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

Matthew Pinson

In my last post I discussed  the recent study conducted by Springtide Research, “The State of Religion and Young People 2020.” This study was featured in a conversation between Mark Bauerlein and sociologist Dr. Josh Packard on the First Things podcast entitled “The Loneliest Generation.” The study underscores that the members of Generation Z, while they lack trust in existing social institutions, long for what Packard calls “relational authority”—a concept that embodies the best of institutional authority and relationality.

They’re Not Looking for a Buddy

Packard and his research team assumed they would hear the teenagers in their study say that they were tired of adults telling them what to do and sentiments like that. Instead, what these Gen-Z students said was that they don’t want adults to be their buddies. They want adults to be mentors, to be a source of authority in their lives. “You don’t have to be buddies with them,” Packard said. “They’re not looking for you to be buddies.”

Amazingly, 24% of young people without strong adult mentors said they had no meaning or purpose in life. But when they have only one strong adult mentor, that number drops to 6%! Yet between one-fourth and one-third of young people surveyed said they didn’t have one trusted adult in their lives, including their parents.

“Increased Connectivity, Decreased Connection”

The study underscores numerous other studies that show that today’s young people are the loneliest people in our society, unlike previous generations where older people were the loneliest people. Packard and Bauerlein note that this is “counter-intuitive” because of younger people’s “hyper-connectivity” on social media.

Just as we need to be careful not to jettison institutions, we also need to be careful not to jettison embodied relationships. The study showed that while the members of Generation Z have lots of acquaintances on social media, the students said those aren’t the same as real relationships or true embodied friendships. In fact, one heading in the study reads: “Increased Connectivity, Decreased Connection.”

This calls into question what the social media industry is fostering—the idea that social media increases relationships and community and decreases loneliness. This study, along with a number of other studies, shows that time spent on social media is directly tied to increased feelings of isolation and loneliness. (Of course, we’re not saying to do away with social media either; we’ve just got to cut down on our obsession with and addiction to it and figure out how to ask serious questions about it. Facebook’s own internal research which has come to light recently should heighten our awareness.)

As Packard said, social media “is giving adults a false sense of security about how plugged in to social life their kids are. They see them on devices and with social media, and they incorrectly assume that they’re handling it okay. It’s one thing when your kids are playing in the front yard and you have to hear them. But if you’re not engaged with how they make friends and set rules and norms online, you can’t assume that they’re not lonely and isolated, because a lot of times they are.”

In addition to parents, a large part of the solution to loneliness, isolation, and the lack of meaning and purpose, Packard argues, used to be found in social institutions, especially religious institutions. That is no more. Yet again, the answer is not to de-emphasize institutions but to reinvest our institutions with a re-emphasis on relational authority—the combination of authentic relationships and mentoring by an adult who has integrity.

More on the “Nones”

As an aside, the study also casts doubt on the way some people have interpreted “the rise of the Nones.” Packard forcefully argues that the rise of the Nones is more about this growing anti-institutionalism and not necessarily about a move away from religion. Along with other researchers, Packard and his team do not believe that religious affiliation and non-affiliation, in connection with the question of “Nones,” are “meaningful categories.”

There are much higher rates now of young people who claim to be strongly religious but not affiliated with a particular religious group. The reality, Packard explains, is much more “complicated” than what the “two boxes” of religiously affiliated and non-affiliated suggest. Young people who want to “engage in worship or read sacred texts,” etc., might well list themselves as religiously unaffiliated on a survey.

Many such young people, however, also claim to have strong “religious values” and to “live them out,” “go to worship,” etc. It’s more about an anti-institutional mindset, not necessarily an anti-religion or anti-Christian one, Packard insists. In fact, he says, “religious leaders should see this as an opportunity.” The last thing we need to do in responding to anti-institutionalism, he says, is to indulge it or move away from strong, vibrant social or religious institutions.

A Wonderful Opportunity

Packard says, “There’s a whole lot of young people that you might have thought were shut down to the very conversation about religion. And they’re not. They’re open to the conversation. But they’re not going to have it with you because you are the pastor of such-and-such church. . . . They’re going to have that conversation with you because you’re Ben, and they know you, because you’ve been around their lives. I do think that is a potential opportunity.”

We have to have authority without authoritarianism, Packard explains. We must realize that the days of young people respecting our authority just because we have a title like Pastor or Youth Pastor or teacher is a thing of the past. In this “culture of distrust around social institutions,” he argues, the more that leaders rely just on their position or title or expertise, rather than on relational authority, the less effective they will be.

Still, Packard stresses, though Gen-Z sees personal relationships with adults of integrity lacking in many social institutions, including religious ones, these young people still see expertise and authority as a necessary ingredient. Thus, the study shows, a leader’s institutional position and expertise are still crucial, but they’re nothing without personal relationships and integrity.


The most important thing we can do to invite the members of Generation Z into the conversation about faith, the study shows, is to listen intently to them. Packard recommends asking one or two follow-up questions, saying “Tell me more about that.” This is because young people are going to be tempted to assume you’re not really listening and don’t really care. They won’t listen to your experience and expertise as an adult if they think you don’t care and aren’t really listening.

I think Bauerlein and Packard are exactly right: “You can be very tough with kids if you’re attentive, if you’re there, if you’re listening, if you’re offering yourself. You can get a lot of trust that way.”

Diagnosing the Problem, Rediscovering the Solution

I encourage my readers to listen to this podcast and take a look at this study, and to forward this post to people they know who work with young people. The worst thing a leader can do when faced with a problem is to misdiagnose it. When we inadvertently do this, we usually not only don’t help the problem; we make it worse.

It’s so crucial that we don’t misdiagnose the problem of why young people are checking out of the church, because if we spend all our time on a well-intentioned but wrong solution, we’ll find ourselves drifting further away from the real solution.

Most of all, we must remind ourselves that the ultimate answer, the ultimate solution, is in God’s ordinary means of grace that He has revealed to us in Scripture. That’s what struck me as I listening to Packard and Bauerlein. What they’re saying—what the research is showing—about the solution is “back to the future: sharing and teaching biblical truth, in the context of deep, personal, embodied relationships, by adults whose lives are marked by integrity.

This ancient strategy that emerges from this cutting-edge study is found in the Bible and the way God’s people have interpreted it and lived it out over twenty centuries. And it’s the solution to the most profound problems of people young and old today.

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