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Mismatched Message & Method: Are Today’s Global Teens Issuing Church Leaders a Challenge?

gen z

Being the father of three teenagers and having worked with teens for years in ministry, I was not surprised by what I saw in our latest research on Gen Z from The Open Generation. Church leaders today are at a crossroads. This younger generation is calling them out on what they are seeing when it comes to the discrepancy of what the Bible says and how Christians are living. 

Church leaders might be tempted to be defensive if they feel judged or critiqued. But before doing that, those in leadership positions would do well to listen to what teens today are saying when it comes to the Bible and their perceptions of it — and where leaders can adjust so that the unchanging message of the Bible meets the method of delivery this generation is seeking. 

Quick Note About The Open Generation Study

The Open Generation is Barna’s largest study to date, with nearly 25,000 teenagers ages 13-17 from 26 nations represented. The study is designed to help church leaders understand teenagers around the world, and their views around three things in particular: Jesus, the Bible, and justice. Teens came from both faith and non-faith backgrounds.

This may not come as a surprise, but today’s teens are open and inclusive. They seek truth, authenticity, and change. They are open to different perspectives, faiths, and cultures. Believe it or not, this is all good news for church leaders! Because among the things they’re receptive to, today’s teens have indicated that they are open to Jesus, the Bible, and making a difference in the world.

So What’s the Problem?

This is encouraging; however, the problem is that while this generation seems to think highly of the Bible, they aren’t engaging with it much and aren’t finding it particularly enjoyable. Here are some quick stats:

  • 40% of all teens believe that the Bible is “good”
  • 39% believe the Bible is “meaningful”
  • 44% believe the Bible is “holy”
  • However, only 8% are Bible engaged (have a high view of the Bible and read it several times a week); only 16% of Christian teens are Bible engaged; and only 32% of all teens call the Bible “enjoyable.”

Teens today are growing up in a world which offers few absolutes, much relativism, and a lot of negative messaging. And yet, they long for goodness and truth that has both stood the test of time and is also fitting for today. And many see this in the Bible: 46% say that “seeing that the Bible promotes good in the world around me is a priority.” Unfortunately, as they consider the methods being used, they see a discrepancy: proof texting, a lack of fruit in those who serve as models, and little space for them to authentically sit and ask the hard questions. 

As I have read through our latest data and considered its implications, I want to share at least two “methods” that can help this generation to personally engage with the Bible.  

1. Community

For decades, many of us embraced a simplified form of faith that was etched out in the popular children’s song: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” At its core, faith necessitates a pure and innocent belief in things we can’t see. But faith also demands that we go deeper into experiencing and understanding God and his Word. This generation wants a new way of engaging scripture which is more inductive in nature. They want to ask more questions of scripture — and they long for a space to do that. They aren’t seeking judgments from their leaders; instead, they desire (and demand) open pathways for communication and dialogue. 

For them, enjoyment of scripture lies in part in the communal nature of the Church and our connection as seekers of truth and goodness. In this study, we see that teens who feel comfortable and satisfied with their religious community are more likely to be Bible engaged. Church leaders today must create spaces in a non-judgmental atmosphere that allow for this type of meaningful community to flourish and for the Spirit to move. 

After all, isn’t this what discipleship should look like? For too long, many of us have engaged in “drop-off discipleship” and have turned to our churches or youth groups to grow our kids into fully devoted followers of Jesus who regularly engage with the Bible. Today’s teens need a “walk-along discipleship” where we create extended space and time to journey with them, teach them, and model for them what it means to live a life engaged in Scripture.