Millennials, Gen Z, and Gospel Renewal
By Grant Glover
The American church is in the middle of a crisis with Millennials and Gen Z. While more than half the population of Generation X, Baby Boomers, and the Silent Generation attended religious services weekly, only 45% of Millennials and only 40% of Generation Z did so. About 80% of Americans 70 and older identify as Christian, whereas 50% of the population between the ages of 0-30 do. 59% of Millennials who grew up in church have already dropped out. That number is only expected to increase for Generation Z.
Church leaders around the country have been sounding the alarm about this disturbing trend. The problem, however, has yet to be solved. Most leaders in the evangelical church blame secularism. “Society is taking young people out of our churches. We have to fight back against the culture and reclaim young people for Christ.” But that doesn’t answer the real question: “what should the church do about it?”
Rather than look outwards for reasons why young people aren’t in church, it’s time to turn inwards, to be more introspective. If we are to raise up leaders to tackle this massive issue, we need to understand how young people think and why they don’t like church. It’s hard to critique ourselves. Pointing fingers is easier. But fixing culture is not feasible, at least not in the foreseeable future. So, if we want to see a generation impacted by the Gospel, we must start with ourselves.
An easy point of reference to compare ourselves to is the early church. The Christian movement commenced under the Roman Empire, which had adopted pagan practices and worldview. In the book of Acts, we see the earliest apostles challenging this worldview, contextualizing the Gospel like Paul does in the Greek Aeropagus (Acts 17:22-31). In fact, in the four full-on Gospel presentations in the book of Acts (two from Peter and two from Paul), no two are identical (Acts 3:12-26; 4:8-12; 10:34-43; 13:16-41; 17:22-31). That’s not because the apostles didn’t have cohesive doctrine, rather, it’s because they were instructed, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations… teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20). What was Jesus’ primary teaching method? Parables. Stories meant to communicate a specific point to a unique culture.
Don’t gloss over the word nations. The Gospel is not for one people, but all peoples. No two peoples are exactly the same. This is why Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles differed from Peter’s ministry to the Jews. Both Paul and Peter contextualized the Christian message to the culture. They didn’t abandon doctrine. Instead, they tailored their approach to their audience. They lived in a world prior to the introduction of Christian culture. We live in a Post-Christian world that has seen a largely Christian culture in the past and has decided to reject it.
Our task, then (to be gracious to ourselves), is difficult, and one even the apostles didn’t have to face. But we can adopt their strategic mindset – their missionary mindset. We can seek to understand the culture of younger generations. We can then tailor our message to address their needs more clearly. That, however, requires us to listen to younger people and make changes accordingly.
So, let’s start by listening. How do Millennials and Gen Z’ers think about church? 87% view it as judgmental, 75% think we’re too involved in politics, 72% think we’re out of touch with reality, and 61% find us confusing. In other words, we speak a language inside the church that does not connect with those outside. If younger people communicate one way all week, then hear a foreign vernacular on Sundays, they will of course be confused and believe the church is irrelevant. In another study by Timothy Fox, 74% think there is no value in attending, 40% think we ask for money too frequently, and 34% think we hold no relevance for the way we live. They don’t feel we inhabit their world. Lastly, contrary to what many might think, only 12% of respondents said the reason they don’t go to church is doubting their belief in a god.
Notice how many of these factors are in our control. It’s not just the culture that is to blame. Younger generations think we are irrelevant to their daily lives. They think our church programs and teachings are confusing. And, most importantly, we seem inauthentic and seem to inhabit a different reality. To this point, our approach with younger people has been to focus on worship, big events, hype, and fight fire with fire by putting up our own influencers to match the influencers in the culture. But that is to misunderstand young people entirely.
