As Gen Z drifts further and further away from Christianity—and from evangelicalism in particular—I’m starting to see more evangelicals writing about how to win these young adults back to the ‘orthodox’ and ‘biblical’ fold. Let’s take a closer look at the strategies they propose, and evaluate their chances of success.
(We’re speaking today of mostly Americans, in case that wasn’t fairly obvious. When I talk about evangelicals’ product, I mean active membership in their flavor of Christianity. Also, this is the tea/tisane I’m talking about in the introduction, except I make my own. I got a canister of it on a huge Black Friday sale some years back. But when I went to rebuy it, my eyes about popped out of my head at the price. So I bought the components, experimented a bit, and came up with a copycat version. If you want my copycat recipe, see the endnotes!)
(This post first appeared on Patreon on November 24, 2022. If you’d like early access, please consider becoming a patron. Thank you!)
Time is marching onward to the new generation of adults: Gen Z
Generally speaking, most sources consider people born between 1997-2012 as Gen Z. That makes Gen Z people between 10-25 years old as of 2022.
If you’re wondering, the next generation, Gen Alpha, started in the mid-2010s. They’re still very much kids, and we don’t have a ton of information yet about their religious inclinations. Any of them being raised by evangelicals probably don’t have a lot of choice about going to church and doing Christian stuff.
So time has marched onward to a new generation of adults. But evangelicals are aging in place, as the saying goes, by getting older on average every year. Fewer and fewer people in each new succeeding generation are evangelical.
The A-number-one-numero-uno determinant of being evangelical in adulthood is one’s family of birth and rearing (especially with regard to one’s father’s faith). One’s culture follows close behind. If kids aren’t immersed in religion from birth and their culture isn’t particularly religious, they don’t tend to become religious later in life. That’s one reason why evangelicals keep trying to sneak into public schools. It’s about the only place left where they can gain unfettered access to the children of nonreligious parents.
Further, Gen Z has turned out to be overwhelmingly liberal. They tend to reject every element of not only evangelicalism, but also evangelicals’ beloved culture wars. In the most recent elections earlier this month, conservative politicians were absolutely seething over how Gen Z voted. (Generally, they complained mightily about liberals’ “indoctrination” of children. Here’s a typical tweet. DARVO in action!)
So unfortunately for evangelicals, that means that their trending decline won’t reverse any time soon.
Evangelical leaders are getting increasingly frantic to recruit young adults. They understand all too well that if they keep failing to capture new generations, their dreams of theocracy are effectively over forever.
They panicked like this over Millennials, too. But their big plans to evangelize Millennials generally failed—when they didn’t completely backfire. So nowadays, we’re seeing them move across to the newest generation of adults.
Gen Z evangelicals themselves evangelize more than older ones do
Of course, there do exist some small number of evangelicals in the newest crop of American adults. In September 2022, when the American Bible Society (ABS) released their State of the Bible 2022 report, evangelicals rejoiced to see that Gen Z was so busy with evangelism.
However, young adults in every recent generation have always been the busiest in terms of evangelism and recruiting.
That rule definitely held true for Gen X. I was myself evangelical back in the 1980s and 1990s. Very quickly, I noticed that it was young adults, particularly teens and college students, who did almost all of the evangelism. This applied to every kind of evangelism except for the professional level, which was almost all done by Boomers or even older people. On that amateur level, older adults were all too happy to let us younger ones handle everything.
At the time, I didn’t understand how those older folks could be so fervent, yet so reluctant to recruit. Now that I’m older, I understand completely. They simply had far more social capital to risk:
- Friends to alienate at an age when it’s much harder to make new ones
- Employers to piss off at an age when it’s much harder to find new employment—and when the disruption in income is usually far more devastating
- Family members to hurt and annoy when those connections matter so much more
No wonder older evangelicals were so reluctant to evangelize! Officially, Christians weren’t supposed to care about such considerations. But oh, they definitely did. And they should have. Our connections with others are, in the end, the most important part of most people’s lives. Destroying those connections hurts most of us on every level imaginable. Young adults might not have learned that harsh lesson yet.
