With 1 million leaving the church every year, is Gen Z the faithless generation? | Sojourners

With 1 million leaving the church every year, is Gen Z the faithless generation?

Or…are they simply losing faith in the American Church?

Gen Z, the generation born between 1997 and 2012, is a cohort of firsts and new frontiers. They are the first digital natives, meaning unlike generations before them, Gen Z was born into and only knows a world that is digital and hyperconnected. Generation Z ushered in the new face of America by being the first generation where minorities make up the majority of the U.S. population (source: U.S. Census). According to Pew Research, they are on track to be the best-educated generation in U.S. history. And yet, Gen Zs— currently the second largest generation totaling 27% of the U.S. population— could become the generation with the greatest mass exodus from Christian churches in American history. 

The Great Opportunity research, commissioned by the Pinetops Foundation, reports that more than 1 million young people are walking away from their church and disaffiliating from the Christian faith every year. This means that by the year 2034, over 10 million young people, who we watched grow up in our parishes and churches, could be missing from our faith communities. 

So, why is this generation leaving?

Is it a ripple effect from the pandemic when the church experience was virtual? The short answer is, no. The pandemic, virtual church services, and lockdown may have caused young people to question the role of Sunday service and church programs; the high rate of youth and young adult disaffiliation from the Christian faith was documented prior to 2020. 

Is it just the “prodigal” cycle we’ve seen in past generations where people turn away from their Christian upbringing in or after high school, test what else is out there, and then return in their late 20s and 30s? Maybe. However, Gen Z as a whole, including those not raised in a Christian community, report turning to fewer “vices” than previous generations did at their age. A forty-year study of young people shows a significant drop off in drinking, experimenting with drugs, and casual sex by this generation (source: Child Development, March/April 2019) so if their departure was based solely on Gen Z’s desire to buck against traditional Christian virtues then we should in theory experience a forty-year low in young people departing from church and their faith. 

The difficult reality is that we do not have one explanation for why the largest cohort of young people are drifting away from the Christian faith. However, a consistent theme is Gen Z doesn’t see the Christian life as worth their time, and record numbers of them see religion as irrelevant in their lives. 

Ironically the Church in America could be the greatest stumbling block to Gen Zs experiencing the abundant life that Christ desires for them. According to The Great Opportunity report “the majority of the disaffiliated [youth] did not go through a crisis of faith or intellectually reject church teachings. They left because they just weren’t interested in the Christian life they saw.” 

Though we can not fully answer what Gen Z is seeing that makes them disinterested in the Christian life, we know this generation cares about what is happening beyond the walls of the church and boundary lines of their faith community.

Generation Z is a socially conscious cohort who, because they are digital natives, grew up in a society of democratized activism where their mobile devices were a megaphone as well as a barrage of push notifications about breaking news on the latest crisis, scandal, and injustice. From Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg, and Alycia Kamil– the teenager who inspired MacKenzie Bezos to make $4.2 billion in donations to nonprofits during the pandemic; Gen Z is leading the way in standing in the gap for those who are vulnerable, invisible, and marginalized in society. What if we have a generation of young people, in our faith communities, who are eager to stand in the gap for those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, isolated, sick, and jailed (Matthew 25:35-37) and yet drifting from Christian faith because they do not see a clear and consistent path to authentically pour out their heart for justice through their faith and faith community. 

There is hope. There are bright spots.  

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. James 1:27

Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed.[a] Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. Isaiah 1:17

Gen Z is a generation marked by a passion for gender equality, racial reconciliation, genuine inclusion, and social equity. Their zeal for justice appears to trace the outlines of Old and New Testament instructions about caring for the widows and orphans, who were the most vulnerable members of ancient society. With 47% of young people responding that they “don’t think religion, faith, or religious leaders will care about the things [they] want to talk about or bring up during times of uncertainty” according to a 2020 Springtide report; this brings us back to the question, is this generation losing their faith or is what they see in American Churches driving their disaffiliation from Christian faith?  

This is one of the many questions TENx10 is on a quest to explore and understand; so that faith communities across the country are more equipped to embark on our greatest missions opportunity in the American church– helping Gen Zs and the following generation to connect deeply with Christ.  

There is an incredible opportunity knowing that a generation's heart for the things of God can be connected to God and faith communities if we are willing to listen, lean in, and let them lead the way. 

This could be our legacy. There is no limit to what God can do. Our hope rests in Him but the work lies on us. 

To learn more about the collective efforts TENx10 is leading to help faith matter more to the next generation, visit tenx10.org. 

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