05 / 06
birds birds birds

Is Generation Z Less Christian?

June 03, 2018     Time: 18:32
Is Generation Z Less Christian?


Dr. Craig comments on some data concerning Generation Z and Christianity and offers insight on reaching youth culture


KEVIN HARRIS: Dr. Craig, we find ourselves quite often looking at what sociologists are saying these days, and as I reflect back on podcasts over the past several years when it comes to the next generations coming up and their religious or Christian attitudes, most of the time it doesn't seem to be very good news. We're always kind of depressed after we look at it. But, you know, there's something about these surveys that they kind of conflict. If you do a Google there will be research that shows one thing. Barna says that atheism doubles among generation Z, according to a new survey they've done. Generation Z: those born between 1999 and 2015, they're behind the millennials – born after the millennials. And yet just Googling here, there is a survey done by Joan Hope that she commissioned and she said Generation Z is one of the most conservative and religious generations coming up.

DR. CRAIG: Oh, for goodness sake!

KEVIN HARRIS: So what can you say? We just have to be careful with the data and look at what's coming in. Jonathan Morrow was on Fox News talking about why Generation Z is less Christian than ever, and why that's good news. You know him – Impact 360.

DR. CRAIG: Yes, Jonathan is a graduate of our program in Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology. He did his master's work there and was a student of mine, in fact, and he now works for Impact 360 in Georgia, south of Atlanta. This is a ministry funded by Chick-Fil-A to help prepare Christian high school students for their university and college experience. They will take out a year between high school graduation and college to work with the staff at Impact 360 in training in apologetics, Christian doctrine, worldview analysis, things of that sort. Jonathan is having a good ministry with this group.

KEVIN HARRIS: He starts his article[1] on Fox News with some Barna research and says:

Gen Z—the generation following the millennials—is the least Christian generation to date, according to a new Barna study – 34 percent of Gen Z’s religious affiliation is either atheist, agnostic or none. In fact, teens 13-18 years old are twice as likely as adults to say they are atheist. And just three in five 13- to 18-year-olds say they are some kind of Christian (59 percent).

DR. CRAIG: Immediately one wants to know something about this Barna study to which he refers. When one goes online, unfortunately the website concerning this study of Generation Z has very little information. We'd like to know about the sample size, for example. Who was interviewed? Was this a study simply conducted with Impact 360 students? It says it was done in conjunction with Impact 360, but we have no idea of whether thousands and thousands of students were interviewed nationally or whether this was much more restricted in scope or the time over which it was conducted. When you click on the links that they provide on the website it doesn't furnish any further information. It just says you can buy a copy of the study for $39 without telling us anything. So we need much more information, I think, before you can give credibility to the results that are reported here.

KEVIN HARRIS: Jonathan says,

As my friend David Kinnaman, the president of the Barna Group, put it while we were working on this Gen Z study together, “Is it possible that many churches are preparing young Christians to face a world that no longer exists?” Based on my experience working with students, the answer to this question is yes.

Many Christian teens are simply unprepared for the world that is waiting for them. With the best of intentions, we bubble wrap our kids and create Disney World–like environments for them in our churches, and then wonder why they have no resilience in faith or life. Students are entertained but not prepared. They’ve had a lot of fun but are not ready to lead. When the pressure to conform is turned up, Christian teenagers tend to wilt if they do not have the confidence that only comes from knowing why they believe what they believe. As one teenager told me, “following Jesus today is hard because sometimes you feel like the only one.”

You know, I felt like that when I was a young person.

DR. CRAIG: Yes, that’s true. Being in the minority is no different. And that quotation doesn't support the claim that's made in the paragraph. The notion in the paragraph was that teenagers wilt, not because they feel like they're the only one, they wilt because they don't have the confidence of having good reasons for what they believe. So the quote from the teenager here doesn't support the assertion that's made in the paragraph. Jonathan thinks that the reason our Christian teens are unprepared to meet the world is because they do not have confidence in their faith. They do not have good reasons for why they believe as they have been raised to believe.

KEVIN HARRIS: Well, this resonates with your work, I think.

DR. CRAIG: Sure.

KEVIN HARRIS: You have long said we don't need to just entertain kids. We need to give them some depth. Youth ministry specialists, I'm sure, will say you've got to do both. Young people are very physical, and you got to have lots of physical activities and some fun activities. They're all about having fun. If you can find a way to do that, and get some good discipleship, that would be the secret weapon obviously.

DR. CRAIG: Yeah. And I'm deeply committed to the idea of training Christians who are students in knowing the rational foundations for Christian faith with the conviction that Jonathan shares. This is going to make them more stalwart Christians and better leaders.


Our culture is changing fast and teenagers are confused—morally and spiritually. At Impact 360 Institute, we’ve been studying Gen Z alongside the Barna Group for the past year and a half and the research and focus groups confirm this trend. For example, only 34 percent of Gen Z agree that lying is morally wrong; 24 percent say what is morally right and wrong changes over time based on society, and 58 percent of this least-Christian generation agree that “Many religions can lead to eternal life; there is no ‘one true religion.’” 

DR. CRAIG: Yes. What this paragraph suggests is there's been a tremendous increase in relativism and pluralism among the next generation.


Let’s Stop Pretending

So why is the fact that Gen Z is less Christian than ever good news again? Because we need to stop pretending and start living in reality.

We need to stop pretending that if we entertain teenagers then they will stick around after they graduate.