So yes, Gen Z is doing most of the evangelism in evangelicalism. Of course they are. That’s more an indictment of the disrespectful nature of evangelism itself than it is a point of celebration.
But I reckon we’ll see evangelicals spring the same exact woodies over the 20 or so Gen Alpha evangelicals who will be doing 99% of the evangelism in the next generation.
How Gen Z evangelizes
I love these evangelical-designed studies and surveys that seek to understand kids today. It’s like they’re studying some strange, alien race from another galaxy. And in a very real sense, they are. They’re trying to understand Gen Z through the lens of what they do themselves.
Barna Group, a for-profit evangelical survey house, released a study last year that’s got the evangelical world buzzing. Their report, called Reviving Evangelism in the Next Generation, got writeups all over the Christ-o-sphere. Christianity Today (CT) gives a good summary of the report:
Most Gen Z Christians do not think it’s important to have all the answers to questions about faith. They are skeptical of arguments that aim to change someone’s mind. Almost none think it’s a good idea to be quick to point out inconsistencies in others’ perspectives, which has been a key component of some approaches to apologetics. [. . .]
Despite their long exposure to social media—or perhaps because of it—Gen Z Christians are not big advocates for digital evangelism.
Maybe that’s why we’ve seen so much less online wrangling in recent years between overzealous young evangelicals and skeptics.
A more storytelling-oriented, less fish-or-cut-bait form of friendship evangelism has emerged as a clear favorite strategy. One guy in that CT article mentioned that he’d used traditional evangelism tactics on a friend, and “it hurt their friendship.” The friend protested that the guy had made him feel like “a project,” which the guy realized was accurate. So he began working on “listening, hospitality, and friendships.” The results don’t look much like “evangelism proper,” as CT puts it, but kids today think it’s “more important than whatever you call it.” One wonders if they still ghost prospects who don’t join up within a reasonable amount of time. CT doesn’t mention.
In my own opinion, it seems to me that Gen Z is hyper-aware of social capital. They don’t want to do stuff that their peers sees as cringe or hurtful. So they’re trying to find evangelism techniques that involve way less social risk.
Older evangelicals’ advice about evangelizing kids today: “Begin with Creation[ism]”
Their elders are also trying hard to offer them advice.
One site, Youth Pastor Theologian (YPT), tells Gen Z evangelicals to “begin with Creation.” Here’s how they envision this approach working:
If you consider the “big issues” of our day, many of them have to do with creation and what it means to be human: gender and sexuality, abortion and women’s rights, racism, and evolution.
Whereas previous generations of evangelists could begin a gospel presentation by saying “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life,” today’s evangelists should begin with “In the beginning….”
As the quote indicates, this approach is supposed to convince young adults that evangelicals’ culture wars are totally reasonable and supportable.
Interestingly, the Bible verses that this source uses to push through this approach comes from Acts 17:22-31. I looked it up. In these verses, Paul evangelizes the people of Athens. YPT says he begins with evangelicals’ weird belief in Creationism (as opposed to the myth of Creation depicted in the Bible). But he doesn’t. He mentions only in passing that his god made people and the world, and only in the context of comparing Christians’ worship of him to pagans’ worship of icons “made by human hands” that weren’t inhabited by real live gods. In terms of evangelism speeches, it’s pretty good, but it doesn’t “begin with Creation[ism].”
And if young heathens hear an evangelical peer launch into a seriously warped myth to justify grabbing other people’s human rights away, that’s going to alienate them very quickly from the entire religion that peer represents.
Gen Z needs to “get the Gospel right”
Next up, YPT tells young adults that they must be sure to present “the Gospel” correctly.
When evangelicals use this term, it’s Christianese for their quirky li’l take on Christianity, most especially including how to join their group. YPT’s writer declares:
If we do not help students understand who God is and the nature of sin, then the reality of divine wrath will seem extreme and harsh (rather than just and appropriate).
