Theology for the Teen Years
They call my generation Generation Z, and we’re passionately progressive, open-minded, and tolerant – except in one notable area: religion. We are, in fact, the least religious generation in US history. Since the birth of my generation (around 1995), there has been an unprecedented decline in prayer, church attendance, Bible reading, belief in God, and any kind of religious affiliation.
In the 1990s, there was a feverish fear in evangelical culture about teens leaving the church after graduation. Today’s graduating teens are still leaving the church, but in a secular culture awash with religious apathy or antagonism, many are disinterested or unengaged in church long before graduation.
Culture of Individualism
That leads us to ask the question, Why? What led to Generation Z (also known as iGen) being the least religious generation in US history? Jean Twenge, a secular psychology professor at the University of San Diego, offers a surprisingly spiritual answer: we’ve created a culture of individualism… and that drives teens away from God.
Community was once woven into the fabric of daily life and seen as a fundamental facet of society. It’s deeply embedded in Christian history and remains embedded in how the church still functions. God’s people were not saved in isolation to live separate, lonely lives. They were saved as part of the church, Jesus’ precious bride, to participate in the holy communion of the saints (Eph. 5:25-27). God created people to need other people (Gen. 2:18).
But our Western culture has lost sight of the beauty and necessity of community. Instead, we’ve promulgated a fiercely independent society, where people live fragmented lives, following their own dreams and desires in search of maximum personal gain.
Twenge insightfully points out the disconnect between a culture that idolizes individual beliefs and religion, which inherently requires believing in something bigger than yourself. She says, “In a society where young people hear, ‘If it feels good, do it’ and ‘Believe in yourself,’ religion seems almost countercultural” (iGen, p. 185).
And the popular views of faith youth tend to adopt are often colored by this cultural influence – believing in a God that exists to make people happy and approves of whatever you believe as long as you’re a “good” person.
A robust, life-changing gospel is indeed radically counter-cultural.
The Counter-Cultural Idea: Why Teens Need Theology
But when has the gospel ever fit into the culture? And when have Christians ever been called to make the gospel fit into the culture? Never. The shocking work of the gospel is how it changes lives that don’t think they need to be changed. And despite the fact that many of today’s teens don’t think they need the gospel, they need it now more than ever.
Teenagers swimming in a current toward individualism need to be redirected toward a community of faith. They need a community who will rally around them and pour deeply into them – a community who will teach them who God is and what he’s done. A community whose teaching will go past superficial stories and moralistic lessons. A community who will challenge them and take them seriously. A community who will answer their big questions. Teenagers swimming in a current toward individualism need to be redirected toward a community of faith. Click To Tweet
What they need is a community rooted in theology.
Surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly), this is what the non-Christian Jean Twenge found too: “iGen’ers want to interact with religion and not just be told what to do. Trevor, 20, wrote: ‘Young adults want answers about life and about who we are, why this even matters, what we can do. Instead, we get told just to pray or a handout worksheet about Bible verses.’ … This suggests religious organizations should focus on active discussions with iGen’ers that address the ‘big questions’ they have about life, love, God, and meaning” (iGen, p. 189).
David Kinnaman has reported that 36% of young adults say they don’t feel they can “ask my most pressing life questions in church.”
Theology for the teen years should mean addressing these questions about life, love, God, and meaning according to Scripture. My generation is trying to figure out our place in this world, and we need a community who will teach us about the Solid Rock on which to build a foundation of faith.
A community who won’t just skip the hard parts of the Bible but who will teach them with humility.
A community who will talk about suffering, pain, and death and answer our questions about God’s goodness and power.
A community who will talk about science and how God’s character and creation are not in opposition to it.
A community who will talk about sexuality and gender and sensitively show us God’s design for men and women.
A community who won’t dumb things down for us but who will raise their expectations of us.
A community who will teach us about why God made us and help us understand our purpose and identity.
A community who will model a passion for God and his Word over and above games and pizza.
Despite the fact that my generation is the least religious generation in US history, God is at work among my peers. He is using faithful churches, pastors, and parents to give us clarity in the midst of a blindingly confusing culture. All throughout history, some of the biggest explosions of conversions and gospel work have happened among students. That could happen again today.
But a reserved and hyper-individualistic generation is not just going to run to you, begging to be taught theology. They need you to come to them. That starts in your church with the youth you have. It looks like personal and empathetic discipleship, open and authentic conversations, and rigorous and theological Bible training. It looks like compassion, discernment, and a whole lot of prayer.
God is at work among my generation. And the harvest is plentiful. So, pastors, keep laboring. Parents, keep laboring. Youth workers, keep laboring. Don’t give up on us. Because Generation Z needs all the laborers we can get.