Out of those who do attend church, many Gen Zers don’t care about our common solutions. Only 45% said they’re looking for great worship and music (despite a significant portion of our budget going towards it); only 47% said they’re looking for how to live faithfully (despite our sermons becoming TED talks); and only 54% say it’s how they live out their faith (despite our constant push for involvement). So, what are they looking for? The answer should stir hope in all of us: 73% said they go to learn more about God, and 68% said they go to grow in their faith. Even the non-Christian Gen Z’ers primarily go to church for the same reason: to learn more about God (41%).
So, what’s the real problem? It’s not culture. It’s that we have failed younger generations. Young people live in a confusing world and are looking for answers about God to see if he can bring the purpose and meaning they’re desiring. Instead, we have not adopted their mindset and some of our practices have been repelling them from the church.
Recently, Tim Keller wrote an article for the Gospel in Life called The Decline and Renewal of the American Church. In it, he charts the seven reasons as to why we have seen a decline in what he calls the “White American Evangelical Church.” Keller is theologically conservative himself, so he is not advocating for a change in doctrine, but a change in the church’s messaging. He lists these seven unhealthy social trends of the modern American Evangelical Church:
- Moralism: emphasis on strict conformity to behavioral codes rather than heart character
- Separatism: the impulse that the church is wholly good, so we must withdrawal away from culture into our own circles
- Individualism: a belief that we are wholly the result of our personal choices and underestimating culture’s impact on us
- Dualism: a pitting of Biblical beliefs against culture, ignoring how faith can shape the way we work in and serve society
- Anti-intellectualism: a distrust of experts, a snobbish attitude towards education, and a commonsense approach to Biblical interpretation that ignores helpful context provided by scholarship
- Anti-institutionalism: a distrust of institutions leading to the use of celebrity-driven, brand-driven platforms which lead to fast growth but low accountability
- Enculturation: a wedding of Christianity to popular, traditional U.S. culture.
Here is not the place to comment on all of these flaws within Evangelicalism, but I would encourage everyone to read Keller’s article. Addressing a couple of these social traits can be helpful in bridging the gap between our churches, with two caveats. First, notice what is being suggested is that American Evangelicalism has social and cultural distinctions from the historical church. This means traits which we may consider “normal” is actually “Made in America.” Second, not all church culture is bad, nor do all churches exhibit purely negative traits. But, if we could increase our self-awareness, we will see how we are leaving a gap between our church programming and the needs felt by younger generations.
Thus, here are three ways to reach Millennials and Gen Zers: emphasize gospel renewal over moralism, emphasize a missionary encounter with young people, and emphasize authenticity in our churches over facades and productions. Let me begin with the most damaging trait of Evangelicalism: our over-emphasis on moralism. I recently attended a conference of Christian leaders where the main speaker said something along the lines of, “what this generation needs is to be called to more holiness.” While maintaining godly lives is crucial to faith, church leaders are largely tone-deaf as to how our language comes off to younger generations.
I currently work with a young adult’s ministry called Off the Clock in Dallas. We seek to reach those who have stopped attending church and are scared to come back. We often host Q&A nights, where people can ask me any question anonymously. Here are the most common questions I get: Can I be a Christian if I stopped going to church in college? Can I be a Christian if I wasn’t raised one? What is the gospel? Seriously. These are people who grew up going to Church, yet this is their perception of what Christianity is all about.
These questions are not being asked because evangelicalism teaches works righteousness, but because our evangelical culture tends to be highly moralistic. Our church messaging is to come to church; have quiet times; join our small groups; pray more; stop drinking; and don’t have sex outside marriage if you want to be a Christian. These statements are true, but their collective overemphasis misses the point. When that’s the primary focus of our preaching, a mindset change slips in. An unintended message gets communicated. As Richard Lovelace puts it, “in [Christians’] day-to-day existence they rely on their sanctification for justification.” In other words, our operational theology (how we live) looks different from our intellectual theology (how we think). Although we know we are saved by grace, we act like we are defined by what we do as opposed to what Jesus did.