But this rationalization is nothing but a cope, as Gen Z would say. “Divine wrath” is, in fact, extreme and harsh. Punishing someone for literally forever for a finite lifetime’s few instances of disobedience is not just or appropriate. The only people who think so are evangelicals who’ve been powerfully indoctrinated to slap that label on any- and everything they imagine that their god does. Their approach can be rightly criticized with the Euthyphro Dilemma. You’ve probably heard it: Is pious stuff loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods? Nowadays, skeptics know this dilemma as Divine Command Theory.
And telling young adults, especially ones who are less and less inclined to view the Bible as divine or Christians’ god as real, that they must obey or else Jesus will set their ghosts on fire forever after they die, will not provoke their instant buy-in. They’ll recognize this threat for what it is: a piece of callous emotional manipulation to terrorize them so they’re not thinking clearly.
And the next: Gen Z, don’t you dare forget to position evangelicalism as the only product that can save them after death
YPT’s next suggestion, a caution against “Christian universalism,” runs along similar lines. Christian universalism is the idea that all Christians are Jesus-ing correctly insofar as they understand it, and thus will go to Heaven after they die. Some forms of universalism extend Heaven even to people who are decent human beings but practice some other religion (and explicitly reject Christian recruiters’ attempts to change their minds).
YPT’s writer wants Gen Z evangelists to avoid giving their marks the impression that they can join any flavor of Christianity to get its benefits. He writes:
GenZ is so deeply committed to tolerance and diversity, many teenagers hear the gospel of grace proclaimed and they reinterpret it into their “you do you” worldview. [. . .]
In my personal experience and through corroboration with fellow youth workers, an increasing number of students are agreeing with Christian Universalism because it allows them to consider themselves Christians while affirming the tolerance that is at the foundation of their generation’s worldview.
Older evangelicals have a natural snarl reflex around words like “tolerance” and “diversity.” They hate these ideas. I mean, they really and truly hate them. Even when I was Pentecostal, these were all but fightin’ words. They were things that liberals said to make TRUE CHRISTIANS™ look bad, not anything TRUE CHRISTIANS™ cared about or wanted. I can’t imagine that YPT’s writer approves all that much of either notion.
And if some would-be Gen Z soulwinner actually tried to push the idea of their own flavor being the literal only one going to Heaven, especially around heathens committed to tolerance and diversity, it’d go over about as well as a turd in a punchbowl. It’d also sound like an attempt to threaten them or force them to join the recruiter’s church, and from everything I’ve seen, Gen Z isn’t at all receptive to that kind of coercive marketing.
This guy mirrors the overall advice about getting Gen Z recruits
Overall, that’s the advice I saw across the evangelical Christ-o-sphere. The Lausanne Movement, an evangelical evangelism organization started by Billy Graham, offers strikingly similar advice. First, its writer complains about how much Gen Zers trust “scientism,” which is evangelical Christianese for the actual scientific method.
One key characteristic of the Gen Z worldview is scientism: believing that people cannot know something adequately unless they prove it scientifically. Scientism is not even argued for, but assumed among Gen Zers.
He goes on to comfort himself and his readers by amending that slightly: Young adults do leave the door open to the “supernatural,” which, he asserts, can be a wedge that savvy evangelists can exploit “as an apologetic opening.” Then, he complains about the same things that the YPT guy did:
The plausibility structure of Gen Zers is characterized by their commitment to diversity and openness for multiple interpretations. As such, telling Gen Z the truth of the uniqueness of Christ requires much sensitivity that distinguishes between ontological norms and epistemological considerations.
Similarly, this advice-giver pushes hard on “genuine relationship.” Just like every other advice-giver ever in evangelicalism, he insists that this new generation desperately hungers for “real relationships.”
This push for relationships ain’t new, baby
I’ve been hearing this exact advice since the 1980s! Every single new generation, it seems, has that same hunger. Weird, huh?
