Do you remember where you were when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out? I do. One Thursday, we started hearing all these whispers and rumblings. I was at a conference in Ohio, and I remember hearing that Craig Rochelle had to be quarantined for fourteen days because he had been exposed to COVID overseas. A family from our church had gone on a trip to Italy, and they ended up having to stay an extra two weeks because, remember, Italy was the first place to spike COVID cases, and their hospitals were overwhelmed. It was crazy!
I remember how naive we were, saying things like, “I’m sure in two or three weeks, things will get back to normal.” We just had all of these idealistic ideas of how things would turn out. I don’t think any of us could have ever predicted how important toilet paper would become!
The pandemic was a culture-shifting event. I don’t think we’ve even begun to experience the full aftereffects and aftershocks of it. But one thing that broke my heart through all of it, and I think I speak for most leaders and pastors, was watching people get lost spiritually in all of it. People with deep roots and those with shallow roots both experienced challenges to their faith. As a result, many didn’t return to church, and we’re still trying to make sense of it all.
COVID accelerated something that was already in progress: attendance. It’s no secret that church attendance has been on the decline in America for 25 years. But it almost just shook the loose apples off the tree, you know,? It accelerated the process. Listen to this information from Tim Elmore, a leading authority when it comes to Gen Z and Millennials. Gen Z is now two generations removed from being a church generation. In some ways, this is actually a good thing because when you reach somebody that’s from those generations, they don’t have negative experiences with church. They don’t have any experience with church! Let me share with you ten defining terms for Gen Z, because this is reshaping and reforming our church strategy right now, and I believe it will help you too.
1. The New Normal. That’s a term Gen Z and Millennials is always going to be familiar with. They grew up listening to us talk about terrorism, recession, other common hardships, and now they’ll remember the COVID-19 pandemic that impacted their childhoods and early careers.
2. On Demand. These generations expect entertainment when they want it and fight boredom with screen time. Not only did time on Zoom increase during the pandemic, but also time on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, YouTube, you name it!
3. Multicultural Mix. This one is really interesting to me. They are a mix of ethnic races more than any generation in US history. This is cool. There’s been a 50% increase in this identity since 2000. So half of Gen Z is made up of individuals who would be considered from minority people groups. So you better believe that is going to shape how we communicate and how we reach the next generation!
4. Instant Access. They have a Google reflex. They find answers at the tap of a screen. No waiting. They just ask Google. Past generations asked their parents, but they don’t feel that they need the older generations the way we did even fifteen years ago.! I just made it into the Millennials, and I admit I do most of my message prep with Google. I have study tools, but Google’s the primary place that I go to search a scripture.
5. Woke Culture. I see some people’s eyes starting to twitch here. I witnessed family divisions over what determines whether one is racist or truly supports a movement, such as Black Lives Matter. Gen Z’s decisions are informed by equality for all and woke culture overall.
6. Immediate Feedback. They insist on responses from social media games or friends and desire them instantly. Some employers tell me they can’t give feedback to young staff quickly enough. That’s interesting.
7. Constant Contact. This isn’t just a tech platform; Gen Z is always connected with few margins for solitude or silence. Often a screen is on 24/7. It’s the first and last item they look at each day.
8. Blended Family. They offer new definitions for family, identity and sexuality. Think about this: binary is a boundary of the past for most of Gen Z. They are extending the parameters and believe in dozens of genders. They are wrestling with many questions because of all they hear, 24/7. That whole framework of how they view sexuality and identity is being shaped from a very early age — as early as kindergarten! I witnessed this with my own children!
9. Anything Goes. They grew up at a time when traditional morals are in question. Having felt betrayed by older leaders, they question everything, much like Boomers did in the 1960s. So this is cyclical. It’s nothing that hasn’t happened in our country before. But it is accelerating in this generation.
10. Panic Attack. They are the most anxious generation in US history by a long shot. Last fall, one in four young adults considered suicide (that’s 25%!) due to the pandemic. Mental health must be a top priority for leaders today.
The post-COVID world needs Jesus. They need us as pastors and leaders to come to them, to share the gospel, to invite them to church. They need to learn God’s way of living so that they can make it through the challenges that lie ahead. “Because the Bible says so” might not cut it for this next generation. Yes, the Bible still the final authority for life. But how we present it to people who might not initially believe that matters. We need to get creative. We need to ask questions that makes these younger generations rethink and deconstruct what culture has told them. We need to find ways to give them room to wrestle with doubt in a way that leads them back to Jesus and ultimately gives them a hunger for what the Bible has that is life-changing.
We all want to make a difference in the world, now more than ever. COVID-19 gave us a remarkable opportunity that we wouldn’t otherwise have had to reevaluate everything we’re doing and make necessary changes. Take advantage of the opportunity and allow God to speak to you, to tell you what needs to change to better reach and connect with these younger generations. They are the future church, if we can reach them in time.