This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 43, number 03 (2020). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
In 2007, the introduction of the iPhone profoundly changed our world. Suddenly, the internet with its infinite vat of information and social media with its endless connections became both accessible and unavoidable, taking up residence in our pockets, ready to call us to attention with only the ding of a notification. While the world changed for all of us, no one was more impacted than the generation that has grown up with this technology. Most commonly dubbed “Generation Z,” or Gen Z, the generation born after 1995 has grown up as digital natives.
DEFINING GEN Z
Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology and expert in generational research, has analyzed the characteristics of Gen Z at length. Her research uncovered several characteristics of Gen Z that set them apart from previous generations. For example, Gen Z is more likely to be digitally savvy, but less likely to engage in high risk behaviors like teen sex or substance abuse. However, Gen Z is the most anxious and depressed generation yet, with mental health concerns replacing the more traditional risks of teen pregnancy and substance addictions. This generation is the most likely to be dependent on their smart devices — and the internet in their pocket has led to increasingly early exposure to pornography and higher rates of porn addiction.1 Gen Z is more likely to be cynical about their place in the world, skeptical about authority structures, and less resilient in the face of opposing ideas.2
Gen Z is also more likely to reject Christianity in favor of atheism or other forms of unbelief. Research by the Barna Institute in 2018 suggests that Gen Z teens are twice as likely as other generations to identify as atheist and are less confident about humanity’s ability to know the truth with reasonable certainty.3 What can we do to reach this younger generation, which is more likely to be spiritually and biblically illiterate than any previous, and to shepherd the faith of Gen Z within the church?
While it is tempting to use generational research to develop highly contextual approaches to evangelism that meet young people exactly where they are, such attempts often function as poor imitations of the very fads our culture is selling. This is how we end up with the “youth group as pop concert” or “Christian film as evangelism tract” phenomena. At best, this approach grabs the attention of young people for the short term (though it often fails even to accomplish this); at worst, it offers cheap entertainment in place of the deep roots needed for faith to survive in a post-Christian culture.
PLANTING SEEDS OF FAITH
In our witness to Gen Z, we must take the long view, recognizing that witnessing is more often planting seeds of faith than harvesting the fruit.4 Jesus tells a parable about the kingdom of God that demonstrates the importance of planting seeds: “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come” (Mark 4:26–29).5
Jesus uses the analogy of planting seeds to make some observations about the nature of growth in the kingdom of God. We plant seeds of the kingdom as we witness to the truth, goodness, and beauty of the gospel. After we plant, we cooperate with the Holy Spirit in cultivating the budding faith of others. Finally, we trust the Lord of the harvest to bring the growth. Paul echoes these principles in his first letter to the Corinthians, describing how multiple people may participate in the growth of the kingdom: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6–7).
Two Challenges in Growing
There are two challenges in planting and growing. First, growth is slow. When seeds are planted, even with diligent watering and weeding, it may be days, weeks, or even months before we start to see noticeable growth. Planting requires patience, a virtue that is hard to cultivate, especially in our instant-gratification culture. Most difficult of all, we may plant seeds but then never see the growth ourselves.
Second, growth is mysterious. Seeds are planted beneath the earth; we don’t see what’s going on beneath the surface. We may want methods and techniques that will deliver proven results, but the organic process of growth, while it can be aided by technique and expertise, can never merely be reduced to it. We may share our faith using a multiplicity of methods producing varying results because, ultimately, we don’t have control of the outcome.
As a farmer, the reality that one doesn’t have total control is a terrifying thought: how can I be sure that the harvest will be sufficient for the season? But as planters of the seed of God’s kingdom, our lack of control is a source of confidence: the results aren’t up to us, but God Himself. Thankfully, God is in the business of making His seeds take root and grow. Thus, Jesus can say to the disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matt. 9:37–38).
A PLAUSIBLE AND DESIRABLE FAITH
How can we take the principles from this planting metaphor and apply them more concretely in our efforts to witness to Gen Z? The twofold task of the evangelist–apologist is to demonstrate that the Christian narrative is both plausible and desirable. Plausibility and desirability are like the water and fertilizer for the growth of seeds of faith. To be plausible means that the story makes sense — that it is a coherent and reasonable explanation for the world. To be desirable is just what it sounds like — that its goodness and beauty are more attractive than alternative stories. In order to demonstrate the plausibility and desirability of the Christian story to Gen Z, we need to plant seeds of faith that are rooted, relevant, resilient, and relational.
Faith That Is Rooted
Gen Z suffers from the rootlessness that comes from being raised on the internet. They know the most recent memes, and they can tell you about Youtubers and Instagram influencers. They can know anything about anyone anywhere, but that knowledge lacks depth. As Nicholas Carr notes in his book, The Shallows, the internet has cultivated wider, shallower knowledge bases with shorter attention spans.6 Again, it is tempting to try to compete with social media’s menu of memes, gifs, and mic drops — but engaging at that level yields only short-term victories.