Alas, evangelicals really don’t know how to have real, genuine relationships. They never have. Their idea of building relationships with their marks begins and ends with the desire to convert them (ie, treating them like a project). They have no interest in their marks beyond their potential for purchase.
Thus, when their marks decline to sign up to acceptjesusastheirpersonallordandsaviorthankyouamen, these salespeople have always tended to vanish into the ether like morning mist in sunlight. If older evangelists ghost Gen Z folks like they usually do, it’ll alienate those marks even more than it did people in years past. But I don’t think those older evangelists are even capable of doing anything different.
This is advice aimed more at older people seeking to recruit Gen Z people, and that’s good. If Gen Z evangelists try this stuff, they’ll likely remain friends with their marks. And that might prove devastating to their own faith, just as it did mine when I was Christian.
And more advice: Recruiters should focus on the current benefits of joining evangelicalism
Over at The Gospel Coalition (TGC), the folks behind Before You Lose Your Faith, offered their own advice to Gen Z-aiming evangelists at the end of 2020. In this podcast, Derek Rishmawy (who is a contributor to the book) and Cameron Cole talk about how kids today differ from previous generations’ marks:
[Cameron Cole:] And so historically, one of the ways that we’ve talked about the gospel with teenagers is we have talked about it in eschatological terms. We’ve talked about it in terms of if you were to die tonight would you go to heaven? [. . .]
Number one because of technology they have this instant gratification mindset but they also very much are influenced philosophically by pragmatism. So the way that they filter thought is through, “How does this help me now?”
I think in evangelism and talking about the gospel we really have to talk about the present benefits of having life in Christ here and now.
And oh boy, that’d be an absolute hoot to hear.
And what are those present benefits that Gen Z will totally get from evangelicalism?
Here are the benefits that Cole perceives in his product:
[Cameron Cole:] the joy, the hope, the peace, the purpose that comes with living in relationship with Jesus here and now.
Unfortunately, none of those are guaranteed. If someone joins up, realizes they’re not getting those benefits, and complains about it, then you may count on one thing above all: The tribe will stomp on them for being upset that Jesus didn’t give them a pony.
I mean, how dare these ingrates expect joy, hope, peace, and purpose in life? They already got Heaven, for chrissakes! Anything else is a bonus! Maybe Jesus just wants to teach them a lesson or something. Or they’re sinning in secret, so Jesus is withholding that stuff till they behave. Suck it up, buttercup.
Note, please, that Cole 100% still wants evangelists to stress the threat of Hell. He just wants evangelists to talk about this other earthly stuff, too.
(Incidentally, Cole also complains about the greatly-decreased access ministers get to children in schools these days!)
Lastly, we get calls for today’s evangelicals to completely change who they are, except not really
The last advice post we’ll check out today revolves around changing who evangelicals are as people so they can better reach kids today.
When an evangelical leader like Josh Chen suggests evangelicals act differently or have a different outlook on Gen Z, I don’t think that’s going to work really well. In that linked interview, Chen refers to a study that Cru published in 2018 about evangelism. He claims, as Cru did, that “84% of people are willing to have a conversation about Jesus if we have certain postures.” These postures included stuff like showing empathy toward marks, avoiding Christianese, finding common ground, and “creating a better story for [marks’] lives” than they’ve managed to write already.
Most of the rest of his advice centers on reframing, which we’ve talked about recently. Instead of positioning Jesus’ death as him paying “the penalty for [marks’] sin,” instead Chen suggests evangelists frame it as him freeing marks from their supposed shame, thus allowing them “to be who I was created to be.” Since he thinks that Gen Z is moving away from a Western-style guilt-and-innocence worldview to a more Eastern one centering around shame and honor, he thinks this reframing will work better to recruit young adults.
In the middle of all that storytelling and empathy-showing, though, it’s the same awful advice that evangelicals have always gotten. Watch for an opportunity to get your foot wedged in the door, then SELL SELL SELL WITHOUT MERCY.
