Gen Z: Rising generation twice as likely to be atheists

(Photo / verkeorg / CC BY-SA 2.0)

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GRAPEVINE—Churches that shaped their youth ministry programs to appeal to Millennials may need to go back to the drawing board to reach Generation Z, new research showed.

Generation Z represents the least Christian and most racially and sexually diverse generation in American history, according to a Barna Group report, “Gen Z: The Culture, Beliefs and Motivations Shaping the Next Generation,” produced in partnership with Impact 360 Institute.

Some demographers broadly define Gen Z as young people born between 1995 and 2014, but Barna’s research focused specifically on youth ages 13-18.

The Barna study revealed teenagers today are twice as likely as adults to identify themselves as atheists, with 13 percent of youth ages 13-18 describing themselves that way, compared to 6 percent of adults.

Post-Christian generation

“They are the first post-Christian generation in U.S. history,” Angie Richey, vice president for enrollment at Life Pacific College in California, told a session on “Meet Generation Z” at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities International Forum in Grapevine.

Angie Richey

Richey cited multiple sources in her presentation, relying heavily on research findings by the New York-based Sparks and Honey agency as she addressed issues Christian higher education institutions will face in recruiting and retaining Gen Z students.

Like Millennials, many teens in Gen Z fit the “spiritual but not religious” label, and they generally are biblically illiterate, she noted. However, today’s teens are attracted to social causes, she added.

“A faith that is privately engaging but socially irrelevant will not attract them,” she said.

One in five teens (21 percent) chooses a negative, judgmental image to represent a Christian church, the Barna study revealed.

Sexual ethic and gender identity

Issues related to traditional understandings of sexual ethics and gender identity particularly separate teens in Gen Z from previous generations.

“Traditional morality will be a tricky conversation with these young people,” Richey said.

The Barna study showed 12 percent of teens describe their sexual orientation as something other than heterosexual, with more that half of that proportion (7 percent) identifying as bisexual.

Seven out of 10 (69 percent) believe it is acceptable to be born one gender but feel like another, and three out of 10 teens say they personally know someone—typically a peer—who has changed his or her gender identity, the Barna research revealed.

“This generation is gender fluid,” Richey said. “They consider relational acceptance and lifestyle affirmation to be synonymous.”

About half of the teens ages 13-18 are nonwhite, and they represent the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in U.S. history, the Barna study showed.

Teens value diversity and favor collaboration over competition, Richey noted.

“They want everyone to win,” she said.

Addicted to screens

Like Millennials, Gen Z youth grew up with technology, but they place higher value on digital privacy, Richey noted.

“They are digital natives who don’t want to be tracked,” she said, noting they prefer the ephemeral photo-messaging smartphone app Snapchat to the digital community of Facebook.

More than half of teens (57 percent) use screen media four or more hours daily, one-fourth (26 percent) report looking at a screen eight or more hours on a typical day, the Barna study revealed.

“They are screen-addicted,” said Richey, a licensed therapist who emphasized mental health concerns related particularly to smartphone use. “These students don’t know what to do without their phones.”

Some research indicates teens today are more likely to report feelings of loneliness, get less sleep, are more sedentary and have greater difficulty coping with their emotions than other generations, she noted.

“They are more connected but more lonely,” she said.

Crave financial security

Half of today’s teens (51 percent) name happiness as their ultimate life goal, and 43 percent equate that with financial success, the Barna research revealed.

“They are motivated to work, motivated to save and often pressured by parents to get a job,” Richey said.

Today’s teens grew up in a post-9/11 world during a recession, she noted. Many grew up in multi-generational households with grandparents or with older siblings who moved back home.

“This generation wants to know they can get a job,” she said.

Richey also pointed to a Gen Z characteristic that has a practical impact for youth ministers accustomed to throwing pizza parties and small Christian colleges with limited food-service menus.

“They are health-conscious foodies,” she said, noting they demand vegan and gluten-free food choices. “They will complain if you don’t offer them healthier options.”

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