What should older Christians know about Generation Z in order to best disciple them and reach them with the gospel? To be sure, this is a big topic, and I’m just one member of this generation (born between 1997–2012)—which is not a monolith. But it might be helpful to share a few aspects of contemporary evangelical culture that generally bother my generation.
The goal is not to shame older Christians or suggest we young folks are enlightened. The goal is to offer some fodder for discussion that might lead the generations to better care for, think with, and serve alongside each other in a changing world.
To that end, here are five things that tend to frustrate young evangelicals.
1. When Partisan Politics Reshape Faith
In the past few years, we have grown increasingly weary of the meshing of politics and the evangelical faith we often see among older believers. This is not because we don’t value many of the same causes; it’s that often our parents and grandparents will question our Christian orthodoxy if we don’t align fully with their political affiliations. When we shift slightly to the right or the left, our faith is often assumed to be endangered.
It sometimes feels as if older generations want us to “pick a king,” 1 Samuel 8:6–8 style. But many in my generation do not wish to be identified as conservative or liberal, as much as they want to be identified as Christlike. Because of this, many of us joined the 35 percent of people under 30 in voting independent in the 2020 general election. This approach is sometimes considered “innocent” or “naive,” but for many Gen Z Christians it’s the most reasonable and biblical choice.
2. When Apologetics Outweighs Relationships
Let me be clear: Christian apologetics is important. It’s vital we know why we believe what we believe, and why those beliefs are reasonable. But many in Gen Z have seen apologetics weaponized against nonbelievers. I left my private Christian school ready to duke it out with the atheists of the world, assuming they would be hostile and seeking arguments with me. But instead I found young adults who at worst thought Christianity was weird, but more often were lonely and looking for meaningful relationships.
In many of my friendships with nonbelievers, apologetics became a valuable tool after a relational connection formed. I had thoughtful answers to tough questions, like “If God is good, why does he allow evil?” But instead of these questions being hurled at me by Professor Jeffery Radisson (God’s Not Dead), they were asked in vulnerability by hurting or inquisitive peers. Should we still be prepared to go toe to toe with Richard Dawkins if he wants to debate Christianity? Absolutely. What we know shouldn’t change, but perhaps the tone and timing of how we talk about it should.
3. When Christians Don’t Live What They Believe
We felt this acutely during the 2020 general election. We were faced with two presidential candidates who, whether in character or policy, reflected decidedly immoral and un-Christian values. For many of us, that was a dealbreaker. Yet many Christians looked the other way or found ways to defend their favored candidate. My generation is hyper-sensitive to hypocrisy, and we saw it all around us. We are also sensitive to theological hypocrisy and selectively applied doctrine.
Biblical sexual ethics are cited to oppose same-sex marriage, but ignored on other matters like divorce or cohabitation before marriage. The imago Dei is correctly invoked to advocate against the cultural system of abortion, but not to fight racism. We insist that sin can take structural forms and infect entire societies, but we’re selective about which systemic sin issues we want to call out. Many in Gen Z recognize that living faithfully requires applying Scripture consistently, even if it conflicts with your political alignment.
4. When Christians Are Known More for Judgment than Love
Judgment and love are both part of God’s character. Grace and repentance are both part of the gospel. Jesus responds to sinners in love, while also commanding us to “go and sin no more” (John 8:11). But today, many Christians are more defined by judgment than love. Of course, the culture around us has warped definitions of both. There are biblical commands that appear judgmental to our culture, but are truly loving. Challenging a brother or sister when they’re in sin may appear judgmental but ultimately results in life for them—which is loving.
Our secular culture’s distorted, small vision of love is actually an opportunity for us to more robustly live out biblical grace and love, even as we don’t compromise on truth and holiness. Accusations that Christianity is “too judgmental” should be expected to some degree—the Bible’s moral demands will always come across that way to some—but my generation’s hope is that a reputation of radical, Christlike love would also define our faith and attract unbelievers—as it did in the early centuries of Christianity in the Roman Empire.
5. When Christians Aren’t Serious Thinkers
At a time when careful, critical thinking is generally on the decline and intellectually lazy behavior is on the rise, Christians sadly have a reputation for being among the worst offenders. Evangelical Christians are particularly adept at avoiding expert advice they don’t like, all the while participating, knowingly or unknowingly, in misinformation campaigns.
You probably have a Christian aunt who regularly shares incredulous articles or conspiracy theories on social media, showing a reckless willingness to believe dubious information without bothering to check facts. This is just one byproduct of a larger trend we see that frustrates us: a distrust of academia and intellectual life generally.
At a time when critical thinking is on the decline and intellectually lazy behavior is on the rise, Christians sadly have a reputation for being among the worst offenders.
This is frustrating not because academia is the ultimate truth, but because God is (Psalm 19:7). As believers in the God of truth, Christians should be the most intellectually vibrant. We have the resources to do that. While academicians are not infallible, they do have expertise, and that should matter to Christians.
By downplaying rigorous scholarship, credentials, and expertise, Christians have retreated from the forefront of culture-shaping disciplines, are playing catch up, or in some cases are actively resisting these culture-shaping arenas. With Scripture as our solid foundation, Christians ought to be the most intellectually curious thinkers and culture-makers in the world. We should value learning and education—not for our glory, but for God’s.