Jana Riess: A How-Not-To Reach Generation Z Guide for Churches

The headlines are screaming that Generation Z, born from the mid- to late 1990s to somewhere around 2010, is the least religious generation in recorded history.

More than a third of these teenagers and early 20-somethings are “nones,” meaning they identify as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular” on a survey.

And within that umbrella group, the percentage who are atheists is twice that of the general population, according to research by the Barna Group (from 6% of all Americans to 13% of Gen Zers).

James Emery White, a megachurch pastor in North Carolina, gives voice to his considerable anxiety about all this in Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World.

Spoiler alert: I strongly disliked this book.

In the guise of helping pastors, parents, and teachers “understand” and “reach out” to Generation Z, this book showcases the very problems it tells readers to avoid. White chides church leaders for clinging to the models of previous generations (door-to-door evangelism, large events) even while demonstrating a remarkable tone deafness to the deeper concerns of this generation (racism, homophobia, violence in schools, and the list goes on).

White begins the book by drawing on standard research from Pew, Gallup, and Barna to demonstrate the scope of the problem—young adults going AWOL from religion if they ever had religion in the first place. So far, so good as books go; White can be a clear and effective writer when he’s not lazily quoting his own previous books ad nauseam.

And then things get vague. The church needs to be “countercultural,” he asserts, but he has an easier time telling us what this isn’t than what it is. It’s not the Benedict Option, in which Christians withdraw from society and politics; it’s not fundamentalism, which is a thoroughgoing rejection of the modern world; it’s not the tactic of the religious right, which is to politicize the bejesus out of faith.

Instead, countercultural means for “the church to be the church” and “truly Christlike.” Which is nice, but tells us nothing.

I’d be more likely to give White the benefit of the doubt about counterculturalism if he weren’t showing on every page that his Christianity is not, in fact, countercultural. It’s bowing to a very specific 1950s American Christianity. So it’s “countercultural” by the measures of today, but not in a good way.

Consider what he has to say about women. To reach Generation Z, he tells readers, it’s important to “target men” first and foremost. His church (which he reminds us many times has been successfully growing despite the godless landscape of . . . um, North Carolina, the nation’s tenth-most-religious state) “unashamedly” puts men first in its marketing materials, sermons, music choices, and décor.

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Source: Religion News Service