Three Significant Issues for Churches to Reach Gen Z


By Thom S. Rainer

It is way too early to say we know definitive truths and trends for Gen Z.

Though different demographers put their birth years at slightly different points, I have settled for birth dates from 2001 to 2019. That means the oldest Gen Zer is 18 years old, and the youngest will be born in the next few weeks. A lot can change as the Gen Zers get older. We need to hold “facts” about this generation loosely.

I am willing, however, to offer three issues that are likely to be a pervasive reality for churches as they try to connect with Gen Z. My confidence is predicated on interviews we have done with the youngest Millennials (almost the same age as the oldest Gen Z) and some early research on Gen Z.

Churches that are negative and fight often will not even be considered by Gen Z. One of the more significant early studies of this generation is the 2019 Porter Novelli/Cone Gen Z Purpose Study. Nine out of ten Gen Zers in this study said they are sick and tired of the divisiveness of our culture, media, and institutions. That is an overwhelming number! Gen Z will quickly walk away from churches fighting over such trivia as times of worship services, styles of music, and facility preferences. They hate the divisiveness and pettiness they see when church members complain about their pastors. They’ve had enough negativity! They are wondering if any church members really remember the gospel is good news!

Gen Z will strongly prefer churches that are focused and simple. Though the members of this generation are digital natives, they prefer a world and a church that is simple and clear on its purpose. They look at the calendars of churches and wonder how they expect anyone to keep up with all the functions and programs. They detest activity-driven churches. They will not hang around long if you ask them to attend a plethora of events and activities that make no sense to them. The simple church will be the church of choice.

Change-resistant churches will not attract Gen Z. As a redundant reminder, this generation is a generation of digital natives. They understand constant change. They live in a world of technological disruption. Change is their norm. Gen Zers, therefore, have no concept of the pettiness of many church issues. As best I can remember the conversation, these words came straight from the mouth of an 18-year-old Gen Zer. “You won’t believe what happened at a church I visited, Dr. Rainer,” he began. “They had a business meeting right after the worship services. During the meeting, some of the members started fussing about screens in the sanctuary. One of them demanded the church only use hymnals. She called the screens ‘the tool of the devil.’ I promise I’m not making this stuff up,” he said, wondering if I really believed such things happen in churches.

Yes and sadly, I did believe it. The young man insisted he would never set foot in the church again. “They seemed like a church determined to stay in the past and never change,” he told me with incredulity.

The Gen Zers are here. I have many reasons to believe it will be a great opportunity for congregations to reach a new and, possibly, receptive generation.

Stand by for more updates.

If you are interested in learning more about Gen Z, join me for a free webinar, “Seven Critical Ways Gen Z Will Shape the Church in 2020.” Click here to register.

Posted on December 9, 2019

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Because most of the GenZ’s have not grown up
    In church, what would make them come. Certainly not tradition or strong spiritual influence in the home. God’s Spirit moving in their lives would draw them to him, and a church may be one of the first places they seek. Not tradition, nor memories of childhood growing up in church, nor a societal teaching of the purpose of church. Only God’s Holy Spirit. How many of our churches are so filled with the Holy Sprit that a GenZer would immediately connect?

    • @ Steve Williams: I realize some deep insight here; your comment throws more light to the fact that it is indeed God Himself, the Spirit of Jesus who do the work of saving and changing lives. The church has to do due diligence and obedience to follow in His lead. Thom’s advice resonates louder: we the church must keep it Simple and Focused.
      God bless you all in your labor in His work; much fruit will follow.

  • I only know of a few people who really want to make trouble in churches, but they are so vocal that they consume all the energy. Thus, the rest of us can’t get a word in edgewise. The leadership is too busy placating that group and doing whatever else they do, and everyone else is forgotten. I realise that kids don’t donate and, therefore, don’t get to influence policy, but the command in the Torah is to teach the children. That said, the real faith is rarely taught. It sure wasn’t taught to Gen X. The marks of a good church member were attendance and donations. Sure, we all want churches to focus on the big things, the kingdom work, but few of us have any influence and the younger group likely does now know who Is in the leadership It should not be easier to participate in secular charity work than religious work, but it is.

  • Sadly, getting someone to go to “church” more often does not equate to someone being more spiritually minded and devout in their pursuit of Jesus daily. Yet that has been the model of ministry in most churches in this modern age. We have equated worship attendance and activity participation for disciple-making.

    For decades we have kept people busy doing church related activities and we have preached thousands of sermons, but we are steadily losing generations to the world.

    I’m 42 years old and I don’t like churches for the same reasons as GenZ. And even though I have been a pastor or staff pastor for almost 20 years, I still remain frustrated and discouraged at the terrible apathy found in most churches not to mention the resistance from church leadership to even consider slowly changing attitudes and methods to reach the lost for Christ and make disciples.

    I am so hungry for SIMPLE and FOCUSED. Why can’t churches just do what Jesus did? Why do we have to spend so much time, money, and people on stuff that doesn’t matter?

    [But what do I know, I’m just a GenXer. LOL]

    I’m praying for you all out there please pray for me. I just don’t want to miss what Jesus is doing around me because it doesn’t sync with my church culture or denominational traditions.

  • I observe that Gen Zs like their older siblings Gen Ys abhor any kind of shame or shaming. If they feel that you are speaking down to them or being critical they will have a stress reaction and most likely leave. They are very sensitive to being put in position of failure.

    • For Gen X, we were blamed for others’ sins. I have been condemned to hell from the pulpit more times I care to remember for sins committed by other members of my generation like males having long hair and earrings, murmuring, and questioning church polity.

  • William Alan Secrest says on

    This is also a generation that has not been raised in church hardly at all. I have an eighteen year old daughter and a fifteen year old son. My children are in church but many of their friends do not go to church and have no interest to be in church. The few that do go to church remind me just how much we are failing them. One of my daughter’s friends asked me recently about the new heaven and the new earth that will be created when we live with the Lord forever. She is “born-again” and understands that one day she is going to die. What was confusing her was that she believed that she was going to die again when she lived on the new earth with the Lord. I then explained that this is where we are going to spend eternity with the Lord and there is no more death. I then realized just how much we are failing this new generation because those that are in church need more Biblical teaching. She does not attend the church where I pastor but she does not attend her church often enough. Therein lies the problem. Salvation without discipleship is why we are having these types of situations in the first place.

    • I also believe we will lose this generation by not facing the issue of SSA. We are raising these kids during a time where the issue is everywhere, except in a direct conversation in the church. Even the ones in church believe we preach hate. If we don’t learn how to love and disciple these kids, the world will.