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5 trends changing pastors’ outreach to millennials, Gen Z: Barna

5 trends changing pastors’ outreach to millennials, Gen Z: Barna

Photo: Unsplash/Devin Avery

Millennials and Generation Z are facing some of the greatest challenges at this moment thanks to the disruption and uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing demonstrations for racial justice. Engaging with and discipling teens and young adults can be equally challenging. Here are five trends about these generations, according to a Barna analysis.

While young people are questioning their place in the new reality they are living in, half of the pastors say they are struggling in their ministry to kids and youth right now, says the evangelical Christian polling firm Barna Group, which looked at how the Church has come alongside emerging generations and helped them navigate change, based on decades’ worth of its research.

One: The Church must help younger generations wisely navigate screen time

Daily screen usage by millennials and Gen Z has significantly increased during the pandemic, and 85% of pastors are concerned about it, Barna has found. But 86% of pastors say their church does not have a plan to teach on wise tech usage.

The study uses the term “Digital Babylon,” which David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock, co-authors of the Barna report Faith for Exiles, coined as a framework for the high-tech era 15- to 23-year-olds are living in. In this era, “spiritual input is at risk of being drowned out by other forms of screen time,” Barna says. “Innovation in youth ministry in the current moment requires creatively connecting with ‘digital natives’ on their turf.”

Two: The Church must integrate its response to injustice into student ministry

Barna says its research shows that teens and young adults are willing to listen to stories of injustice and are hopeful to be a positive change in the world. “But they are also looking to the Church to answer some of their questions.”

Recent data show that more than 90% of millennials and Gen Z would say our country “definitely” or “somewhat” has a race problem. And 75% of millennials and 68% of Gen Z also express motivation to address racial injustice in their society.

However, “many believe that the Church does not have the best reputation for addressing justice.”

Three: The Church must address issues of loneliness and anxiety in young adults. 

Studies around the world have shown that despite being part of the most digitally connected generation, young adults and teens are prone to feelings of loneliness and anxiety, Barna points out. “Concerns around the mental health of both old and young generations have grown since the pandemic’s disruptions began.”

Here’s what Barna’s research shows: “As of late May, one in three Millennials reported being in need of food and supplies (35% vs. 24% Gen X, 21% Boomers), emotional support (33% vs. 25% Gen X, 13% Boomers) and financial assistance (32% vs. 31% Gen X, 12% Boomers). One in five (19%) said they were feeling lonely “all the time,” a quarter (25%) for at least some of each day and 21 percent at least one day a week. Only one in three (35%) hadn’t faced loneliness as opposed to half of Gen X (50%) and Boomers (59%).”

Four: The Church must support and encourage resilient disciples to grow their faith

A Barna study, Faith for Exiles, shows that the church dropout rate among 18- to 25-year-olds has increased from 59% to 64% in the past decade.

The emerging generation is less likely to see church as important, Barna warns, sharing that with those who hold this perspective, 59% admit “church is not relevant to me personally,” 48% say “I find God elsewhere,” and 28% say “I can teach myself what I need to know.”

Five: The Church must reframe the notion of outreach and faith-sharing with the next generation

Barna has found that young adults are generally hesitant to share their faith with others. A 2019 report, called “Reviving Evangelism,” found that almost half of practicing Christian millennials say evangelism is wrong.

Kinnaman says that there’s a need for Christians to bolster their confidence in certain convictions — among them, the belief that “evangelizing others is good and worthy of our time, energy and investment.” 

“There might be more opportunity for these conversations than some people of faith assume; non-Christian young people are more curious and open to having spiritual discussions than are older adults,” the study says.

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