When we look at research, it usually feels like an overwhelming mass of information. Recently, Barna came out with a new body of research on Generation Z, people who were born between 1999 and 2015. I looked at the research, and my first thought was, “There are over a hundred pages here!”
And no matter how beautifully colored and inventive the charts and graphs, it still at some point begins to feel like numbers, numbers, and more numbers. But in the midst of all those numbers, one question stands out as we consider the implications of this research on culture and church:
Who are the people here?
When we consider who the people are in the midst of all the data, our vantage points can shift just enough to create meaningful dialogue in a time and place in history when information seems to be king and dialogue seems peripheral. By asking "Who are the people here?" we are asking the same question we asked with each generation before, whether it be Millennials, Gen Xers, Boomers, or whoever. And then we as Christ's Church are led to ask ourselves these questions:
Who are we missing? And how are we missing them?
When we feel the tug of anxiety as we read about a generation walking away from the church or never being introduced to it to begin with, that tug means something. It was put into us by God. We are made to be hungry to see the Word go out to the next generation, and the next, and the next. We weren’t made for this time and place only, but God fixed us into our space and time, in light of eternity. As His Church, we have a responsibility and a privilege to share the Word with the world, and it’s an awesome thing that God even deigns to include us in this.
There exists then, a burden, but of the best kind, to see that every generation we touch during our short time here can hear the Word, and that we don’t put stumbling blocks in the way. But first we have to know who these people are and what the culture is like. While God’s Word remains the same, culture changes. Even church culture changes. These changes are often uncomfortable and feel unfamiliar to us. But we need to be aware that these changes are happening.
Barna identifies some of those things that are unfamiliar and uncomfortable. It reveals yet again that church isn’t a huge priority for people, including youth in Gen Z growing up today. The church is not the center of Western society. Truth appears to be eroding. And the family unit looks far different than we expected.
I think for years the church in America has been a little too cozy. We have relied on culture to transmit what only God’s Word and His people can. Only His Word and Church can answer these questions with eternal truth: What is truth? What is love? What is family?
The answers to these questions can't be found in our culture and world. Of course the culture doesn’t know what family should look like, who defines gender, and where to find truth! As believers, as the Church, it’s our job and awesome privilege to tell them the answers to those questions in God's Word, and to tell them in a way that it can be heard. And as we tell them the truth, we need to remember that overall question:
Who are the people here, and how can we reach them?
Notice the question isn’t, "What will happen to the church?" or "Who is going to do something about this?" or "Why, God?"
For too long, that has been our dialogue. For too long, we have lamented the loss of church at the center, truth as a given, and a culture nicely playing by our rules.
But we forget these truths: We are the light. The world will look dark. And there are children, adults, and generations out there who desperately need the light. So we ask again, "Who are they?" And we engage in dialogue to find out who they are so we can reach them best.
Barna gives us some insight into understanding Generation Z and how they can be reached best.
- They feel unsafe. Growing up post 9/11, no one ever feels quite safe.
- They like financial success and hold it in high esteem. Happiness is misunderstood as paychecks and money.
- They struggle with concepts of faith and science and aren’t sure they overlap ever. So they are more likely to choose science.
These generational trends might seem troubling. But the beautiful thing is that the Church need only respond, “Hello, world! We are taking back our children now.” So we share the truth, and we share the light. We boldly proclaim that God defines family. God holds tight to truth. God cares for every man, every woman, every child, every generation. We share the truth and light in new ways—not changing the truth, not changing the light, but creating dialogue. We study the Word and bring it into the world and to the dialogue table with us.
Barna’s research had one more neon-sign revelation for me about Gen Z, one I think we already knew, but research helps make plain.
- Over 80 percent of Gen Zers value community over privacy. They want to know truth, but they want to know it communally. They want to gather. They want real and meaningful conversations, and they aren’t afraid of questions.
This is exactly what the Church on earth is for—knowing and being known. That has been the focus of our God since creation. We have a Savior, who came into our midst, died, and rose. He sent the Spirit to infiltrate His people—you and me, and all those who have gone before us and will come after us. This same God created the Church to gather, to teach, to ask hard questions, to wrestle together, and to rejoice together.
So how do we reach this generation?
This generation needs the Church, and we as the Church need them. We need them not because the Church would somehow die without them, but because they are people, real people with stories, fears, ideas, hurts, and hopes. God values people. We the Church need to too, and we can show that by engaging this generation in dialogue and reaching out to lost people with the Gospel of Jesus.
The parables in Luke 15 come to mind, each with their concern for the lost people. Jesus told these parables in response to the reality we find ourselves in today—a world full of tax collectors and sinners, just like us. A world with flagrant sexual sin, broken families, and versions of truth that only harm us, rather than help us. Into this world comes the Good Shepherd, who gathers His sheep. He receives them back into the fold.
Luke 15:2 says, "And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, 'This man [Jesus] receives sinners and eats with them.'”
It’s time to eat with people and have dialogue with them. It’s time to meet with people who don’t look like us. It’s time to share the Word where it’s misunderstood and miscalculated.
The Gospel call for this generation, indeed every generation, remains the same. Keep asking that big question: Who are the people here?
Let us invite them to discover real truth and real love through the light of their Savior, who values each and every one of us.