According to The Wall Street Journal, recent polling data shows a "Surprising surge of faith among young people." As columnist Clare Ansberry wrote, "About one-third of 18- to 25-year-olds say they believe — more than doubt — the existence of a higher power, up from about one quarter in 2021, according to a recent survey of young adults."
This study corresponds with others that have offered surprising insights about Generation Z. One Barna study found that, globally, 52% of teenagers today identify as Christian, and 6 in 10 are motivated to know more about Jesus. In the U.S. and Canada, Barna concluded, teens feel less negatively about sharing their faith than Millennials do, with 81% rejecting the statement that "if someone disagrees with you, it means they're judging you."
Ansberry's explanation for the increased interest in matters of faith is that after three years of loss and confusion, including the disruption of the pandemic, young people are seeing the need for something bigger than themselves. "In many ways," she wrote, "it aged young Americans, and they are now turning to the same comfort previous generations have turned to during tragedies for healing and comfort." Barna researcher Daniel Copeland even called this generation "The Open Generation."
At the same time, spiritual openness of young people often comes at the cost of identifiably Christian convictions. As political scientist Ryan Burge laid out in 2021, "They are the first generation in [American] history in which the nones clearly outnumber the Christians," 48% to 36%, to be exact. Even the report cited by Ansberry excluded the phrase "belief in God" in favor of the term "higher power." As the authors explained, when the question is narrowed down to belief in "God," the numbers revert to an overall decline in faith.
The results are a mixed picture. As rates of disbelief in God and rejection of Christian doctrine rise, young people are grappling seriously with a search for meaning, truth and belonging. This is a critical moment to reach what is the loneliest, most agnostic and most distraught generation on record. They are the epitome of a line widely attributed to G.K. Chesterton: "When men stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing; they believe in anything."
The opportunity in front of the Church right now is to relate to teens, especially in the midst of their loneliness, while also challenging the wrong ideas about faith, truth and life that they have embraced. Writing for the Institute for Family Studies, sociologist Jesse Smith synthesized mountains of data on kids who maintain religious convictions through adulthood as opposed to those who don't.
One factor stood out: "Parents want to make sure they give their kids room to explore religious questions for themselves and don't want to do anything to alienate their kids or provoke teenage rebellion. ...
"[However] [t]aking too light a touch with religious parenting comes at a cost. If kids do not receive a clear and consistent message from their parents that religion is important, they are likely to simply conclude that it is not important."
One of the main predictors of belief is that a young person's objections were taken seriously by someone willing to listen and address them. It isn't enough simply to repeat what is true, especially when Christians are one voice among so many. Instead, as we've said before on Breakpoint, opposing viewpoints must be considered thoroughly in order to inoculate, not isolate, Christian young people.
To that end, I highly recommend Summit Ministries, a lifelong friend of the Colson Center and one of the best places I know for asking hard questions. Two-week conferences are held at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia, and Summit headquarters in Manitou Springs, Colorado. Summit gives students a chance to explore the Christian worldview in all its fullness, covering topics like abortion, doubt and deconstruction, evolution, sexuality, God's existence and more. If you know a student who would benefit from a Summit conference this year, go to Summit.org/student and use our special code "Breakpoint" for an exclusive discount.
The spiritual openness of Gen Z is an opportunity we must not miss. For young people, it may be the difference between eternal life and death, as well as a life of flourishing and purpose here and now. Clearly, God isn't done with this emerging generation. And neither should we be.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Kasey Leander.
From Breakpoint, May 1, 2023; reprinted by permission of the Colson Center, breakpoint.org.