This Is How You Lose Them: Why “Generation Z” Won’t Be Flocking To Churches Anytime Soon

Like the dad who’s trying just a little too hard on Snapchat, American churches just want the young, cool people to like them. In a recent interview with Religion News Service, Rev. James Emery White spoke on his latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World.

In the interview, White said the group that Christians—evangelicals especially—need to win over isn’t Millennials (it’s too late for us), but post-Millennials, aka Generation Z, those born between the mid-1990s and early 2000s.

In this brave new “post-Christian” world, the youngest and largest generation represents a unique opportunity for evangelicals to affect culture, with White referring to them as “the most influential religious force in the West and the heart of the missional challenge facing the church.”

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In the sense that “‘the dominance of Christian ideas and influence” is behind us, we’re about as “post-Christian” as we are “post-racial.” You’d think the November election would have challenged this perception, but many white evangelicals continue to cling to the idea that Christianity’s cultural supremacy is under siege.

According to White:

On the most superficial of levels, most churches are divorced from the technological world Generation Z inhabits. But on the deeper level, they are divorced from the culture itself in such a way as to be unable to build strategic bridges…

White neglects to specify exactly what culture evangelical churches are divorced from, which is a shame and a missed opportunity to name the elephant in the room. Most churches are not “well-equipped” to “meet the needs of Generation Z” because, as institutions, many of them have been slow to embrace, or outright hostile to, the increasingly progressive philosophies Gen Z espouses.

It isn’t just “technology,” as White argues, it’s how Gen Z uses that technology to broaden its worldview and find value in belief systems beyond the walls of the church and Christianity itself. It may not always lead to disaffiliation, but it certainly contributes to it.

The feasibility of White’s goal of bringing in Gen Z successfully is dubious at best, as many churches are not meaningfully addressing the social issues that matter the most to Gen Z. How they lost Millennials is exactly how they will lose the tweens.

White is correct in saying “the church simply has too many blind spots,” but again, it’s a glaring omission to not name some of those blind spots, particularly when it comes to evangelicalism’s increasingly unpopular views on sexuality, gender and race.

According to a recent survey, Generation Z is shaping up to be the most diverse generation when it comes to sexuality, with barely half of Gen Zers identifying as exclusively heterosexual (compared to 65 percent of Millennials). Also the overwhelming majority of Generation Z seems to question the fixed boundaries (or at least the implications) of one’s gender, with 81 percent agreeing that “gender doesn’t define a person as much as it used to.”

As for the highly contested “bathroom bills” that have been popping up across the country, a whopping 70 percent of Gen Z support access to gender neutral bathrooms. Considering churches are suing state governments over new bathroom access legislation, it’s hard to imagine them catching up to the zeitgeist on issues like this anytime soon.

Generation Z will also be the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in U.S. history: almost half of the population identifies as nonwhite. And, with the demographic shift in multiracial marriages, we can expect increasing numbers of them to identify with more than one race.

These trends are at odds with the racially heterogeneous nature of much of white evangelicalism (the mainline as well). A recent study found that white evangelical churches will sometimes employ “race tests,” a type of hazing meant to push out church members of color who can’t adhere to white cultural norms.

How will evangelical churches reconcile all this with their tolerant-at-best views of identities that aren’t heteronormative or white? For White to say churches are not “well-positioned” to attract Generation Z is quite an understatement. The fact that at this critical juncture, pastors like White seem to be unable or unwilling to name the real problems only further puts white evangelicalism’s dysfunction on display.