How to Reach Generation Z: A New Study (Part One)

Matthew Pinson

As a college president (and father of a 19- and a 21-year-old), I think a lot about Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 6:4 about bringing young people to maturity in the training (paideia) and counsel (nouthesia) of the Lord. So I was very interested in a recent First Things podcast that Dr. Barry Raper, our coordinator of ministry programs at Welch College and Welch Divinity School, told me about recently.

The podcast is entitled “The Loneliest Generation.” It’s about Generation Z, which most researchers say includes young people born between 1997 and 2012. Every pastor, youth leader, and teacher needs to listen to it. In it, Mark Bauerlein interviews sociologist Dr. Josh Packard of the Springtide Research Institute on that organization’s recent wide-ranging study, “The State of Religion and Young People 2020.”

Why Young People Leave the Church

The study reinforces things I’ve talked about here, here, here, and here on this blog and Even though many evangelicals have been late to get on board, the consensus of research, whether of sociologists like Christian Smith and Melissa Lundquist Denton, or researchers such as Barna, Thom Rainer, Lifeway Research, Ken Ham, or the Fuller Youth Institute’s Growing Young project agree:

The reasons young people leave the church—regardless of how large or small, contemporary or traditional, urban or rural—have little to do with programs, facilities, or worship style, the things 1990s-style seeker-driven evangelicalism said were the only things that would keep and draw young people.

Instead, the reasons young people are leaving the church have everything to do with the lack of depth and transcendence, the lack of serious teaching from the pulpit, the emphasis on programs not people, the lack of strong intergenerational relationships, and the dearth of intentional mentoring by one or more adults.

A Lack of Trust in Social Institutions

This First Things podcast and the study it discusses bear this out. The main two words of the research project are “Relational Authority.” This is what the study says Gen Z wants more than anything else. The concept is set against the backdrop of the eroding lack of trust that young people have in social institutions.

The study shows that, on a scale of 1 to 10, the members of Generation Z trust social institutions (e.g., government, the corporate world, schools, churches, the military) at a level no higher than about 5 1/2. Yet “trust levels for relationships were at 90% or higher.”

Bauerlein and Packard say that the temptation is to yield to this anti-institutional mindset by de-emphasizing institutions. But this would be a huge mistake. Driving a wedge between institutions and relationships is a false dichotomy. Institutions, they explain, are indispensable. What is needed is not to de-emphasize institutions, but to restore trust in them by re-emphasizing relationships.

The balance the study advocates is “relational authority.” Young people not only need but want relational authority. They need and want institutions and authority structures. They just need and want them to be characterized by (1) deep integrity and (2) authentic personal relationships.

The importance of not driving a wedge between relationality and institutions has recently been underscored by social observers like Robert Putnam and Malcolm Gladwell. The Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam became famous for his book Bowling Alone. That book used the decline of bowling leagues as an illustration of the decline in social and civic association in traditional social institutions and groups. In it, Putnam sounded the alarm about the harm that individualism is bringing, not only psychologically but also sociologically—that such individualism is a threat to democracy.

A few years ago in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell said that social media is in danger of replacing real community, and that that’s a bad thing. Gladwell went on to say that social media will never be effective at large-scale social reform. That’s because it’s oriented toward “weak ties” rather than “strong ties.”

Sustainable social change, Gladwell argued, is inherently institutional. It always presupposes what he calls “hierarchy” or organization. And such organization always arises from strong ties of friendship or embodied community. These strong ties are necessary for any movement to catch on. And the reason social media can’t make that happen is that it breeds the very opposite: weak ties.

What Gladwell is saying is that the time-honored practice of mentoring, in the context of thick, embodied relationships, is a necessary ingredient to any successful social movement. And eventually, such mentoring, such friendships, must take shape in organizational ways. How against the grain this is to the anti-institutional mentality of some popular evangelical thinking. Yet I think Gladwell is right.

Relational Authority

These are the sorts of points that Bauerlein and Packard discuss on this podcast, and things that are underscored by the Springtide Research study: Young people long for relational authority. Their distrust of institutions arises not from the fact that they are institutions but from the fact that they are impersonal and untrustworthy. The answer is not de-institutionalization. Instead, the answer is reinvesting our social institutions with (1) deep, authentic, personal relationships with (2) adults who have integrity.

