Gen Z: The Future of Faith?
It is the generation growing up with unlimited access to the internet, provided with instant information and entertainment (‘infotainment’) and unprecedented online connection; but it also has the highest levels of loneliness, social anxiety and mental health issues.
Generation Z, or iGen, as some have dubbed them, is generally defined as those born between 1996 and 2010. Although of course it is arbitrary to draw a strict line between those born from one year and another, the characteristics of this generation have evolved from those of Millennials, the previous generation (born between 1981and 1995), creating notable differences which are resulting in new experiences and outlooks.
The period of emerging adulthood that many Gen Zs are currently experiencing is fraught with challenges faced by humans for the very first time. They have more choice and freedom than ever before, yet are paralysed with doubt. As worldviews become increasingly polarised and issues such as climate change reach crisis point, the future of this generation is uncertain.
As a consequence, the landscape of faith for this group is being mapped out differently, as experiences of increased political division, the saturation of technology and ever-increasing global interconnectedness affect the perceptions of these young people. Whilst there are many closely-entwined factors influencing the Gen Z experience of faith, I believe that two are crucial: technology, and social justice/activism.
The American Bible Society (ABS) recently conducted research with 15 to 24-year-olds to understand how (if at all) faith linked to other areas of life and American society. Although this data is specifically drawn from young Americans, the themes that have emerged are relevant to the wider western world. ABS’s research found that 70 per cent of Gen Zs believe that older generations do not understand what they are going through, and that 60 per cent believe that their generation are spending too much time looking at screens. This is leading to increased levels of stress, anxiety and other mental health and social issues.
In addition, those in Gen Z are more undecided than previous generations about the Bible’s importance in society, and whether it is necessary for their lives. Faced with the statement ‘The Bible contains everything a person needs to know to live a meaningful life’, 20 per cent strongly disagreed, 15 per cent disagreed, and 27 per cent neither agreed nor disagreed. With nearly two-thirds of young people in America believing they need to look elsewhere than the Bible for meaning (possibly because they are bombarded with information from all sides on what to think, believe, feel, and be) the number of those who read the Bible and have made a personal commitment to faith is in decline. Seventy-four per cent of the young people surveyed believed that what is morally right and wrong changes over time, based on societal changes, suggesting that they do not believe that the principles set out in the Bible to be true or relevant within their own context.
Whilst this picture may look somewhat bleak, there is hope that among the Gen Zs who are Christians, there is a proactive approach to putting their faith into action, as they believe it to be closely aligned with social justice. Youthscape and Tearfund recently conducted research with Christian teenagers in the UK to find out what issues they are most concerned about. The top three concerns that were identified were:
- Discrimination (96%)
- Poverty (94%)
- Climate change (92%)
Many explained that their faith was closely linked with these social justice issues, which were important to both them and their peers, and that they did not feel the Church was doing enough about these. Only one in ten felt their church was doing enough about climate change, and a third had never heard a sermon preached on climate change.
Activism and change are needed in our increasingly fractured society, and young people are anxious about the future. These Gen Z Christians are calling on the Church to lead the way in healing and restoring this brokenness. They want to see more Church teaching on these issues, for older generations to be actively campaigning for change and to be praying about them, as well as a culture created within the Church which focuses more on responding to these concerns.
Of course, the challenges posed by social justice and technology do not affect young people exclusively, but how we deal with them (or not) now will significantly impact young people’s futures. Faith is about putting beliefs about equality, respect and love into action. James 2.14 says, ‘what good is it for one of you to say that you have faith if your actions do not prove it?’ Evidence from the research suggests that Gen Z Christians are taking this principle seriously and they want older generations to do so, too.
If Christians of all ages work together to lead the way in the restoration of society, motivated by care for our neighbours, others, young and old alike, will surely be drawn into the movement of faith, providing hope that there is a future for Gen Z – and for all of us.
Becca Purton works in Research at Bible Society, where her focus is on families, young people and children. Prior to this, she studied for a Master's degree in Children's Literature at Cambridge University.