Can American Churches Reap a Harvest among Gen-Z Religious ‘Nones’?
Younger Americans are more likely to dissociate from organized religion, according to a recent Pew Research study on religious “nones.” Out of 28% of American adults who identify as “atheist,” “agnostic,” or “nothing in particular,” 29% are aged 18-29 (Generation Z is ages 11-26), while 40% are aged 30-49. Despite their professed dissociation, these individuals are not necessarily hardened against the message of the gospel. “We have tremendous opportunity right now,” urged podcaster Kyle Campbell on “Washington Watch,” “particularly in the church.”
“These ‘nones’ — it looks like a big number, but only 17% identify as atheists, 20% as agnostic, and 63% nothing in particular,” noted Family Research Council President Tony Perkins. “It’s not that they don’t believe in God, they’re just not connected to a religious denomination or affiliation.”
Fully 69% of ‘nones’ say they believe in the God of the Bible or some other higher power, but only 3% “go to religious services at least monthly,” and a plurality (43%) says religion does more harm than good. These numbers don’t show “a rejection of God,” Perkins interpreted, but rather a rejection of “organized religion, that in many ways has become milquetoast and has abandoned truth. ‘So,’ [think the ‘nones’], ‘why bother?’”
An exploding number of young Americans are drifting through life without any theological mooring. Many of them were raised in church, but yet they remain largely ignorant of the Bible and its teaching. They appear unaware of the exclusive claims of Christianity that demands either total acceptance or rejection, not a pick-and-choose buffet of nice moral teachings.
“It’s a generation who doesn’t necessarily want to reject spirituality or God or religion or Christianity,” Campbell posited. “They’re just saying, ‘We want more information. We’re seeking, you know, give us the truth. We want to find the right place to land.’ But they don’t have that yet.”
“How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” argued Paul (Romans 10:14).
This should be a wake-up call for churches. If a young 20-something with no firm religious beliefs walked through the front doors on a Sunday morning, what would he find?
- Would he find a joyful people deeply committed to the truths they believe, or hurried people preoccupied with sports, politics, or their phones?
- Would he hear them lifting their voices in worship to God, or would worship be outsourced to stage performers?
- Would he see the Word of God opened and its doctrines explained, or would he leave no wiser than he came?
- Would he note the gospel of Jesus Christ infused throughout the service, or would his experience confirm his prejudice that Christianity simply aimed to make people better, like every other religion?
- Would he encounter the literal words of God handed down for thousands of years, or would he encounter contemporary notions sold with contemporary techniques?
- Would he have time to reflect on what he heard, or would the hour-long service be overly hurried, to usher in the next crowd?
- Would he be convicted, called to account, and compelled to recognize that “God is really among you” (1 Corinthians 14:25), or would the hour of good feelings merely strike him as a cross between a concert and a TED talk?
Not all the responsibility lies with church staff, though they often take the lead in shaping church services and especially in feeding the flock. Church members also bear some responsibility for the leadership they accept, as Paul indicated by his chiding in 2 Corinthians 11:19-21. This does not mean church members should be insubordinate, divisive, or insistent upon their own preferences. It does mean that, where their local church is imperfect, they can and should seek to change it for the better through persuasion, biblically based reasoning, and servant-hearted self-sacrifice.
One turn-off that might drive away the younger generation in particular is lukewarmness. Gen-Zers, as they are called, “are an incredibly passionate generation,” said Campbell. “They are fired up to stick to what they do believe, when they do make that decision, and then take action.” Such persons would likely turn away in disgust from shallow professors who claim to follow Christ but who usually follow the distractions of this world. They might read texts like Philippians 3:8, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord,” notice the manner in which some believers live, and conclude that Christianity is for unpersuaded hypocrites. Indeed, when Pew asked religious “nones” why they don’t affiliate with a religion, 30% cited a bad experience with religious people, and 41% didn’t see a need for religion in his or her life.
Another related reason why the younger generation has ditched formal religion is the fearful approach of many churches during COVID. “These are youth who’ve come through COVID, when we were separated very much from a church experience,” explained Campbell. “We’re coming back from that, but now we’re seeing a disconnect from this generation.”
During the worst days of the COVID pandemic, everything not “essential” shut down or switched to “virtual” online interactions. Many churches decided their regular, in-person gatherings were inessential, or at least acquiesced when local authorities classified them as inessential. Gen-Zers got the message, whether it was intentional or not. If gathering regularly with a church is not essential, then why make the effort to get up early on Sunday morning, or why take time away from other enjoyable weekend pastimes?
Regular readers of TWS are likely aware that Hebrews 10:24-25 exhorts believers to not neglect meeting together in order to “stir up one another to love and good works,” something not replicable through online streaming. But they may be less familiar with the basis for this command given in Hebrews 10:19-21. We should gather together because “we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh,” and because “we have a great priest over the house of God.” In other words, if Jesus really died and rose again to reconcile God and man, and if we are really saved through him as a free gift of grace, then that changes everything.
For starters, if Jesus really died, rose again, and invited all people to believe in him and so inherit eternal life, then we aren’t free to simply pick and choose which parts of Christianity we want to accept. Young people cannot cherry-pick the parable of the good Samaritan and the beatitudes; they must also recognize their fallenness in sin, take up their cross daily, and put to death their worldly passions.
Perhaps most strikingly, most of these religious “nones” say they believe in a “higher power,” yet don’t attend church regularly or affiliate with any organized religion, implying that this power is not all that “high.” I don’t know all the fake and faltering gods that might be out there, but I do know that the God of the Bible does not leave room for his followers to be “lone ranger” Christians. His utterly true and trustworthy word describes how “we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Romans 12:5). God the Father composes and arranges this body (1 Corinthians 12:18, 24), in which all Christ-followers are united together through the one Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13). If someone claims to follow the God of the Bible, yet dissociates himself from the church, Christ’s visible body on earth, he is dis-membered from this mystical body of the triune God.
Young religious “nones” are “not willing to or ready to pick a side here,” said Campbell. What they don’t realize is there are no fence-sitters with God. The church cannot make people’s choices for them, but it does have an obligation to proclaim the truth of the gospel, to make people aware that they must either continue rejecting Jesus or submit to him as Lord. In that sense, the church is a watchmen like Ezekiel, commissioned to “warn the wicked to turn from his way” (see Ezekiel 33:1-9). We cannot make people heed the warning, but we believe that God is faithful to create a new heart inside all whom he “appointed to eternal life” (Acts 13:48).
The task is especially urgent because other groups hostile to the church are also interested in winning converts among these impressionable, young minds. “Our educational system and our church and our government are all vying to be the ones through that open door,” said Campbell. Gen-Zers “want the information. They want the truth. If the church isn’t out there giving it to them, if what they’re providing is milquetoast, … somebody else is going to get through that door.”
The need is for sound teaching, godly worship, and holy living to satisfy a generation’s hunger for truth and meaning. The challenge is that many young Americans are unconvinced by the limpid Christianity on offer in many churches. The urgency is that worldly influences are whisking these young people along the easy way that leads to destruction. The hope is that God is able to convert even the worst offenders and vilest sinners.
“Lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest. Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together” (John 4:35-36).
Joshua Arnold is a senior writer at The Washington Stand.