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When Gen Z Goes to Church …Or Not

If they attend nondenominational church in the U.S. today, mom, dad, grandpa and grandma are probably sitting in a black box worship space on Sunday, much as they did 15-20 years ago. Or they may be watching the service on a screen at home. Particularly post-pandemic.

Either way, they’re Boomers, Gen X and Millennials – a three-generational tranche of content consumers and worshipers born, in this instance, between 1946 and 1996.

But what about Gen Z – with birthdates in the years 1997-2012 – currently between the ages of 11 and 26? There are some 68 million of them and they’ve had a digital device in their hands almost since the day they were born.

Do these authentic digital natives want to worship in a black box, watching a band perform on a stage with a light show and a giant video screen as a backdrop? A quick review of available studies by sources from Carey Nieuwhof (author, blogger, former attorney and founding pastor of Connexus Church in
Ontario, Canada, with nearly 11,000 LinkedIn followers, many of them nondenominational church leaders) to Barna Group (a well-known research organization that looks at patterns in faith and culture) indicates “probably not.”

Gen Z worshipers and seekers want presence over presentation, Nieuwhof reports, in a 2023 blog on entitled “A Sneak Peek into 5 Characteristics of Gen Z Church.” And it’s a worship-environment shift that Barna may have seen coming too, gauging by its November 2014 report entitled “Designing Worship Spaces with Millennials in Mind,” written when that generational segment was in the 18 to 24-year-old range.

A quick recap of the findings Barna reported are this: 78% of Millennials surveyed preferred community over privacy in worship; 77% preferred a sanctuary as opposed to an auditorium; 67% reporting being drawn to “classy” vs. “trendy” settings; 65% said they wanted quiet over loud when they worship; and yet, 64% said they were drawn to “casual” over “dignified.” And right here, it appears that semantics made a difference in the responses that were generated.

For example, the Barna study also noted that despite their responses, more than half of the Millennial participants in the 2014 study preferred the word “modern” over “traditional” when describing the worship experience they seek.
For Barna, that was telling. As the researchers put it in the study, “herein lies a cognitive dissonance common to the young adults interviewed in this survey. Many of them aspire to a more traditional church experience, in a beautiful building steeped in history and religious symbolism.” And yet, Barna notes, perhaps they are more at ease in modern spaces.

Clint Jenkin, Ph.D., vice president of research at Barna Group and the study’s lead designer, assessed the dissonance like this: “the reality, like so much about this generation, is more complicated – refreshingly so. Most Millennials don’t look for a church facility that caters to the whims of pop culture. They want a community that calls them to deeper meaning.”

When it comes to today’s assessments of the worship preferences of Gen Z, Nieuwhof summed up the findings in his “Sneak Peek” blog by saying, “Generation Z is the first genuinely digital-native generation. They have grown up with smartphones, social media, and on-demand entertainment. They are more diverse, socially aware, and skeptical than any previous generation. And they’re also less likely to attend church than their parents or grandparents.”

The church leader and author also notes, choosing to emphasize with italics, “What we’ve seen at Asbury and beyond hints that Gen Z is looking for presence, not just presentation, for an experience of God, not just more information about God. They’re longing for a touch, for something real.”

The Asbury Nieuwhof refers to is an event at private Christian college Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky, in February 2023, when an ordinary Wednesday morning chapel service turned into a weeks-long student revival. By Wednesday night of the day it started, college students from hundreds of other schools had joined in.

Of note: Asbury’s chapel is inside the university’s historic Greek revival-style Hughes Memorial Auditorium built in 1929 with a seating capacity of just 1,489 – and a history of housing student revivals.

As the spiritual journey of Gen Z unfolds to tell the story of the worship settings and styles that speak best to this generation, it’s worth considering as a campus pastor: how can our ministry attract and speak to Gen Z in 2024?
Blog shared by Church.Design.

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