“Were you raised in a Christian family?” I asked the stranger who sat across from me in the eatery following Sunday church.
“No,” she replied. “But if you ask my parents if they are Christians, they will say yes. But they don’t live like Christians.”
It was the opening exchange between two young ladies, both college students this fall, and one old preacher “filling the pulpit” (as we say) for a small church in North Carolina.
I was surprised and pleased at her frankness but know now it was just the beginning of her hour-long confessional about life, love, and religion.
“They are about to disown me,” she explained; and when I asked why, she said: “They can’t stand gays, and I don’t feel that way. They are upset with me because I don’t hate gays.”
It’s hard to know how to place her and her friend—who has a very similar story—within the wider demographics of her generation.
It is Generation Z, those born in or after 1995. They are distinguished from Millennials (born between 1981 and 1995), Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980), and Boomers (that’s me, born in 1950). She was born in 2001.
They are the most secular yet, these Gen Zers. In fact, it is the first generation that is more secular than sacred, more unaffiliated than affiliated, more unbelieving than believing. Sociologist Ryan Burge published these statistics this week: 45% of Gen Z are Nones—answering NONE when ask of their religious affiliation or preference. That compares to 25% of my Boomer generation and 19% of my parents’ generation.
The two young ladies sitting across the Sunday lunch table from me are both believers. “We are looking for a church home in the Raleigh area,” they both said. “We want a place where we can live as Christians without being surround by anti- gay, anti-vaccination attitudes.”
When I asked how they came to be so intentional in their faith, both told stories of dysfunctional families and church youth groups that welcomed them with open arms and open hearts. It is the kind of testimony I heard more than once from students at Georgetown College. It made me give thanks once again for the investment congregations make into youth ministry, and for the transformational experience of my own youth group at a church in Western Kentucky many years ago.
These two young ladies are bucking the trends of their generation. Dr. Burge (who also happens to be a Baptist pastor while teaching at a state university) shows that only one third of their peers are Christians of any kind—Evangelical, Protestant, Catholic—while 10% adhere to other religions and 10% are what the scholars called “unclassified.” The biggest group are atheists, agnostics, and the unaffiliated.
When it comes to ethnic identity, Burge writes, “Hispanic members … are easily the most Christian racial group among Gen Z, and they are the only racial group among whom Christians outnumber the nones.”
Finally, Burge points out the obvious: “Every day in America, hundreds of people from the Silent Generation (19% nones) and the Boomers (25% nones) die off and are replaced by members of Generation Z (45% nones) having their eighteenth birthday. This, by itself, will make the United States much less religious in 2030 than it was in 2020.”
That may be the word from the statisticians, but the testimony coming to me at Sunday dinner last week was very different. And the word from these two college students—commitment to living as Christians—is similar to the word I heard from millennials at scores of festivals for young preachers during the last decade. Time and time again, an older minister would mutter to me after hearing one of the young preachers: “This is the most hopeful event I’ve been to in a long time.”
My heart ached last Sunday as I listened to these two young adults describe both the discord in their home and the dedication in their hearts. Both aspire to be teachers of young people, in public high schools. Listening to their testimonies gave me an additional layer of hope; that, regardless of what the scholars say about where we as a nation are headed, I remain hopeful; and as I pray for the soul of our nation, I do so having been lifted up and blessed by the hundreds of young adults who have not bowed the knee to baal nor abandoned the call to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.
It was a good Sunday last week … and not primarily because of what happened in the sanctuary!