Gen Z Showing Major Shifts in Religious Identity, Sexuality


Kate Shellnutt of Christianity Today reports Generation Z is twice as likely to identify as atheists or LGBT as are other American adults (“Get Ready, Youth Group Leaders: Teens Twice as Likely to Identify as Atheist or LGBT”). While many youth pastors believe wisdom in using technology is the foremost need of emerging generations, other challenges are present as well. Churches need to be wise and understanding in their conversations about sexual identity and unbelief.

CT’s report is based on research findings from Barna Group. The full study can be found here and is available for purchase. Barna’s website features a few videos, too. Among other findings, Barna only classified 1 in 11 teens as an “engaged Christian,” a category derived from a combination of answers to questions concerning belief, personal piety, and church involvement.

Gen Zers cite the problem of evil and suffering, hypocrisy among Christians, scientific objections, a generalized disbelief in myth, injustices in Christian history, dropping out of church, and bad experiences with Christians as barriers to Christian faith.

However, religious belief or faith continues to hold steady as an important marker for one’s sense of self among Gen Z. Thirty-four percent of Gen Zers say their religion or religious beliefs are “very important” for their identity, slightly higher than Millennials (32%) and the same as Gen Xers. Boomers are much higher (43%).

Demographic research shows us overall trends. The reality in your neighborhood may look differently and may not have as much of an impact on your context right now. But these trends have implications for the future, so that even if your context does not reflect some of the attitudes and outlooks found in the Barna study, addressing these matters may benefit Gen Zers in your context as they gain greater exposure to broader American culture.

Gen Zers will grow, mature, enter the work force and then shape the future. Therefore, the views reflected in the Barna study on sexuality, religion, and identity may have a future impact on government policy, education, and business. These views may also be reflected in art and other expressions of culture, such as movies and music.

Within your church context, it would be helpful to name these trends and help students think carefully, critically, and compassionately about how best to respond as a follower of Jesus. Christians have fundamental disagreements with atheists, but those not ascribing to a religious viewpoint are nonetheless neighbors. They may have objections to Christianity that are worthy of consideration and a gentle answer. Christian philosophers, theologians, and pastoral leaders have formulated reasonable and compelling answers to the challenges of atheism. Training Gen Zers in responding is not only a way to offer a defense of faith (apologetics), but is also an act of love.

This blog has a diverse denominational readership, and different traditions have responded to recent debates about human sexuality in various ways. Regardless of tradition, every church should prepare those working with Gen Z to speak honestly and clearly about sexuality and offer biblical and theological reasons for both their convictions and corresponding ethic. Gen Zers know persons who identify as transgender, gay, and lesbian, and they are coming to their own understandings of sexuality. They are hearing about these matters from peers and from the broader culture. Churches do well when they not only present their convictions with clarity (truth), but when they do so pastorally and with love (grace).

One aspect of loving your neighbor is knowing their name. Another is knowing where your neighbor is coming from, which involves what they think and believe. This Barna study helps churches better understand Gen Z. The next step is to facilitate conversations on these matters within the local church and to teach and model wise and Christlike responses to these concerns.