What I am not advocating for is a “do what you want” Christianity, or “cheap grace” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously puts it in The Cost of Discipleship. Instead, I believe what we need is what Tim Keller refers to as “Gospel Renewal,” which he explains as:
A new, commensurate grasp of the wonder of forgiveness and grace as we shed these attitudes and practices and rest in Christ alone for salvation. Perhaps we have previously said that we were ‘resting in Christ’s work, not our own work” for salvation, but when we experience gospel renewal, we have a new clarity about what this means in our mind and a new experience of actually doing it with our heart.
Simply put, what is needed is a generation who is captivated by the grace of God. Grace must go from being a mere intellectual belief to a reality-defining aspect of the heart. Gospel Renewal must take place.
How can this be done? Give Gen Z what they want: to learn more about God. Preach grace. Get in the word and show them the wonder of the gospel. Show them how in a society where they are told they are defined by people’s approval; they can instead be defined by the work of Christ on the cross and be deemed perfect in God’s eyes. Highlight how society’s way leads to anxiety, worry, and depression, but God’s way leads to self-acceptance. We are failures, we are not perfect, we will make mistakes, but God still calls us lovely and wonderful. Christianity is not a religion of slavery, but freedom. Religion keeps people obeying out of fear. The Gospel encourages obedience to enjoy God.
A large reason this culture has emerged is the anti-intellectualism Keller points out in Evangelicalism. People think seminaries are irrelevant. That churches have enough to educate all leaders. I once heard a famous pastor remark, “the early church didn’t have seminaries, all of you (the congregation) have been my seminary.” The latter quote is loaded with falsehoods, but that is the subject for another article. Our church leaders don’t read, don’t study, and don’t learn enough to expertly communicate the gospel to this generation. Instead, they live in an echo chamber of people who are uneducated alongside them. Reading the Bible by yourself or in your church is not enough to teach in a highly educated culture. Teachers are always called to a higher standard (James 3:1-2). There are 2000 years of Christian meditations, reflections, and applications of the gospel (powered by the Holy Spirit) that must be explored to make it to the deepest crevasses of the teacher’s heart.
The second change needed is a missionary encounter with Millennials and Gen Z in an appropriate manner. Keller is one of the great modern preaches who embodies this task. “The great missionary task is to express the gospel message to a new culture in a way that avoids making the message unnecessarily alien to that culture, yet without removing or obscuring the scandal and offense of Biblical truth.”
This requires knowing younger generations well. We do that by getting out of our echo chambers and understanding youthful culture. Watch what they watch: TikTok, TV shows, and online streaming. Listen to the music they listen to. Hang out where they hang out, including bars. You read that right. Jesus did it (Luke 5:29-32). Being a missionary is always going to be messy, “we must be comfortable with gray areas, messy lives, complicated answers, and criticism, as the ‘old ways’ no longer fit or hold relevance for a new generation.”
Here’s the best news about missionary encounters and Gospel Renewal: the philosophy secular culture has been preaching is not working. The modern West teaches to look inside yourself, find your deepest desire, and pursue it. It’s leading many young people to misery. It has led to the rise of personal branding, where young people they have a digital and personal brand to upkeep to gain acceptance. This inevitably leads to young people turning themselves “into products, content to be evaluated instead of people to be truly known and loved.” Preach how the gospel eliminates the need to accrue followers. 91% of Gen Zers experience the physical and emotional symptoms associated with stress, anxiety, and depression. So, preach how the things they are stressed, anxious, and depressed about no longer define them and they are free to no longer live for the approval of man (Gal 1:10; 1 Cor 1:3-4).
Lastly, if we are going to reach younger generations, we have to allow ourselves to be authentic. Those who study Gen Z closely know, “authenticity is absolutely central to the process of identity formation for postmillennials.” They are tired of people faking it at church, pretending to know all the answers, or hiding their flaws and failures. I cannot think of a more beautiful story to address this concern than the Gospel, where society’s outcasts, failures, and degenerates are loved and accepted by God in the flesh. The gospel leads to true stories of acceptance in the midst of messiness.
