Kk Khaliq, freshman psychology major at John Brown University, recently returned to the faith after nine years of doubting the Bible and isolating herself from the church.
Growing up within a Christian family, Khaliq said the reason why she started doubting God was because the church rejected her brother with special needs. “The church was not able to care for my brother, and they essentially kicked him out,” she said. “That hurt me at the time because I was recently baptized and had these ideals of what the church was supposed to be.”
From middle school until her first months in college, Khaliq said she was not only an atheist, but she also wanted to make others stop believing in God. According to her testimony, Khaliq found support from the digital world to fuel her hatred for the church.
“I grew up in a generation of very opinionated people, and, because of this, it was easier to find groups of people that fed the anger that I had toward God,” Khaliq said. “I had concrete reasons that pushed me to leave the church, but what definitely kept me away from it was technology-motivated.”
Khaliq’s resentment for the church is not an isolated experience. In 2015, a Pew Research Center poll reported that 34% to 36% of young millennials had forsaken religion altogether. The current Generation Z is more prone to walk away from the faith, and today’s digitally immersed society might
be part of the reason why, according to a recent study by Barna Group. Church dropout rates among groups whose ages range from 15 to 23 years old have increased from 59% to 64% since 2011.
Barna partnered with “Faith for Exiles” author David Kinnaman to explain the correlation between our fast-paced and alienated culture, also known
as the “digital Babylon,” and Gen Z’s tendency to walk from the faith through a research conducted in February 2018.
In “Faith for Exiles,” Kinnaman highlighted four different groups in the digital Babylon: prodigals, nomads, habitual churchgoers and resilient disciples. Individuals in the last group have made a commitment to Jesus, are involved in a faith community and affirm the Bible is inspired by God. Only 10% of those from Gen Z is considered a resilient disciple and is consuming approximately 291 hours of spiritual content, according to Barna’s research. In contrast, a typical Gen Z who does not attend church will consume only 153 hours of spiritual content.
Rebecca Chamberlain, sophomore mathematics major, serves as the leader for JBU’s Young Life ministry, which focuses on introducing adolescents to Jesus Christ and helping them grow in their faith. Chamberlain said students in the program come from diverse backgrounds and different standings in faith and the gospel. “Because some students grew up in the church and others do not know the gospel at all, it is difficult to identify if this generation is walking away from the faith,” she said.
However, through Chamberlain’s role as social media manager for JBU’s Young Life ministry, she said she has found that students are more connected than ever, and that it sometimes affects their quality time during the club. “Even during the activities, some of them stay on their phones as a coping mechanism when they are feeling tense or challenged,” Chamberlain said.
Despite the over-connectedness of Gen Z students to technology, Chamberlain said she believes that students in the club find the opportunity to connect with the Bible and strengthen their faith. “We cannot rely only on technology for a relationship with God,” she said. “We can see how students feel engaged in the Word of God and want to learn more. That is how we know they are growing.”
Barna and Kinnaman’s research points out the correlation between Gen Z’s use of technology and their leaving the church. However, for Maxie Burch, chair of the Biblical Studies division at JBU, it does not imply causation.
“As a historian, I have seen the same studies being done with other generations walking away from the church,” Burch said. “It is not an isolated problem for Gen Z, but more of a generalized problem that the church has not been able to handle.”
Through his book, Kinnaman explains that pastors can’t make resilient disciples only in worship service, and that parents cannot form their kids in the way of Christ by taking them to Sunday school. Burch said he agrees on the older generations’ roles for Gen Z. “Our role, specifically within the church, is to understand, listen and guide the upcoming generations,” he said. “The church should not be criticizing or pointing fingers, as it is not the first time we see a generation leaving the faith.”
According to the Gospel Coalition, discipling teens means understanding the culture they inhabit and training them to handle particular challenges. However, Burch said he thinks it is up to Gen Z to fix its relationship with the faith. “If there is a problem with how Gen Z approaches church and technology, it is something that is up to this generation to identify and fix,” he said. “I have hope for Gen Z, because just like my generation overcame some issues, Gen Z will figure it out.”