DR. CRAIG: I don't know that the problem is that we've just been pretending as opposed to really equipping teens. I think we haven't done so well. But it seems to me that what's happened in our culture, the people who have stopped pretending are actually the kids themselves. They stop pretending that they're Christians, and this is happening primarily in the mainline denominations. The rise in this secularism among Generation Z that he talks about (particularly the so-called “nones” – meaning they have no religious affiliation), this is inversely correlated with the collapse of the mainline denominations in American society, that is to say the United Methodists, the Congregationalists, Episcopalians, as well as Roman Catholic Church. These mainline denominations are in drastic decline as I think people in them realize. There's no reason to just give lip service to Christianity anymore if you don't really believe it and live it. I think that what has happened is these nominal Christians in the mainline churches have stopped pretending and therefore are realizing and confessing they're not really Christians at all. The problem in our culture is not so much the evangelical denominations. These are holding their own as a percentage of the American population. They're the only group, in fact, that's holding its own, according to the Pew Research Institute. The evangelical churches are at least holding their percentage of the American population. But as the mainline churches have collapsed, as people have stopped pretending, and these nominal Christians have come out as non-Christians, you see this rise in secularism and the rise of the “nones” in American culture as a whole.

Now, on the one hand, you might think this is good news because these people are no longer pretending and therefore they become more legitimate subjects of evangelization. So long as they were thinking that they were already Christians, evangelizing them would be much more difficult. But when a person self-consciously rejects Christianity and no longer claims to be a nominal Christian then evangelism of such a person becomes all the more appropriate, if you see what I mean, because he self-consciously does not identify as a Christian. So, in one sense, I have thought this is really good – this rise of the “nones” – because people are realizing they're not really Christians and that's good. That's coming to grips with reality, and now we can reach out to them.

What I didn't see at first though (and I now have come to see) is that when this happens the result is that Christianity loses its hold or influence on American culture as a whole, and as a result American culture becomes more debased, more secular, more anti-religious, and you get things like same-sex marriage, cohabitation, promiscuity, all of these sorts of immoral influences in the culture on the rise – the very sort of relativism that Jonathan just mentioned in this paragraph. So Christianity loses its cultural influence.

What needs to happen fast is that these evangelical denominations need to assume the place in our culture once occupied by these mainline denominations where they begin to leaven the culture with a Christian influence that was once had and now has been surrendered by these mainline institutions.

KEVIN HARRIS: If you would allow me for a minute, let me just go on a rant here for just a moment. In my generation we decided we want more contemporary music, we want to be dedicated to Jesus, and we want to have contemporary music that we're not ashamed to share with our friends. OK, contemporary Christian music. It came in. Now all our churches have contemporary services. OK, we have that. And then in the 80s it was like: you know, we need to really have apologetics. And then that really solidified with you in the 90s – apologetics. And now I see this apologetics renaissance as you do also trickling down to the street level to the laypeople. So more and more churches have advanced the need for apologetics in youth groups than before. OK, so we've done that. And now what do you want? Now what do we do? I mean, it's still a moving target. We've got these great contemporary services, they're available to young people if they want that. Great bands that are out there. And that's what we wanted. We wanted to be more authentic and reach out to the culture and things like that and be dedicated to Jesus. Just not to be old fuddy-duddies or whatever. And then the need for apologetics came in. Well, it just comes down to showing that there's still a heart problem that the Holy Spirit needs to fix because what more do you want? What else do you want? We're doing everything that we thought we were supposed to do. Sometimes I look and say, well, now what do you want? Why does the culture seem to be sliding so much when we've tried to be more authentic and tried to do things that we thought . . .

DR. CRAIG: Jonathan's article is certainly short on what I would call the how-to's. He says, Let's quit pretending that everything's all right. Let's prepare our kids to meet the challenges of the contemporary world we live in. But he doesn't really go into how this is to be done. I guess he just wants churches to wake up and perhaps parents to wake up, but if you're right, this is already happening. They are waking up. And so now what do they do?

KEVIN HARRIS: Part of it has just got to be the breakdown of the family – the family unit. My uncle says in the 50s and 60s there was nothing more boring than going to church and listening to the preacher drone on and on and listening to the organ. He was from that late 60s generation. He said, But we all went because our parents said, ‘You're going’ and all the families were there. And so even with all the things available now, if the family structure is weak, that's still gonna prevent kids from going quite often and be as plugged in. All of this. So while we've done a few things to reach the culture, we've seen the culture deteriorate the family. You went whether it was boring or not.

DR. CRAIG: That's a good emphasis, Kevin. What you're, I think, drawing attention to is the need for a holistic ministry to the next generation. Because even if we equip them in apologetic training, if their moral formation is defective and if they have poor models at home because the parents are fighting or divorcing, that's going to make it difficult for them to lead victorious Christian lives.

KEVIN HARRIS: As we end the podcast here, looking at Barna and some of this research that you and I were looking at, it does seem to indicate according to their research that atheism is on the rise among Generation Z. That conflicts with some other things that we're seeing – that Generation Z is actually a lot more conservative than the millennials, but at any rate, do you have any advice on how we need to handle all this data? You can get into survey wars in debates and other things where somebody has one survey and you have a contradictory survey.

DR. CRAIG: Right. I think we have to be very critical in assessing these sorts of studies and surveys because we would need to know whether or not they're truly scientific, whether they had a significant sample size, what were the sort of questions that were asked, in some cases was there a control group? One needs to look at a range of these different studies and compare the results with one another, and to, I think, have a degree of suspicion about them until we're confident that the study is truly scientific and credible.[2]


[2]          Total Running Time: 18:31 (Copyright © 2018 William Lane Craig)