This spirit of authenticity goes beyond Gospel stories to how we run church, because “anything that is too polished, too controlled, too canned will seem like salesmanship… [younger generations] will be turned off if they hear a preacher… adopt a tone of voice they consider forced or inauthentic or use insider evangelical tribal jargon.” In other words, be a real human being on stage. Admit flaws. Don’t turn into a popstar while singing worship. Don’t talk like you’re from a 1950s Baptist church – talk like you. Don’t put a bunch of money into fancy-looking set-ups. Preach the gospel boldly in young people’s language.
In summary, here are the three key ways of reaching Millennials and Gen Zers. First, seek Gospel Renewal. Let the gospel transform the minds and hearts of the people, rather than preach moralism. Second, become like one of them in a missionary sense, understanding their culture. Third, be authentic: tell real stories of sin and God’s grace.
Allow me to end with a practical example from the ministry I help with. It is not perfect, nor will it work in all contexts, but you might find it useful. Or I hope you find it useful. It’s called Off the Clock. We meet at a movie theater on Tuesday nights in Dallas. The evening begins with a meet-and-greet time before in the theater lobby, then we head up to one of the theaters in the building. No worship set is conducted, but we instead do a comedy bit (so to speak) to lower people’s guards down; many are anxious walking into what might be their first Christian related event in years. Then we have someone share a story of struggle, but how God is still good and gracious. Then I get up and preach, being as authentic as I can, preaching the Scripture expositorily, addressing the questions of the audience and always emphasizing the transforming power of the Gospel. After the hour-long service is done, we head to a bar next door for drinks, laughs, and further conversations.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but by God’s grace, I hope something in here resonated deeply with you. “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.” Philippians 1:3-5
 Gen Z Is Less Likely to Have Participated in Religious Services Growing Up, American National Family Life Survey (Survey Center on American Life, December 2021).
 About Half of Americans in Their 20s Are Christian, Compared with over 80% of the Oldest Americans, Modeling the Future of Religion in America (Pew Research Center, September 8, 2022).
 Americans Divided on the Importance of Church, Research Releases in Culture & Media (Barna, March 24, 2014).
 David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007), 28.
 Fox, Timothy D. Rethinking Church: Leading the Struggling Church through Death to New Life. Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2021.
 Tim Keller, “The Decline and Renewal of the American Church,” Life in the Gospel (2022), 15.
 Ibid, 20.
 For further reading, check out Douglas Sweeney’s “The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement,” (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005). Sweeney is himself an evangelical and expertly lays out how the movement started in America and where many of our distinctives came from.
 Lovelace, Richard. Dynamics of Spiritual Life. (Westmont, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1979), 101-102.
 Tim Keller, Center Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 52.
 See Frank Stanger, “Catechetical Schools in the Early Christian Centuries,” Asbury Theological Seminary (n.d.), https://place.asburyseminary.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2165&context=asburyjournal.
 Michael Svigel, “Why Seminary (Why Not?),” RetroChristianity (March 19, 2013), https://www.retrochristianity.org/2013/03/19/why-seminary-why-not/.
 Keller, Timothy J. Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. (Kentwood, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 31.
 Sbanotto, Elisabeth A., Craig L. Blomberg. Effective Generational Ministry: Biblical and Practical Insights for Transforming Church Communities. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic), 2016, 266-67.
 Tish Harrison Warren, “The Temptations of ‘Personal Brand,’” New York Times (New York, NY, January 29, 2023).
 Katz, Roberta; Ogilvie, Sarah; Shaw, Jane; Woodhead, Linda. Gen Z, Explained: The Art of Living in a Digital Age. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2021).
 Katz, Roberta, et al. Gen Z, Explained: The Art of Living in a Digital Age.
 Keller, Timothy J. Center Church, 178.
*The views expressed are those solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Pastor’s Common