culture

Explainer: Who is Gen Z and What Do They Want?

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By Kevin Singer and Lucy Cobble

A few weeks ago, I (Kevin) wrote for the Intersect Project about how little engagement there is between Gen Z and faith leaders. As a recap, Springtide Research Institute found that just 8% of young people ages 13-25 say there’s a religious leader in their life (e.g. a pastor, priest, or rabbi) they can turn to if needed.

It’s tempting for faith leaders to imagine that young people are content hiding behind their phone screens – so content in fact, that the last thing they want is guidance or investment from older adults. As it turns out, Gen Z is desperately in need of guidance and support – they want to feel known and heard by adults who have the wisdom to help them make the right decisions. In this follow-up article, we hope to provide additional clarity on how faith leaders can be successful making an impact on this often-misunderstood generation.

In a society that is already bombarding them constantly with noise, pictures, and sound, they’re impressed when someone takes the time to invest in them and care for them as individuals.

Who is Gen Z?

Generation Z, or Gen-Z for short, consists of people born roughly between the years of 1995-2010. It’s hard to imagine, but there are members of this generational cohort who weren’t born yet when 9/11 occurred. One of the most important things to recognize is that members of Gen Z are coming of age in a society that is characterized more by impersonal, transactional exchanges than deep, resilient relationships.

As a result, though young people told Springtide they have plenty of friends – even close friends and best friends – sizeable proportions also say they have no one to talk to (38%), lack companionship (37%), feel left out (43%), and rarely if ever feel like anyone understands them (48%). Perhaps most heartbreaking is that 40% agree that “people are around me, but not with me.” Our teens and our students are the collateral in a society that prizes connectivity, but experiences little connection.

Their experiences in religious spaces are no exception. Though 47% of young people say they are attending religious services once a month or more (suggesting strong connectivity), only 28% say they’ve made a friend in these spaces (suggesting less connection). This means that a sizeable chunk of young people attending religious services at least fairly often—about 4 in 10—are simply not meeting friends at their church or spiritual community.

Another important trait to recognize about Gen Z, a trend started by millennials, is their distrustful posture toward America’s institutions. When asked to rate their level of trust on a ten point scale, the majority of Gen Z rated these at five or below: Big business (76% rated at five or below), the medical system (59%), the presidency (75%), news/media (72%), congress (75%), public schools (59%), banks (57%), nonprofit organizations (55%), and organized religion (63%).

Why is this important to recognize? Because oftentimes, the temptation for faith leaders is to work on reducing the distance between the interests of young people and the institutional program we’re pushing. We do this by attempting to cater to their style preferences by changing outward appearances – the website, the ambiance, the clothes we wear, and more. However, what is actually needed is an effort by faith leaders to reduce distrust.

To ensure that religious institutions appeal to a new generation, they need to focus less on the big-picture and more on individual relationships.

How is trust built with Gen Z?

Trust is a tricky concept, primarily because it cannot be easily measured or quantified. “How big is your youth group?”, someone might ask. But is the size of attendance at events really an accurate measure of the trust being built between a young person and their church?

What Springtide found is that trust-building with a young person is built not through programs you’re pushing, but by behaviors that you’re demonstrating. What seems to impress young people today is not the song selection in your services, the matching t-shirts, or a dynamic social media presence. Rather, it’s this: In a society that is already bombarding them constantly with noise, pictures, and sound, they’re impressed when someone takes the time to invest in them and care for them as individuals.

The behaviors that lay the foundation for a trusting relationship with Gen Z include listening, transparency, integrity, care, and expertise. Taken together, these five traits make up what Springtide calls relational authority. In the context of a trusting relationship built on these five traits, faith leaders will likely have earned opportunities (i.e., authority) to influence a young person’s life.

Notice that expertise – what we know, what we’ve accomplished, or what we can accomplish in the future – is just one trait that young people seek in a trusting relationship. Too often, we expect that our title or our resume will do the heavy lifting with a young person. What we fail to realize is that while these give someone institutional authority, alone they cannot offer someone relational authority in the life of a young person.

As a case in point, we asked young people what things they rely on trusted older adults for. Areas that require institutional authority — introducing you to other people (29%), connecting you to new groups (26%), and introducing you to new activities (37%) – were far less common than things that require relational authority: Helping you make difficult decisions (63%), knowing you better than anyone else (59%), and always being there when you need them (61%).

For some readers, making a personal investment in a young person’s life is a muscle that hasn’t been worked out in a while. Here are a few tips for getting started:

  • Know that you’re needed. Springtide discovered that trusted adult mentors make a formidable impact in one critical area of a young person’s life: Their sense of meaning and purpose. As the number of mentors in a young person’s life increase, so does their confidence that their lives are meaningful and purposeful. Don’t be discouraged if trust takes time to build – just by making the investment, you’re likely making an impact in this area.
  • Before attempting to speak into their life, consider whether you’ve demonstrated care. Eight in ten (79%) agree, “I am more likely to listen to adults in my life if I know that they care about me,” while 65% agree, “A person’s expertise doesn’t matter if they don’t care about me.”
  • Remember what they said. Eight in ten (78%) say they feel listened to when people remember what they’ve said after some time has passed. Practically speaking, this also means remembering important details about their life, whether it’s their birthday, their major, or their favorite movie.

It’s counterintuitive, but to ensure that religious institutions appeal to a new generation, they need to focus less on the big-picture and more on individual relationships. If the focus is on reducing distrust, there is reason to hope that the distance between young people and communities of faith will be reduced as well.

Kevin Singer is Head of Media and Public Relations for Springtide Research Institute, a former SBC church planter, and professor of religious studies at two community colleges.

Lucy Cobble is an editorial intern at Springtide, as well as a junior at Villanova University studying theology, the humanities, and communications.

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Kevin Singer

Kevin Singer is Head of Media and Public Relations for Springtide Research Institute, a religious studies professor at two community colleges, and a doctoral student in higher education at North Carolina State University. He attends Vintage Church North in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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