Relational authority requires this tension between the two poles of relationship and authority. As I listened, I couldn’t help but think that the 1990s seeker-driven, non-denominational mentality, which still holds sway in some quarters of evangelicalism, combined the worst of both worlds of institutionalism and anti-institutionalism—the two things that Gen-Z dislikes the most:

Like the aspects Gen-Z dislikes the most about modern institutionalism, the seeker-driven non-denominational movement emphasized programs, corporate management (imitating the “big box stores” rather than the “mom-and-pop boutiques” that Gen-Zers like). Gen-Z perceives them as marketing or “selling” religion like big business sells its products—a feature of contemporary life in the West that Gen-Z loathes.

Yet these very marks of “institutionalism” were what was at the very essence of much of the church growth movement. And the “big box” mentality made young people feel lost in the shuffle, not receiving the personal attention and mentoring they craved.

Yet the “authority” side of “relational authority” that the members of Generation Z long for—things that traditionally characterized social institutions—were carefully de-emphasized by the seeker-driven non-denominational movement: things like depth and transcendence and solid teaching and preaching were replaced by cultural gimmicks, flashy event planning, and large-group fun activities.

So in some ways what many have been thinking is the only answer to the problem of our youth losing their religion—basically stylistic tinkering and entertainment and fun and dumbing things down—not only was the opposite of the real answer, it’s what young people themselves say was at the heart of the problem. Instead, they want grown-ups with integrity forging personal relationships with them and teaching them the truth and teaching them how to be grown-ups.

In saying this—and I’m sure Bauerlein and Packard would agree—I’m all for getting kids together to have fun, cut up, and be goofy; just ask my kids! But I think you get my point. We’re talking about the lack of balance.

Lest we think the seeker movement is the only guilty culprit in not ministering to the real needs of today’s young people, it must be pointed out that some languishing evangelical congregations that have a “we’ve always done it this way in my lifetime” mentality are equally guilty of not providing depth and transcendence, solid preaching and teaching, and rich, intentional, intergenerational mentoring. Further, many times they’re also putting just as much emphasis on pragmatic, attractional, and entertainment methods, just from an earlier era.

But let’s not think we have to choose between two ways of burying our heads in the sand and not seeing the urgent, vital needs of Generation Z and thinking biblically and critically about ways to help them.

The Rise of the “Nones”

Another thing we need to bear in mind is that many of the “Nones”—those who check the “no religious affiliation” box on a survey—are skeptical of hypocrisy in the church and have intellectual questions about Christianity that are being raised at their schools and colleges. However, they feel like they’re being blown off. Those are the students who are leaving our churches the fastest—the ones who want depth, transcendence, a sincere, grown-up mentor calling them to maturity, and honest answers to tough questions and objections.

The irony is that, when we target the students who are likely going to remain in the faith but are looking for the bigger, flashier youth group in town, and when we attempt to adapt our ministries to them, it turns out we’re aiming right past the ones who are most apt to become “Nones” in the first place.

Restoring Trust is the Strategy

The big takeaway from Packard’s research is that restoring trust in religious institutions is the strategy for bringing young people into the church. The study examined the trust young people have for certain kinds of adults “who act in a particular way.” As Packard said, “If you can get the right qualities and characteristics in your interactions with young people, they express trust levels for relationships at 90% or higher. The implication is pretty clear for where we should be spending our time—building relationships as opposed to building programs.”

All this is good news for parents, pastors, youth leaders, and teachers, who often feel that the only influences students pay attention to are their peers. Yet, as Packard notes, “Peers can often be a source of tension and anxiety as much as comfort.” Bauerlein alludes to Hannah Arendt’s comment years ago that “when the mentors pull back, to let the kids do their child-centered thing, they actually turn the kids over to a form of peer pressure that can be more tyrannical than anything the parents can do.”

In my next post, I’ll talk more about the study and its implications for our ministry to Generation Z.

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