Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World
Reviewed by Emily S. Bosscher, First Year Experience, Trinity Christian College
Over the past five years, the student population on college campuses has changed. Current students are equal parts less ready for college and adulthood but highly empathetic toward others around them, indecisive and yet yearning for mentoring relationships, filled with anxiety and the fear of failure but eager to right wrongs in culture and fix the political and social mess they are inheriting. Do not call them Millennials—these students are Generation Z. In adjusting to this fascinating, yet complicated, group of students, Christian higher education currently finds itself in a new reality. This newest and largest generation, at 25.9% of the current population and growing (37), is part of the 36% of adults under the age of 30 in the United States who currently claim no religious identity (coined as “nones”).
This combination presents what author James Emery White states as “the new reality of a post-Christian world. As the first truly post-Christian generation, and numerically the largest, Generation Z will be the most influential religious force in the West and the heart of the mission challenge facing the Christian church” (11). Although White’s audience is more specifically church leaders and pastors, and the book’s focus is how Generation Z is the next mission field for the church, there is no doubt that Christian colleges and universities mirror the struggles of churches in facing declining chapel programs and uncertainty in how to reach unchurched and “none” students to help them discover, develop, and deepen their Christian faith while in college. This book gives valuable insights into understanding Generation Z students, the cultural influences that have shaped their ideas of faith and the church, and how Christian higher education can help turn the rising tide of “nones” today.
White’s main argument centers on the idea that the world is entering a seventh age, building on the ideas of historian Christopher Dawson that every three or four centuries in the history of the Christian church, an identifiable age emerges, each beginning and ending in crisis (17). White sees the world moving into a seventh age marked by “economic uncertainty, global instability, technological advances, and demographic transitions” (18) which include the shift of the center of Christianity to Africa, Asia, and Latin America; the rise of Islam; the radical change in the definition of family and marriage around the world due to a growing acceptance of gay marriage and three-parent children; and an increasing redefinition of what it means to be human in a world focused on gender, identity, and sexual transitioning. This cultural context, he argues, has led to “functional atheism” (20) in which culture essentially just ignores God. Functional atheism in turn leads to the rise of “nones,” handily replacing what used to be, in White’s words, the “squishy center”: people who used to exist between the poles of secularism and belief, but would move toward whatever the influences of culture determined when pressed to make a choice. For years, the squishy center reflected Christian beliefs and an assumption that the culturally appropriate answer was to say one was a Christian and show up in church on an occasional important holiday. Not so anymore. White notes that “virtually everything in culture is moving the squishy center to the secularists’ side. Today, if asked about their religion, people in the center say they’re nothing, because that’s the cultural thing to say” (30-31).
This non-religious squishy center helped shape Generation Z students who now inhabit college campuses and whom White defines in Chapter 2. White identifies the generation as marked by the Great Recession and being multiracial, sexually fluid, and post-Christian. They are filled with a high level of anxiety and worry, often exacerbated by the fact that they spend “nearly nine hours a day absorbing media” (42). While highly influenced by the opinions of others and a fear of missing out, “only 15 percent prefer to interact with their friends via social media rather than face-to-face” (45). And when asked by MTV in 2015 what they wanted to be called, Generation Z youth responded that they would choose the label The Founders, “as in needing to ‘found the new world,’ rescuing it from the sins of its past” (41). A truly fascinating, but complicated, generation to be sure.
This is a generation that lives out what White calls a “God, yes; church, no” (133) mentality, and there are troubling generational markers that conflict with biblical truths. Existing in a world of sexual fluidity that values relativistic understandings of truth, they are entrenched in almost constant access to information but unable to listen to opposing views due to what has become a culture of offense, or, as White puts it, “vindictive protectiveness … in the name of emotional well-being, students can eliminate anything they do not want to think about, read about, or be challenged about” (99). They have been raised to put acceptance, affirmation, and inclusivity as more important than moral stance, and believe that “If you don’t affirm, you don’t accept” (92). It is no wonder then, that it is a challenge for them to understand spiritual and biblical truth, and a challenge for the church to help them find their way to Christianity and Christian living.
