Sometime around the year 2011, several youth ministry colleagues and I began to notice a shift taking place among the students at the church we served. Kids were suddenly just different. They spent more time online, especially on social media, and they were less impressed by big, flashy events. They texted whole conversations, as opposed to the brief, informational messages we were used to receiving. And we noticed they were spending less and less time with friends in person, corresponding to more reluctance around rites of passage such as dating and learning to drive a car.
It wasn’t until several years later that we realized what had transpired: a generational transition from Millennials to the “i” Generation, or Gen Z. When I read researcher Jean Twenge’s 2017 book, iGen, everything clicked. It was as though Twenge had been eavesdropping on several years’ worth of my interactions with teenagers. She contended that the advent of the iPhone had incited a generational changing-of-the-guard, resulting in kids who were tolerant and technically-savvy, safer but far more insulated and anxious.
Twenge’s newest book, Generations: The Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silents—and What They Mean for America’s Future, covers the values and demographics of each of the living generations, beginning with the Silent Generation. In it, she offers fresh insights about Gen Z as they come of age and begins to forecast some of the trends we may see with Gen Alpha (born in 2013 to roughly 2029). Twenge dubs this rising generation “the Polars,” a name meant to evoke both the increased polarization of society and the younger generations’ environmental concern (i.e. melting polar ice caps).
If your middle school ministry begins in sixth grade, Generation Alpha students have just entered your youth group this year. Meanwhile, Gen Z still makes up the majority of our youth ministries, and their unique bent on the world has become clearer in the last couple of years. Here are four takeaways about Gen Z and “Polars” for youth ministers, along with some encouragement for responding from a gospel framework.
Gen Z is taking a longer time to grow up, a trend likely to continue with Gen Alpha.
Twenge and others have previously documented a phenomenon that puzzled many youth workers starting in the early 2010s: teenagers are learning to drive later. But the trend goes beyond that one milestone. Twenge observes what some have called extended adolescence in both older and younger members of Gen Z. She writes, “While the majority of 8th grade Gen Xers in the 1990s had dated, tried alcohol, and worked for pay, only about one in four 8th grade Gen Zers had done the same in 2021” (372).
From a Christian perspective, a positive feature of this trend is that fewer Gen Zers are having sex at these younger ages (only 15% by 8th grade compared to 40% of Gen X at the same age, p. 372). The slower pace in regard to sexual activity may be a double-edged sword, however, with Gen Z also expressing decreasing interest in marriage and family (376).
Youth ministers will need to adapt to these changing norms of adolescence to bear patiently with the generation we serve. At the same time, we also must look for opportunities to help teenagers taste the positive side of growing up. Our local churches are poised to offer teenagers age-appropriate rites of passage and responsibility, such as serving meaningfully in the church body and even stepping into formal church membership. In a similar way, we have an opportunity to showcase God’s good design for male-female partnerships, both in friendship within the church family and in marriage. Belonging to Christ and his body invites our teenagers to grow into maturity in ways they don’t often experience elsewhere in the world.
Attitudes about sexuality and gender continue to shift dramatically.
Clearly Twenge had her finger on the pulse when she included a chapter in iGen titled “Inclusive,” explaining Gen Z’s disposition toward the LGBT movement, gender norms, and race. At the time, however, she observed that many Gen Zers were not accepting of gender transition.
In just a few short years, the data shows a significant increase in the numbers of Gen Z identifying as LGBTQ+, and Gen Z is also leading the charge on accepting these new societal norms (361). For example, Twenge shows that in 2014, the number of transgender-identifying teenagers held steady at roughly the same number of previous generations. But 2021 saw a sudden surge, with the number of teenagers self-reporting as transgender quadruple that of any other generation.
“In seven years, the number of young adults identifying as transgender increased by the size of the population of Las Vegas,” Twenge writes, explaining that the data demonstrates “a true generational shift,” not simply a feature of being young (356-57).
A similar phenomenon is observable in the data on students identifying as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Twenge writes that the number of teenagers who self-identify in these categories nearly doubled in a period of only six years. By 2021, one in seven teenagers reported being “something other than straight” (363).
Sexuality and gender remains one of the most significant challenges of our day for all pastors—and perhaps especially in youth ministry. The data suggests that the average youth ministry will probably include a portion of students who are wrestling with gender and sexuality in some way. And even those students who will never struggle personally will doubtless face challenges to their faith due to the changing cultural tide on these issues.
Youth ministers must seek out as much equipping as they can in order to provide biblical teaching and pastoral care on these issues to teenagers and their families. Most of all, we need to dwell upon the good news of Christ’s death to save sinners so that we may point students to the Savior, who is full of grace and truth. For gospel-centered support in navigating these challenging topics, visit Rooted’s resources page.
Social media use and mental health challenges are still on the rise.
Despite the warnings Twenge and others have issued for several years, our incoming students are likely to be just as exposed to social media as Gen Z has been. And while their mental health did fluctuate with the ebb and flow of the pandemic, social media use will likely be the leading factor in their mental health long term.
One study found that seven out of ten 4th and 5th graders spent time on social media (despite the age requirement on most sites), and four out of ten said they did so against their parents’ wishes (459). Twenge writes, “If Polars continue the Gen Z trend of being engulfed in the social media maelstrom at young ages, they may also continue the trend toward more depression and self-harm among tweens and teens” (459).
As Gen Alpha enters our youth ministries in the coming years, we will need to be ready to offer pastoral counsel and support to them and to their families. While we would have hoped to see the pull of social media weakening as parents become more tech savvy, the reverse may be true, even in our churches. We can expect that many of our youngest students are already grappling with the harmful effects of social media use, including bullying, comparison, and the power of the algorithm’s suggestions. Youth ministers ought to consider how we might educate parents on the consequences of teenage social media exposure. Rooted has collected some resources on this topic in hopes of helping youth ministers navigate these dynamics.
Religious affiliation will likely continue to decline among Gen Z and Gen Alpha.
Twenge’s analysis of the research aligns with what any number of researchers have observed in the younger generations’ faith commitments: For Gen Z and Gen Alpha, participation in religious communities will likely be less of a priority, accelerating a trend well-documented among Millennials.
The year 2017 marked a significant tipping point, with fewer than half of high school seniors reporting that faith was an important feature of their lives (502). Twenge notes how this trend is at odds with the experiences of Boomers and Gen X, who “assume a religious orientation that Millennials and especially Gen Z don’t have. In addition,” she writes, “more and more churches, synagogues, and mosques will close . . . the decline in religion could also mean a decline in community—there will be one less place for people to gather in person” (504).
The data could easily cause us to despair, but there is also reason for hope. As Christianity becomes increasingly marginalized in our Western culture, surely there is an opportunity for those who love Jesus to follow him in missional and disarming ways before a watching world.
A significant part of our calling as youth ministers, then, is to help the Christian teenagers of Gen Z and Gen Alpha to live as a “cognitive minority,” a term Richard Mouw coined to describe a departure from cultural Christianity. Teenagers will continue to need equipping in biblical literacy, apologetics, and—perhaps most especially—the gentleness of the gospel as they live in this new world. The task is great, but what a privilege we have to partner with the Lord in such a time as this.
A Rooted friend recently reminded me of a Lord of the Rings quote, apt for youth ministers as we consider the generations God has called us to serve:
Frodo: I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.
Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.
Looking for gospel-centered encouragement and equipping in youth ministry? Join us in Nashville November 2-4, 2023 for Rooted’s annual conference.