Early 2018, a faith-based research group called the Barna Group published a research article titled “Atheism Doubles Among Generation Z.” Although the results of the study were not unexpected, the research sparked a debate not only between Christians and non-Christians, but among those who believe that youth should come to Jesus on their own and those who think the church should do a better job evangelizing to youth. It begs the question:
Is there a best way to evangelize to Gen Z?
Generation Z, comprised of people born between 1999 and 2015, is diverse and “digitally different.” Being less brand loyal, they don’t want to pledge their allegiance to any one thing. They value independence as do other generations. Yet, this concept may be tied to the church now more than ever.
Barna calls Gen Z the first truly “post-Christian generation.” Out of the study group of 13 to 18-year-olds, only 4% claimed to have a biblical worldview. The percentage of them that identified as Atheist was double that of the US population (13% v. 6% adults). Yet, many of them don’t have a negative perspective of the church — they just don’t have one.
“More than one-third of Gen Z (37%) believes it is not possible to know for sure if God is real, compared to 32 percent of all adults,” Barna outlines. “On the other side of the coin, teens who do believe one can know God exists are less likely than adults to say they are very convinced that is true (54% vs. 64% all adults who believe in God). For many teens, truth seems relative at best and, at worst, altogether unknowable.”
“For many teens, truth seems relative at best and, at worst, altogether unknowable.”
Barna Group, Inc.
So how do we teach truth to kids who don’t believe in it?
Tessa Isaac, a Tabor College student, spent two summers with groups of 15 and 16-year-olds at Kanakuk, a Christian sports camp in southern Missouri for kids ages 13–18. While many of the kids were already Christian or had Christian background, Isaac had an opportunity to try to share God’s truth with them.
During the two weeks they are at Kanakuk, campers don’t have their phones, and they experience God both through both studying the Bible and living and playing in Christian community. They’re placed in an environment that intentionally points them towards God.
“It’s kind of its own bubble.” Isaac says. “They get all of their news from the outside world in their letters from their friends at home.”
Isaac says is an important aspect of the camp is the abundance of time to focus on having deeper conversations and listening to one another.
“A lot of their conversations with us as counselors are very broad,” Isaac says. “Some girls have pretty shallow conversations, and other girls we have really deep conversations with. Some girls open up about really, really hard things. Some girls will share stories of abuse with you, and that’s really hard. Girls will share about whatever their struggles are.”
In Isaac’s perspective, camp is a great way to evangelize to kids.
“You can go to youth group every Wednesday all year, but at youth group you don’t truly disconnect from the outside world,” Isaac says. “One of the beauties of camp is that you’re literally disconnected from everything outside of camp for two weeks.”
“At youth group you don’t truly disconnect from the outside world. One of the beauties of camp is that you’re literally disconnected from everything outside of camp for two weeks.”
Tessa Isaac, Tabor College
This past summer, Isaac had three of her twelve campers become Christians. The summer before, three or four did. There is no doubt that the camp or youth retreat environment incites spiritual “highs,” but what happens during rest of the year?
Does the change last? If not, what is the point of camp?
“It’s hard because in the environment we’re in at camp the popular and right answer is to say that you’re Christian even if you’re not,” Isaac says. “There are a lot of campers who will even call themselves a Camp Christian, so they’ll tell us, ‘I’m a Christian when I’m at camp.’ The two weeks that they’re at camp, they’re a Christian, but the rest of the time they wouldn’t really see themselves that way.”
When the campers go home, it seems to Isaac as though many go back to what their lifestyle was before they came to camp and encountered Jesus.
“It definitely kind of seems like when they go back to their friends they just kind of go back to whatever their friends are doing to fit in,” Isaac says. “A lot of campers don’t want to go against the popular thing at their school.”
The struggle teenagers face in fitting in and feeling loved by people shows up in Barna’s research. Moreover, they struggle feeling loved by God.
“Teens, along with young adults, are more likely than older Americans to say the problem of evil and suffering is a deal breaker for them,” Barna explains. “It appears that today’s youth, like so many throughout history, struggle to find a compelling argument for the existence of both evil and a good and loving God.” They are constantly wondering, “Why would God allow this to happen to me?”
“I definitely think that’s a question that a lot of kids, and just people in general, but especially the girls in our cabin will struggle with,” Isaac says. “Something that’s really important we try to focus them back on is that God can reveal his strength in really big ways in our times of weakness. Even when really bad things happen and really hard things happen, those are the times when, if we lean into God, he’ll show his strength and show his faithfulness because even when we can’t feel him he’s still there and he’s still with us.”
ChurchPlants.com, an online resource for church planters, says that the church must be also able to provide factual, scientific evidence of Christianity in order to equip future Christian leaders.
“The next generation doesn’t know Christianity is true because we haven’t been showing them that Christianity is true,” they say. “Gen Z may not always know how to verbalize it or even have the courage to say it. But internally, they desperately want you to show them evidence that what you are telling them about Christianity is true.”
“The next generation doesn’t know Christianity is true because we haven’t been showing them that Christianity is true.”
Regardless of how they feel outside of camp, many of the campers return to Kanakuk each year. To maintain relationships and illustrate the importance of small group bonding, Isaac and her co-counselor have made a point to keep up with their campers by face-timing once a week to do devotionals. They try to both tell and show what faith is.
“A lot of it is showing them what it looks like to just live as a servant and live as a Jesus follower,” Isaac says. “Campers think that you’re the coolest person in the world (which I’m not) and so they’re always watching. If we say to do one thing and then we don’t live up to what we’re saying, then they notice. It’s showing and telling (so explaining stuff to them, but then also doing it). That way they realize, ‘Oh, well my counselors are being faithful, so that’s what it looks like.’”
It is true that youth today need both factual and testimonial evidence of God. Yet, while they are independent, they don’t want to be purely an audience — they want to be included as a part of something. Maybe evangelism to Gen Z should be less about bringing them in, but going to them. Maybe, instead of asking ourselves how to evangelize, we should ask them.
In this release from the new report, we take a look at Gen Z’s views on faith, truth and the church. Barna conducted a…www.barna.com
Kanakuk’s summer camp program is dedicated to Developing dynamic Christian leaders through life-changing experiences…kanakuk.com
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