To many, Sundays are sacred. It is a day observed all around the globe as a time for professing Christians to join together in one place, worship, and listen to their pastor speak. Sometimes, a potluck lunch follows in which members of a church gather together to share a meal and engage in discussion. However, the church is changing.
According to Barna Group, a research organization examining the intersections of faith and culture, “More than any other generation before them, Gen Z does not assert a religious identity.” In fact, “The percentage of Gen Z that identifies as atheist is double that of the U.S. adult population,” according to Barna. Of Generation Z individuals, ages 13 to 18, interviewed for the Barna study, 23 percent said that they stopped going to church because Christians are hypocrites, and 15 percent said it was because they believe there are too many injustices in the history of the church, among other reasons.
Erika Reiger, former JBU student and Ridge Kids Intern at Austin Ridge Bible Church in Austin, Texas said she thinks part of the reason for this decline lies in the unwillingness of older church members to listen to younger church members. “When they’re children, we tell them to be like Timothy, and that their age shouldn’t mean that they can’t participate or shouldn’t be a member of the kingdom.” Reiger said. “In reality, the practice is that their ideas are shoved to the side, and when they bring up valid points about the discrepancies they notice between the Bible and the actions of the people following Jesus, they are just told that they haven’t lived long enough so they wouldn’t understand. Or they express some hardship and have some really tough questions and older members of the church act like they’re just seeking attention or treat them as if they’re some charity case that’s there for the older generations to feel as though they earned their gold star. We’re forgetting that these people are still just that—people.”
In his sermon “Why the Mass Exit,” speaker and author Skye Jethani said that he believes the mass exodus from the church is due to human religion being “predicated on one thing. . .that is that we all share a dangerous world. All human religion is a system of control predicated on fear. Religion was designed to protect us from this dangerous world by somehow giving us control over it, including most forms of Christianity. This control gets taught to young people, and when it fails to satisfy their deepest longings, they walk away from the church.”
Senior Christian Ministry and Formation major Dalton Chance said he thinks Generation Z members are leaving the church because, “they don’t feel like they are being listened to, and their churches are too caught up in tradition. Change is never really focused on. I’ve heard some people say their churches aren’t focused on outreach at all, their money is going into the building rather than to other things. They seem like good reasons.”
Chance said that, although tradition is a reason some Generation Z individuals leave the church, “It’s important to have tradition. If we did away with all that, it would just be a gathering of friends hanging out. It wouldn’t feel like a body of believers anymore. I think we should keep tradition in some regard, but there are some pieces where church leaders could be more lenient.”
Chance said he doesn’t think churches should be focused on winning Generation Z back to the church. Rather, they should focus on the original mission of the church. “You don’t need flashy camps and top-dollar programming to change lives. God changes the lives. We just have to be willing to follow his lead. He’s given us all the tools for success if we would just sit back a little bit and trust that he knows what he’s doing.”
In the future, Reiger said she hopes churches will stop trying too hard to win younger generations back and simply focus on their mission. She said, “We need to do better at finding a balance between having open conversations about God with people that draw them closer to God while also maintaining the integrity of the gospel. God doesn’t need us to be a part of this process at all, but he chooses to let us in. He chooses to allow us to participate and witness firsthand how he changes lives. Changing the truths he has for people isn’t doing anybody any good.”