White spends much of the book presenting ideas for bringing Generation Z into the church, and, specifically, faith in Christ. Chapter 6, “Rethinking Evangelism,” takes a look at the current practices of evangelism and the changes needed to reach Generation Z. He argues that “the church must rethink evangelism—no longer can we be simply event driven. The church must view evangelism as both a process and an event” (109). White makes a comparison between evangelism in Acts 2 and Acts 17:
We are not speaking to the God-fearing Jews in Jerusalem. We are standing on Mars Hill and need an Acts 17 mindset with an Acts 17 strategy. Which means our primary cultural currency is going to need to be explanation. It’s not enough to move from a King James Version of the Bible to Eugene Peterson’s uber-contemporary paraphrase The Message in our speaking. We have to begin by saying, “This is a Bible. It has sixty-six books. There’s an Old Testament and a New Testament. It tells the story of us and God.” And then we need to explain the story. (111)
While not everyone will agree with White’s argument that reaching Generation Z re- quires a far more visual approach to evangelism and in worship practices, White effectively argues that this generation has been shaped by visual stimuli far more than previous genera- tions. In Chapter 7, “Apologetics for a New Generation,” White notes that the approaches to apologetics today are going to look different than they did in the past, as they “grapple with the great indictments the world lays at the feet of the church, such as judgmental- ism, hypocrisy, anti-intellectualism, a perceived lack of tolerance, and legalism” (130). He does a wonderful job of highlighting the issues of spiritual illiteracy, fascination with the supernatural and occult, and questions of skepticism about the universe and creation that dominate Generation Z thinking.
Not all recommendations are directly translatable to higher education, but White does offer insight on ways that Christian higher education can recalibrate programs and methods to reach Generation Z students. One of the most profound approaches that White suggests is that Generation Z students need to be held to both grace and truth. “Truth without grace is just judgment. Grace without truth is license” (114). White illustrates this concept through the John 8 story of Jesus with the adulterous woman, where he did not condemn or stone her, but still required her to change her ways and to “go and sin no more.” In a culture that espouses affirmation and non-judgment to allow people to be who they want to be, White argues that “the only kind of voice that will arrest the attention of the world will be convictional in nature, clear in its message, substantive in its content, and bold in its challenge. Translation: grace and truth in equal measure” (115). Do not miss reading White’s sermon titled “Gay Marriage” in Appendix A for a beautiful example of how to demonstrate grace and truth to Generation Z and the culture at large.
Living out the mantra “It’s not about you” (155) might be White’s encouragement to churches, but it also translates well on college campuses, especially where those making decisions about worship or spiritual engagement are part of three very different previous generations. In designing worship programs, outreach, and discipleship opportunities for Generation Z students, White reminds readers to follow Christ’s example in missions: “Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? Go figure out what this Scripture means: ‘I’m after the mercy, not religion.’ I’m here to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders” (Matthew 9:12-13 The Message). White argues that to truly be missional in reaching the “nones” is to focus on the needs of those who are not already Christ followers:
Don’t like the new music? It’s not about you. Don’t like the new style of worship? It’s not about you. Don’t like the new dress code? It’s not about you. Don’t like what we’re doing with video? It’s not about you. Don’t like the new website? It’s not about you. It’s about them. (155)
White’s conclusion hits the mark for Christian higher education just as much as in the church:
Leaders know the church is not experiencing the growth they desire, particularly among the young and unchurched. They have a solid constituency, but they are older and, most definitely, churched. They are good people, giving people, serving people, but they like the church the way it is. Yet times have changed. Culture has shifted dramatically. Unless they reach the next generation, the church will simply get older and smaller, year by year, until it is a shell of what it once was. (157)
White urges the church, and indirectly Christian institutions, to be more aggressive in reaching Generation Z, to seek to stop the continued rise of “nones,” and to take action in the mission field that is Generation Z. As leaders in Christian institutions are also leaders in shaping the future of Christianity, White’s message is suitable and pertinent to the work of Christian colleges and universities as well.