Gen-Z by Barna: A University Student View
How does a university student see the generational challenges? What does the student see, given her close proximity in age to the next generation, that older (or much older) adults might miss?
In the previous blog, Dr. Oberdeck summarized the research of Jean Twenge on what she has named “iGen.” In this blog, Tamara Rottier, a student and Concordia University Wisconsin, provides here analysis of Barna’s research on what they call “Gen Z.”
The call to minister to the spiritual growth of any generation certainly is a daunting task that will take much consideration, reflection, and time in prayer. As those who feel called to serve the youth in whatever way God has set before us, it is especially important that we set aside the time to do just that. By taking the time to read and reflect upon Barna’s Generation Z: The Culture, Beliefs and Motivations Shaping the Next Generation, we as a class have taken initiative to better prepare ourselves for our future vocations. This book has certainly raised my personal awareness of the demographics and beliefs of Generation Z and has caused me to reflect upon what I personally find excellent and what I personally find difficult when examining the next generation who will be called upon to shape the world.
To begin, I feel it important to first focus on the what makes this upcoming generation purely unique. They are set to be the most overtly diverse generation that this world has ever seen. They are the most racially diverse, religiously diverse, ideologically diverse, and gender-role diverse generation that has ever existed. To me, this means that people from all backgrounds, orientations, and ideas or beliefs will have a say in the way this world works. It will no longer be the one path standard that was seen in the Silent Generation, the generation of their grandparents or great-grandparents. When I see the great diversity that has arisen in Generation Z, I feel proud as a person who is only a few years ahead of them. They will take the work that the Millennial Generation is starting and put into a framework that will be applicable for people of all backgrounds. As someone who came from a very nondiverse background but has exposed herself in any way possible to diversity, it makes me hopeful that Generation Z will advocate for diversity to just be an essential part of life for every person.
Unfortunately, the thing that I admire most about this generation is also what is the most challenging in the task of spiritual ministry. Because of their value of diversity and the desire to accept that every person may have their own version of what is right, it is hard to preach to them a religion that identifies only one path being the one of Truth. In a postmodern society, it has become paramount that we allow each person to make their own decision as to what is right and to what is wrong. However, this is not the way of the Christian faith. We believe in one God who is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent; He is all-knowing, all-powerful, and present in all places. We believe Him to be the one power in this world and the source to tell us what is right and what is wrong. In a group of individuals who are diverse on so many levels, how can we tell them that there is only one way when they are being taught the complete opposite?
As a collective whole, Generation Z does not align with the approach to faith or morality as having an absolute stance on what is right or true and what is wrong or what the goal of life is. As we have discussed in class, the common conception in today’s society for the purpose of life is for one to be happy. The difficulty of this purpose of life is the question of what does “being happy” exactly look like? Is it financial success, professional achievement, family or friend involvement, religion, or maybe even something else entirely? For this generation, Barna has found that Generation Z identifies professional or educational achievement as the most influential thing that influences the sense of self at 43%, while religious background is only seen in 21% of respondents (p. 41). This means that the whole of Generation Z may be more concerned with their own professional success than their religious affiliation, which serves to make spiritual ministry difficult to begin with. In addition, the diversity of stances or opinions in Generation Z makes it difficult to minister to them as a whole. In a group of just 5 young people, it is entirely possible that each person may have a different opinion on a given issue. That is why I believe it to be paramount for us as youth leaders to interact on a deeper level with our youth and to understand both what may have influenced that opinion and what that opinion means to them. If we can better understand our youth, we can better minister to them as a result.
While there are many positive and admirable qualities about Generation Z that I look forward to seeing when ministering to them, there are also some qualities that I do not look forward to. The primary factor of Generation Z that I dislike is their dependence on technology for every aspect of life. Technology is involved in every second of every day of some of these young adults’ lives. When they are not spending more than 4 or more hours on screen media—as more than half report—they must use their computers to do work for school (p.16). When they aren’t on their computers, they are engaging with Smart-Home devices that help them to do something as simple as turning the lights on. Even when they seem to be not interacting at all, they may have a wrist watch that tells them their heart rate and notifies them when they received a text when their phone is across the room. It is simple to say that the people of Generation Z almost never escape the influence of technology, and because of that, have become dependent or even addicted to it. Their sense of identity or belonging is now also tied to that screen. This makes it almost impossible to keep their attention, or even get it, when discussing deep matters like Christianity.
As someone entering the mental health field, I certainly can see and have learned about the damaging effects that some forms of technology or media are having on this generation. Self-esteem is at its lowest and disorders like bulimia and anorexia nervosa are at their all-time highest. The American Psychological Association is even working to develop criteria for a new addiction disorder that stems around the stimuli of technology or media and adding more criteria to current disorders that call to examine if technology or media has had an influence on the presenting symptoms of patients. Technology and media can bring about so many positive things and be a way for people to get new information or to connect with people from across the world. But, it is no longer being used for this purpose. It is now shaping a generation who only knows their sense of self based upon what those online have told them or what they believe media tells them they should be.
There are certainly many challenges and difficulties that will face us ahead when ministering to this incredibly diverse, technology dependent generation. But, we must never forget the positive things or the hope that we have for their future. When I consider ministering to Generation Z, I am excited to hear all of the in-depth and thoughtful questions they will have about the faith or about God. They are diving deeper than some people ever have before and trying to figure out the meaning behind why we believe what we believe. They aren’t just taking everything at face value. I find the people of this generation to be a blessing to me because they force me to examine myself and find greater understanding of what I say I believe. While they are asking the questions to determine why Christianity takes an absolute stance on what is right and wrong, it is helping me to grow in my understanding in my own faith when I am trying to find them an answer.
I am optimistic that because of their great diversity, this generation will find new ways of sharing their faith that we have never thought of before. They will bring the Church into a different perspective, but we also need to be there to help them. We cannot turn them away or question them because they have their own perspectives, or they may have doubts. We must know that they are shaping the faith in a way that will make sense to them and will show us how we must minister to them as well. If we do not take in this guidance that they offer, how can we ever hope to be of guidance to them? In my personal experience with young adults of Generation Z, I have found this to be the most important thing to keep in mind. We must facilitate a place where this diverse group may share their opinions or stances and then work with them to understand what their faith says about this and to reflect together upon how we can work together to serve the Lord in any way He calls. The Church as the whole must come to understand that their experience of faith may be different, and that is perfectly acceptable. To people of Generation Z, faith may look a little different. But, as discussed in class we’re all the same: simil justus et peccator. We are all created by a loving God, born as sinners, but yet at the same time saints, redeemed by the love of Christ through every generation.
 Gen Z: The Culture, Beliefs and Motivations Shaping the Next Generation. Ventura, CA: Barna Group, 2018.
Tamara Rottier is a Senior Double Major in Psychology and Spanish at Concordia Univeristy Wisconsin. She plans to pursue a Master’s Degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling with a specialization in Child/Adolescent Counseling and hopes to work with children hospitalized for mental health treatment. A member of the LCMS her whole life, she pursues to discover new approaches to serve the Lord and to educate the church and the world on the importance of mental health treatment.