One of the largest religion-based reports on millennials and Gen Z was published this month by Barna Group and World Vision. It’s an intriguing collaboration, as Barna Group focuses extensively on faith and culture, and World Vision is a global Christian organization that works to lift children out of poverty.
The report, titled “The Connected Generation,” includes a sample size of 15,369 young adults ages 18 to 35, representing 25 countries. The key results that were examined featured these young adults’ outlook on the Christian church and their faith, in addition to their concerns for the future, their families and communities.
Two of the primary findings, that many millennials and Gen Z feel alone despite being connected through technology and that many feel worried and anxious, exemplify the cornerstone characteristics that have come to define these generations. However, it was encouraging to read that many young adults are open to faith and really want to change the world by utilizing their God-given talents and abilities.
One result I want to draw particular attention to is what the report calls “resilient discipleship,” which includes recommendations for “forming faithful Christ-followers, even among those Christians who lapse in religiosity.” Thirty-two percent of respondents said they believe that many people in church are “hypocritical,” which was one of the primary reasons that some abandoned their faith.
“Church folks are hypocrites” is certainly not a new allegation. Jesus rebuked the religious leaders of his day, the Scribes and Pharisees, for their hubris in doing works “to be seen of men” (Matthew 23:5). Their arrogance was on heightened display when they wore Scripture passages called phylacteries on their arms or foreheads. The Apostle Paul would later write in 2 Timothy 3:4-5 that those who are “heady” and “high-minded” have “a form of godliness” but deny “the power thereof.”
Young adults today will definitely be turned off by those who appear to worship God outwardly but do not have a living relationship with him through Jesus Christ. From my own observations of teaching millennials and Gen Zers at the college level, they look for genuineness and integrity in older adults in leadership positions.
Just as college students desire engaged instruction from their professors, those in church want their pastors and ministers to show them how to apply biblical principles to their own lives. Going through the motions of a church service or Bible study will quickly lose millennials and Gen Zers. They can tell when you’re not sincerely invested in them.
David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, pointed out that in reaching young people, churches should not just settle for packing them into pews. If millennials and Gen Zers are only sought for their numbers, Kinnaman asserts, “You get young adults who say they are Christian but are not wholly transformed by the light of the gospel or the power of the Spirit.”
I truly believe that many respondents in the “Connected Generation” report who expressed doubts about their faith are seeking a spiritual transformation through the Holy Spirit. They want to personally know God and understand the calling that he has for them. They want the work that they do in church to have purpose and meaning.
Those of us who are church leaders must teach young adults who want to be resilient disciples that spiritual metamorphosis comes through diligent study of Scripture. Romans 12:2 instructs us to be “transformed” by the renewing of our minds.
One of the biblical truths I have recently begun to better understand is that you must have the correct spiritual mindset to take joy in service to the Lord. Having the right mindset will bring wisdom and understanding as you mature in faith.
It is evident from the Barna Group and World Vision report that many millennials and Gen Zers who attend church don’t want to be passive members, and that’s great news. The onus is on church leaders to provide them with the spiritual sustenance they need.
Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at Ohio State University’s Lima campus.