the shape of leadership

Reaching Gen Z

What today’s young people most want from church leaders

Josh Packard on January 20, 2022

On your way to becoming a mature Christian and a leader in the church, chances are somebody — likely multiple somebodies — cared enough to invest in you relationally.

Ministers today are concerned about how to engage the members of Generation Z (born around 1997 or later) in matters of faith. With many young people leaving the Church, it is easy to assume they are simply uninterested in spirituality.

You know they represent the future. You know God has called you to take the gospel to them and disciple them in the faith. But perhaps you don’t always know the best way to go about it. How do you attract them? How do you keep them? How do you introduce them to Jesus? As it turns out, the solution may be less complicated than you realize.

Leading Through Uncertainty

I serve as executive director of Springtide Research Institute, which recently released The State of Religion and Young People 2021. This report sheds light on what churches can do to reach this generation.

Our goal was to describe the current state of the relationship between young people and religion, not prescribe what that relationship should be. However, a closer look at what young people are saying suggests some possible avenues for church leaders seeking to evangelize and disciple them.

Even as some members of Generation Z eschew church attendance, most are asking existential questions, searching for meaning, and exploring religious ideas. They claim to experience spirituality in a variety of ways, such as watching movies, reading books, praying, and meditating. In our survey of U.S. teens and adults aged 13–25, 71% identified as religious, and 78% described themselves as spiritual.

Yet many who identify as religious don’t attend church — or any other kind of religious service, for that matter. This disconnect is multifaceted, but it is impossible to understand fully without first acknowledging that Generation Z is struggling with a significant degree of uncertainty — a key point in our report.

In fact, 1 in 3 respondents told us they were going through a challenging event. Amid a global pandemic and myriad disruptions to daily life, they were making big decisions about the future, experiencing mental or physical illness, dealing with the death or sickness of a loved one, or navigating relationship transitions like breakups.

The logical next question we asked was this: “What do you do when facing uncertain times?”

Most said they sought support within their social networks. They went to people they knew and trusted.

Ministers may want to help, but few young people are turning to their churches for support. Of the respondents who indicated they are active church attenders, only 29% had reached out to their spiritual community during a difficult time.

Young people are leaning on trusted relationships in uncertain times. In most cases, this includes friends and family members. However, church leaders and fellow church attenders are not always among their close connections.

Our research indicates that a lack of relationships is one reason many members of Generation Z have lost interest in church.

In other words, young people are telling us they do not have trusted relationships in church. Congregations can take steps toward changing this, but it will take intentional effort. If church leaders hope to influence this generation, they need to grow in relational authority.

Leading Relationally

Relational authority is a leadership model that emphasizes authentic relationships. Over time, leaders can build a foundation of trust by listening, caring, and demonstrating integrity, transparency, and expertise.

Credentials, titles and professional experience are not enough to gain credibility with young people. Before letting someone speak into their lives, they need to believe that person cares for them, listens to them, and believes in them. To stem the tide of young people leaving the Church, you must find ways to invest in relationships.

Some of the respondents in our study described what relational authority looks like in their lives. André, 25, talked about the importance of his mentor being vulnerable.

There was a lot of genuine sharing with my mentor,” he said. “Naturally, I’m not a person to speak first, so when they were vulnerable with me, I felt safe to be vulnerable with them. Sharing hard situations, hard stories in their lives. That vulnerability created that space for me.”

Ophelia, 20, appreciated the regular conversations she had with a trusted older adult in her life.

“My check-ins with him every week to hear about his life and talk about philosophy or just the meaning of life and random ideas turned into a really cool friendship,” she said.

The significance of forming genuine friendships with people who care emerged as a common theme. Young people want to know you, not just the church you represent or the vision statement of your ministry.

Sharing some details about yourself — a friendship that means a lot, the type of music you love, your favorite book, or a question you have been pondering — adds a relational element to any interaction and can lead to more meaningful conversations. Maintain appropriate and professional boundaries, of course, but do open up in ways that build trust. After all, trust is the foundation for receptivity to new ideas and perspectives.

Our research indicates that a lack of relationships is one reason many members of Generation Z have lost interest in church. Young people are indeed religious and spiritual, but many are staying away from services because they do not have trusted relationships with churchgoers or church leaders.

Leading With Love

Young people have not written off the faith entirely. Despite their mistrust of church, many identify not only as religious and spiritual, but also as Christian. This provides a glimmer of hope. They are still seeking answers to their questions. And in many cases, they are still open to the gospel.

Churches have an opportunity to help guide young people on their journey. But big programs and catchy sermon titles aren’t likely to impress them.

Young people want to know someone cares about them. Just 10% of respondents in our survey said a faith leader reached out them during the first year of the pandemic — a time when many teens and young adults were struggling with upheaval, anxiety and isolation.

There are young people in your church and community who are looking for a friend and mentor. Be that person. Welcome their curiosity and their questions. Listen respectfully to what they have to say. Show up for their ballgames, graduations, and weddings. Hear about their dreams and disappointments. Invest in their success. Comfort them, cheer them on, and let them know you care.

Eventually, young people may trust you enough to respond to the message you preach — and the one they see you living.

This article appears in the Winter 2022 edition of Influence magazine.

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