Texting God

On April 29, 2020 I gave my final workshop presentation in what was supposed to be an in-person gathering in the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia. It was a joy to engage with the formation folks across western Washington state for my previous two presentations (my keynote: Faith Formation in a Changing Church and workshop: Children’s Presence in Worship) and this one was no different.

I was asked to speak about the spirituality of youth and how churches and parents could support teens in their growing relationship with God. Gen Z, also known as iGen (born between 1995-2012) are now between the ages of 8 and 25 today and Gen Alpha, who some are saying will be the “New Silent Generation” (2013-2025), are the youth and children of today. They are connected to everything. They have adapted to the challenges of the modern world, including technology, terrorism, climate change, and now living in the midst of a pandemic. These youth see religion as a private matter and are moving away from involvement or identification with a church, and even from religious belief.

Digital Natives

Our youth have never experienced a rotary phone, a television dial, or the world without the internet. They are connected globally with a digital device always at their fingertips. According to a Pew Research Center study (2018), smartphone ownership has become a nearly ubiquitous element of teen life: 95% of teens now report they have a smartphone or access to one. These mobile connections are in turn fueling more-persistent online activities: 45% of teens now say they are online on a near-constant basis. And how they use it is different than their parents: Millennials and Gen X.

Common traits of Gen Z

… as expressed by young adults (the oldest part of this cohort) in their own words from an article in the Christian Post:

  • They want more out of church than potluck dinners, sitting in a pew, or listening to a sermon. They are interested in relationships and what the church is doing outside its walls.
  • They are not ageist. Gen Z wants older generations to invest in them (many of this generation are fatherless or have had absent fathers). They are seeking mentors.
  • They largely value the “why” over the “what.” Not driven by heritage, they may not be open to the way it’s always been done or because it’s what the family has always known. Be ready to answer their honest questions with love, patience, and kindness.
  • Remember, they are not the future of the church. They are the church of now so need opportunities for leadership. Empower their ministry by constantly communicating with them using the platforms they are engaged with. Let them have a voice in planning events and activities for the whole congregation – not just their own age cohort.
  • They are weary of gimmicks and sleek presentations; they want authenticity and transparency. Share your personal stories with them, be real.
  • More than an other generation, they have been exposed to more violence, graphic images, and evil at an early age. Show them love and give them coping skills to care for themselves.
  • They are a pornography-saturated generation where the average age of first exposure is 11. The fastest growing demographic for internet pornography consumption is females ages 15-30. Be frank with them about their bodies and how everyone is created in the image of God. R.E.S.P.E.C.T.
  • These are digital natives and don’t know a world without the fear of mass shootings and terrorism. Give them space to decompress: prayer, meditation, contemplative worship.
  • According to a recent Wall Street Journal survey, 30 percent of Gen Z says, “religion is very important to them,” the lowest in U.S. history. But 78 percent say, “living a self-fulfilled life is very important to them.” Share ways to have a faith-filled and faith-centered life.

Where does faith fit in?

From a variety of surveys, when asked to choose between a church that teaches the traditions and background of their faith or a church that teaches how their faith should influence everyday decisions and lifestyle, most teenagers prefer application to daily life. We do know that they are seeking community, an experience of the transcendent, and a place in the world that lies ahead of them. Watch my presentation as I talk about their developmental stages and how we can meet their needs in support of them as well as the Q & A that follows.

Download the handout that accompanied the workshop.

Image: Photo by Luke Porter on Unsplash

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