For the last decade, church experts have been wrestling over the best ways to reach and retain “millennials,” which is a phrase the describes individuals born from the early 1980s through the mid-1990s. Data shows that many millennials leave the church during their college years, and some never return. The fastest growing religious identifier among this generation is “spiritual but not religious.”
But as millennials age, get married, and start families, they are no longer the only “young people” that churches must consider. A new cohort has risen: “Generation Z” or individuals born between the mid-1990s and early 2000s. Generation Z diverges from millennials in many ways and presents unique challenges and opportunities for churches who hope to capture their attention.
For this reason, I decided to speak with Pastor James Emery White about his new book, “Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World.” Here we discuss what sets these young people apart from their elders and what he believes it means for modern ministry, evangelism, and apologetics.
RNS: What do you mean when you say that the church is at the beginning of a ‘seventh age?’
JEW: During my studies at Oxford, I was introduced to the writings of a Catholic historian named Christopher Dawson. He had an intriguing thesis he introduced just after WWII that I have come to appreciate: that the history of the Christian church can be divided into segments of 300-400 years, and that each of these “ages” began — and then ended — in crisis. The nature of each crisis was the same: intense attack by new challenges, if not enemies, from within and from without the church. Apart from new spiritual determination and drive, the church would have lost the day. Dawson accounted for six such ages at the time of his writing. I believe we are now living at the start of another — a seventh age.
RNS: Everyone keeps talking about millennials, but you’ve chosen to talk about Generation Z. Who are they, and why are they so important?
JEW: They are the youngest generational cohort on the planet — and the largest. This means that in the coming years they will not simply influence culture, but be culture. Added to this is the fact that they are the first post-Christian generation in American history. I would argue that this makes them the most pressing generation to study. They will be the most influential religious force in the West and the heart of the missional challenge facing the Christian church.
RNS: You say that Generation Z is the first truly post-Christian generation. Yet more than 70 percent of Americans are Christian and more than a third of Americans attend church regularly. How are they ‘post-Christian?’
JEW: I would push back a bit on 70 percent being “Christian,” at least in light of how the majority of that 70 percent are self-defining and self-designating the term. If we mean Bible-believing, heaven-and-hell existing, Jesus-resurrecting Christians, the number would drop rather precipitously. If you are going to contend for 70 percent of the American population being Christian, the majority of that number would be “Christian” in name only.
The latest research shows that for those between the ages of 18-29, 39 percent would actually place themselves in the “nones” or religiously unaffiliated category. As for a third of Americans attending church regularly, that means that two-thirds (again, a majority) do not. The word “post” means “past” or “after,” so “post-Christian” means “after” the dominance of Christian ideas and influence. To my thinking and observation, this is where we are culturally.
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