Reflections on Barna Report About Generation Z

By Philip Brooks

Last month Barna Group released a new study on the religious habits of Americans born after 1999 (often referred to as Generation Z). Here’s a breakdown of some of their observations.

Gen Z is Less Religious Than Previous Generations

The long trend of each generation self-identifying as less religious has continued with atheism seeing a big bump among Zers. 7% of Millennials identify as atheist and further 8% as agnostic. By contrast 13% (more than double) of Zers identify as atheist while still only 8% identify as agnostic. The total percent of those who identify as Christian has deceased with 59% of Zers considering themselves Christian compared to 65% of Millennials.

The Reasons Younger Generations Remain Non-Christian Are Changing

The top reason Millennials, Gen Xers, and Boomers in the study all chose to explain why they did not follow Christianity was hypocrisy among Christians. Many also cited Christian beliefs from the Bible as contradicting science. While hypocrisy and science were both still high on the list of reasons for Gen Z, most listed the state of the world as their top reason for not being Christian. 29% claimed they struggled to believe a benevolent god would allow so much evil to happen in the world. Nearly third of Millennials also cited the state of the world as their top reason for not being Christian.

Gen Z Still Has Net Positive Perceptions of Church

Despite the growing trend of atheism and non-belief among Gen Zers, 82% of those interviewed by Barna reported to find church meaningful and relevant to their lives. 63% felt their church was tolerant of people with different beliefs. At the same time, 49% still saw the church’s teachings as in conflict with science.

My Takeaways from This Study

Some of the report's observations were not too surprising. Atheism and non-belief have been increasing with each new generation while the overall percentage of the population who identify as Christian has declined. Barna’s report shows both trends are continuing. Most of the Boomers’ children have come of age by now and entered the workforce while the first wave of Boomers are starting to retire. This means America and its churches are beginning to feel the recession in both membership and tithing more keenly as Boomers cease to drive church growth and success.

On the other hand, the reasons Gen Zers are citing for avoiding Christianity are changing. Unbelief itself is trumping the perceptions of hypocrisy that sent many Millennials out the door. This might be because more Gen Zers have had no direct experience of church or organized religion. With previous generations most members have started out attending church as children and become less religious as they’ve aged. By now, however, enough people who left church and never returned have raised their children without a faith tradition at all. This means more Gen Zers are simply being brought up outside the church. This may be hinted at by the fact that 59% who did not attend church said it was not relevant to them personally.

This may mean those of us in the church planting world will need to change our messaging and outreach. For the past decade many new churches and ministries have been focused on overcoming negative perceptions of church and welcoming back those who have been hurt or scarred by bad church experiences. Now we find ourselves not so much trying to correct or heal old perceptions of church, but offering church to those who’ve never seen the need for it.

In particular, Gen Zers cite the state of the world as a hinderance to belief in the Christian God. Many Americans have become more concerned over the state of the world in the last couple of years. Other research has suggested young people are unhappy with the current state of their government. It’s natural for these anxieties to influence one’s faith or lack thereof as well.

The fact that more Gen Zers cited evil in the world as their top reason for not being Christian is what concerns me the most from this study. Of course, people have been driven away by religious hypocrisy, intolerance, and anti-scientism in church. While these are still major issues keeping people from church, many churches are also finding ways to avoid or purge these demons. But fostering in others the belief in a loving and benevolent God acting in a world so full of evil and suffering will be much more difficult than correcting past sins of the church. Doing church a little differently than before won’t be enough for this task. It will take nothing less than the power of the Holy Spirit acting upon a community committed to preaching the good news in a world that needs it the most.

Click here to read the full article from Barna Group on Generation Z.