culture and mindset today that is vastly different from what previous generations experienced. However, she feels her church has been successful in reaching young adults like her.

“One of the things I strongly believe about my generation and what we value the most is relationality and being a part of a community,” she said. “I think my church does a great job of welcoming people who are non-Christian and they don’t ostracize them for the things they grew up in or the things they believe at that moment, and instead welcome them with open arms. That’s a big thing with my generation — being able to feel welcome in that space.”

She sees “relationality” as a main solution for churches that might have a harder time integrating younger people into their community. Intergenerational conversations, relationships, and mentorships are key elements of this that occur in her own church.

She has also benefited from older church members encouraging her and other young people to be curious about their faith, to ask questions, and to not stop diving deeper into more difficult Scripture passages to understand the bigger picture.

Though Guiwa sees there’s a lot of work that needs to be done for churches to bridge the gap between age groups and reach young adults, she is hopeful for what the future holds.

“The church is trying really hard to reach those who have been lost,” she said. “I think a lot of my generation is also stepping up to the plate, pointing at things we need to look at more seriously and change. I am hopeful, but there’s a lot of work to be done in the church with how to address people of the younger generation, share with them what the good news is, and let them experience God for who God is and not what they think their experience should be.”

Related Video: PLNU’s Prescott Prayer Chapel unites all generations within PLNU as one community committed to prayer and faith.

Wendy is a former editor of the Viewpoint magazine and contributing freelance writer.