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Recently, a college administrator surprised a mostly pre- and newly retired audience. She told them they should stop labeling college students as millennials. The administrator correctly pointed out that as a 40-something thriving professional with a middle school-aged child, she is in the millennial generation. Today, current and soon-to-be college students are actually Gen Z, which is defined as those currently between the ages of 13-25.

How well has your congregation kept up with the generational shifts? Do you and your leaders still use the term “millennial” as a catch-all term for youth and young adults? In addition to updating your language, do you also need to adapt the ways you seek spiritual and social connections with emerging generations?

Gen Z’s relationship to faith and the institutional church looks different than their millennial and Gen X parents. Since preschool, Gen Z has been immersed in a religiously and culturally diverse world. Their cultural icons, fashions and musical preferences span racial and ethnic categories. This is not to say that Gen Z is a “post-bias” generation. Yet their multicultural experiences do influence how they see the world.

Beyond diversity, this generation’s general lack of trust in organized religion means congregational leaders can’t simply launch new programs and wait for Gen Z to come rushing in. Especially in the wake of multiple pandemics and the memory of dream-altering recessions, Gen Z seeks a faith community that cares about them, as a generation and individuals, and is actively involved in what is happening in the world.

According to one report, the number of Americans who identify as Christian declined 12 percentage points from 2009 to 2019. However, it’s unlikely that throngs of people are abandoning their faith. It’s more likely that what the church is doing today is not convincing the next generation to connect with the church. Maybe the question is not: “How do we get the younger generation to come to church?” Perhaps the question is: “How can we let Gen Z push the church to be a better and more faithful expression of God’s kingdom for our times?”

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Before you go…

I am struck by how well Scripture anticipated the need for each generation to take responsibility for making room for the next generation. As the tribes of Israel prepared to cross over the Jordan River, Joshua told the tribal leaders to carry a stone across the river (Joshua 4:6). He anticipated that the children in the next generation would one day ask what the stones meant. I wonder if the church is so busy telling younger generations what to do that we have not truly heard their questions about what faith means. Let’s listen to their voices and raise our generational IQ.

As always, we love to hear your comments. You can email me and the Alban Weekly team at alban@duke.edu. Until next week, keep leading!

Prince Rivers

Editor, Alban at Duke Divinity

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