In contrast, we need to offer Gen Z an account of the Christian story that is rooted — that demonstrates its plausibility and desirability not by adopting the most recent internet fad, but in teaching the rich history of the Christian tradition and developing an understanding of the biblical story. This context is especially necessary for the Christian faith to seem plausible in a post-Christian world.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the arena of sexual ethics, where Gen Zers are particularly skeptical of the claims of the historic biblical sexual ethic. The contention that sex should be reserved for a man and a woman in marriage is antithetical to our culture’s view of sex as merely for self-fulfillment and self-actualization. How do we persuade Gen Z on this point? First, the Christian sexual ethic must be rooted in the biblical narrative — views on homosexuality or premarital sex are not simply Christian prudery, but rather the natural conclusions of a worldview where sex is created by God for the creation and flourishing of new life. Instead of resorting to the culture-war impulse to demonize those who have abandoned the Christian sexual ethic, we must convey the ways in which that 2,000-year-old ethic actually brings sanity to the irrationality of modern views of sex and gender.
Faith That Is Relevant
We must also plant seeds of a faith that is relevant. Relevance does not mean catering to the most recent cultural fads in pursuit of adolescent attention. Rather, we must convey the paradox that our rooted, historic, old faith speaks to our cultural moment and to our personal issues.
Gen Zers are especially concerned with issues of social injustice — which shouldn’t be anathema to Christians whose faith has a rich tradition of articulating and applying biblical justice to the pressing social issues of the day. Christians were at the forefront of the abolition movements both in the United Kingdom and in the United States. The Bible itself possesses some of the most powerful statements about justice; God’s prophets are constant mouthpieces of God’s commitment to defend the weak and powerless. The Christian narrative is not an outdated fairy tale, but a living word to our current culture.
Faith That Is Resilient
Storms and drought will come — the kind of faith that will last in a climate as hostile as our present one must be resilient. Specifically, we must plant seeds of faith that are strong in the face of competing ideas, trials, doubts, and suffering. It’s not enough to shield Gen Zers from alternative worldviews — the plausibility of the Christian story must be demonstrated in the face of the strongest attacks. We shouldn’t be afraid of confronting the problem of evil, questions of faith and science, or what defines right and wrong. We must be willing to listen well to questions, give space for healthy doubt, and make a persuasive case for the Christian faith.
Gen Zers’ concern with mental illness, particularly anxiety and depression, is one place where the seeds of faith we plant must be resilient. Our culture tends to view the issues of anxiety or depression merely through the lens of victimhood without offering meaningful avenues for dealing with their daily effects. Our culture’s only way to conceive of suffering is as something that must be accommodated in every way, with a hypersensitivity to offending the victim. But this breeds a sort of fragility. As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt point out, “teaching kids that failures, insults, and painful experiences will do lasting damage is harmful in and of itself. Human beings need physical and mental challenges and stressors or we deteriorate.”7 We need to offer
Gen Z a faith that can make sense of anxiety, depression, and suffering, and is also powerful enough to offer a medicine for our maladies.
Faith That Is Relational
Finally, Gen Z needs to hear the Christian narrative from someone they know. Even though this generation is the most virtually connected, that has come at the cost of atrophied personal relationships. It is in this place of need that Christians can offer deep and meaningful relationships with Gen Zers, whether within or outside the church — inviting them into a community and a sense of belonging for which social media is only a cheap imitation. Members of Gen Z are more likely to receive seeds of faith in the context of deep friendships, as those seeds are cultivated by people they personally know and trust. For the Gen Z graduates from the Christian high school where I teach, by far the best predictor of whether they will continue to walk in the Christian faith is whether they get connected to Christian community post-graduation.
As we demonstrate that the Christian story is rooted, relevant, resilient, and relational, we offer something that might both make sense and be appealing to a generation so desperately longing for something more tangible, more permanent, and more secure than their manicured social media selves or the mind-numbing entertainment of the internet.
Kyle A. Keating, M.Div., serves as Dean and teaches history, theology, and apologetics at Providence Classical Christian Academy in St. Louis, Missouri. He has written for the online magazine Christ and Pop Culture and Mere Orthodoxy.
- Jean M. Twenge, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood —and What That Means for the Rest of Us (New York: Atria, 2017).
- Chris Colquitt, “How Things Have Changed: Reflections of a Millennial Pastor in a Gen Z World,” The Gospel Coalition, September 30, 2020, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/millennial-pastor-gen-z-world/.
- “Atheism Doubles Among Generation Z,” Barna Group, 2018, https://www.barna.com/research/atheism-doubles-among-generation-z/.
- Mark Ryan, professor at Covenant Theological Seminary, first introduced me to this framework for thinking about evangelism.
- Bible quotations from the English Standard Version.
- Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011).
- Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (London: Penguin Books. 2018), 22.