James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church and a prolific writer on church and culture. His latest book, Meet Generation Z, profiles the largest demographic cohort in North America today.
In a webinar hosted by Wesleyan Investment Foundation on April 25, White talked about the unique characteristics of this up-and-coming generation and what churches must do to reach them.
Here are seven things your church must do to reach the youngest and fastest-growing demographic in your community.
(This is a summary of the conversation, not a transcript. View the complete webinar and resource list below.)
1. Realize That We Live in a Post-Christian Culture
The Rise of the Nones, White’s previous book, charts the growth of the religiously unaffiliated, now the largest and fastest-growing religious group in North America. Fifty years ago, this demographic accounted for only 5 percent of the population. Now almost half of all adults under 40 claim no religious affiliation.
Generation Z is the largest cohort demographic cohort in North America now, and the first product of the “Nones.” This generation is thoroughly unchurched, without even a memory of the gospel.
To reach the current generation, you must recognize that North America is now a cross-cultural mission field. You must approach Generation Z as an unreached people group.
2. Understand That Generation Z Are Not Seekers
Three cultural currents have been shaping culture for decades and especially shape Generation Z.
Privatization. All matters of of faith are privatized, which means that faith is mere personal preference—along with one’s favorite color or flavor of ice cream. The effect is that faith has been trivialized in our culture.
Secularization. The “naked public square” now excludes religion from public discourse.
Pluralization. All ideas are considered equally valid.
In addition, the church is seen as mean-spirited, judgmental, and materialistic.
In practical terms, this means that Generation Z are not seekers. They’re not thinking about the church and rejecting it. They’re not thinking about the church at all. Though people continue to be spiritually open, they consider the church the last place to turn for spiritual guidance.
3. Shift from Acts 2 to Acts 17
Regardless of methodology or style, which are really secondary concerns, leaders must shift their mind-set from the framework of Acts 2 to that of Acts 17.
When Peter addressed the crowd at Pentecost, he was speaking primarily to Jews, who were monotheists and accepted Scripture as foundational truth. After Peter demonstrated that Jesus was the fulfillment of Scripture, thousands accepted the message.
When Paul spoke on Mars Hill, he addressed a secular audience that was agnostic at best. He began his argument with creation, not Moses. And when Paul concluded his invitation, very few responded.
To reach this generation, you must realize that messages, programs, and strategies designed for a religious culture simply will not work. You must shift your approach to fit the current (secularized, agnostic, postmodern) culture.
4. Exhibit Life Change
To reach Generation Z, the church must move from orthodoxy to orthopraxis, from right thinking to right living. We must become people who live in a way that is winsome and compelling to the people we are trying to reach. We live holy lives in an unholy world.
If we do not, we have no moral authority for making truth claims. This does not mean that we become sanctimonious or self-righteous in telling others how to live but that we exhibit changed lives in the form of healthy marriages, authentic relationships, and desirable families.
When others see something in us that they don’t possess themselves, it opens the door for us to speak.
5. Make Unreached People the Priority
In Rethinking the Church, White deals with implementing changes in focus and strategy to make reaching unreached people a priority. Many leaders are handcuffed in this effort by decision-making structures that give inordinate control to existing members who want the church to meet their felt needs.
However, leaders can direct attention to any issue in church life they choose through preaching, teaching, modeling, and communication—including reaching the lost.
To reach Generation Z, you must adopt the mantra “Church is not about me” and deliberately focus on reaching unreached people. This will affect nearly every aspect of church life, from parking to dress code to music to programming and the use of social media.
6. Offer Authentic, Functional Community
Authentic, functional community may be the holy grail for Generation Z, though many would be unable to articulate that need. Many in this demographic have never experienced healthy relationships in their families or other contexts, and they find it attractive and compelling.
Churches that model healthy community will meet a deep, often unstated, need in Generation Z.
7. Create a Culture of Invitation
A culture of invitation describes a context in which inviting others to join is a frequent, natural occurrence.
To do that, begin by creating an experience about which people will say, “My unchurched coworker would love this church,” whatever that might be in your context. If you create it, people will tell others about it.
Next, celebrate the act of inviting others by make heroes of those who do. Make it a badge of honor to invite an unchurched friend or family member.
Though many leaders are daunted by the challenge of reaching Generation Z, White is optimistic. He acknowledges that the current cultural climate is a wake-up call for many churches, the situation offers exciting possibilities for evangelism.