Gen Z: What Now… And Where Do We Go From Here?

If there was a prize for the number of key people you’ve influenced before you are 18, Greta Thunberg would probably be a strong contender. She has had an extraordinary time in the last year, speaking at major conferences, going to key places, and meeting so many important world leaders. It’s sometimes hard to remember she will only be 18 later on in 2020. She is part of the Gen Z generation.

The large numbers of people born after the end of the Second World War, especially in the US and the UK, caused the phrase ‘baby boomer’ to be popular for a while, quickly shortened to just ‘boomer,’ and usually taken for simplicity as those born between 1945 and 1963. Those coming afterwards were far fewer in number; they ‘stopped the boom’, or ‘busted’ it, and so for a while were called the ‘baby busters’. This is a disparaging title, however, and when Douglas Coupland published his book Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture in 1991 his phrase instantly stuck and they became ‘Gen X’ (born 1964 to 1982) from then on.

The children of Gen X could naturally be called Gen Y and they were for some time, and their grandchildren Gen Z, but with the Gen Y cohort being those born between 1983 and 2001, around the time of the dawn of the new millennium, the term ‘millennials’ became fashionable and has stuck ever since. Different people give slightly different years of birth for each cohort, but the years for Gen Z are here taken as 2002 to 2020: that is, they are all 21st century!

They weren’t born when 9/11 happened; only a few were born when Concorde was mothballed in 2003 and someone born in 2005 was only 11 when the Brexit Referendum took place! In 2005, 39% of the churches in England had no-one attending under the age of 11, and 49% had no-one between 11 and 14, so the number of Gen Z children in church is alarmingly few.

The latest large-scale count of numbers of children at church was the 2016 Scottish Church Census where, as an overall percentage, rather more go to church than in England (nationally 6.4% across all ages in 2020 compared with 4.9%). The Scottish Census, however, broke down the numbers of children under 16 attending church into three age groups. It showed there was very little difference between boys and girls but a quarter, 27%, of all children in church were under five, half, 52%, were between five and 11, and the remaining group, a fifth, 21%, were between 12 and 15. Collectively they were 15% of all Scottish churchgoers in 2016. In England the percentage in 2020 is estimated at 16%.

When do people start to attend and start to leave church?

A 1994 survey, ‘Finding Faith’, asked current churchgoers at what age they had started coming to church. 72% said before they were 15. Some of these had stopped going to church, but at the time of the survey had returned. Of those who had stopped going to church, 2% had done so when aged between six and ten and 16% when aged 11 to 15. When did those now at church first experience a personal faith? Half, 51%, before they were 15. These results are similar to other surveys asking similar questions in years before 1994.

The peak age for leaving church was between 16 and 20, when 42% had done so. The average length of time ‘out of church’ was ten years, but for those who had stopped before they were 15 it was longer, some 16 years.

The results of these studies are seriously challenging. What caused young people and those in their 30s to actually find faith? The 1994 survey asked this as well, and the results by age of commitment to Christ are as follows:

For teenagers the positive factors were: Church attendance (86%); Reading the Bible (68%); Friends (60%); Worship experience (55%); Church activity (34%). The negative factors for teenagers were: Content with no faith (39%).

For those aged 26-40 the positive factors were: Reading the Bible (74%); Experience of homegroup (66%); Reading a book other than the Bible (49%); A particular life event (34%). The negative factors were: Christian integrity (36%); Not knowing how to pray (33%). (Note that churchgoing was not in the list for the older age group!)

A further survey along these lines for Gen Z and their parents would be invaluable in clarifying these trends for the new decade. Almost certainly the results today would be somewhat different, although friends, worship experience and Christian activities would still play a strong part. A recent Barna survey showed the huge importance of mothers encouraging churchgoing, and Christian grandparents also. Christian mothers also talk about the Bible (more than fathers), and especially about God’s forgiveness (as do grandparents). Somewhere into this mix social media would also feature.

Peter Brierley

Dr Peter Brierley can be contacted on peter@brierley or via