Slicing through older evangelicals’ bullshit to find the truth
Here’s the anecdote that Chen uses to give this advice:
I remember one gal telling me how stressed she was at work and I told her, “I feel for you, six months ago, I was totally stressed out.” At that point in my life, the Gospel had relieved me of a lot of anxiety. [. . .] She asked what happened and I told her, “Honestly, it was a Bible verse that I read and as I was reading this verse it changed my perspective on everything.”
He then told her a Bible verse that had nothing to do with stress had totally relieved his stress. Later, he claims he overheard her telling a friend that his sharing this Bible verse with her had “melted away” her own work-related stress. Now, I’m quite certain she was not a heathen co-worker of his, but rather simply a member of his own church. Still, it’s absolutely cringe. I’ve heard many times of old, close friendships dissolving because a would-be evangelist used exactly this sort of opening to push a sales pitch onto an unwilling recipient.
So any suggestion of change is superficial. At their base, the “micro-testimonies” Chen suggests (as in that anecdote I quoted) still contain all the old evangelism advice that stopped working decades ago. But evangelicals are dysfunctional authoritarians. Thus, they neither understand other people nor want to understand them. They want others to obey them, defer to them, and appease them. Otherwise, they want everyone else to leave them alone.
Ultimately, the problem is that every aging evangelical generation hates kids today
And that’s really why evangelicals have been having less and less luck with evangelism with every passing generation.
I keep using the term kids today in this post on purpose. It could easily mean Gen Z to us now. But 10 or 15 years ago it meant Millennials. And before that even, it meant Gen X. Every older generation of evangelicals seem to absolutely despise the newest generation’s adults. They don’t understand them, and they don’t really want to understand them. All they want is a how-to guide to recruit them. Once they’ve got them, evangelical leaders want to keep them as powerless as possible for as long as possible while paying into their coffers and keeping the gravy trains running smoothly.
All that changes is exactly how each generation of older leaders want to trick younger generations into joining up, and then, how to trick them into thinking that their contributions are necessary and appreciated.
This time around, they want Gen Z evangelicals to do a lot of friendship evangelism. But they also want to train older evangelists in how to better bamboozle young adults.
The opportunism reveals itself more clearly with Gen Z, that’s all
In reality, the only things that older generations really want from younger ones are money, volunteer time, and recruits.
To get what they want, older evangelicals are willing to nod along with any number of suggestions about intentionality, building relationships, earning the right to
make recruitment pitches speak, and changing postures. But at heart, they’re not really changing. They don’t want to. And indeed, they can’t.
The fundamental problem evangelicals are having is really that they are, in fact, dysfunctional authoritarians. They’re a political cult loosely organized around Christofascist doctrines that they think justify their theocratic ambitions. As their members get more and more polarized along these lines, they winnow and chase out more moderate and compassionate members. And their ambitions become more and more obvious.
So yes, they’re going to have more trouble recruiting young adults of not just Gen Z, but really all of the new generations to come. Thankfully, it looks like Gen Z votes way more reliably than previous generations. Once their political aspirations get kneecapped for good, evangelicals might actually stand half a chance of pouring some new wine into their old wineskins.
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Endnote: Copycat Hibiscus Rose Tisane
I use hibiscus flowers, rose petals, rosehips, dried elder flowers, and cracked whole allspice berries. Add in order listed, decreasing amounts as you go. The tea should be mostly hibiscus flowers and rose petals.
Rosehips go a really long way for their density and weight, so for 3oz tea I’d use no more than 1/4 cup.
Allspice is even more bang for the buck; crack whole berries with a whack of a meat tenderizer or hammer, then add carefully and taste-test till you find it melting into the overall awesome taste of the tea without dominating it. I don’t think I use more than 1 tsp in mine.)
Also, I don’t use dried apples in my recipe at all. I initially included them, but they really don’t add any perceptible taste to the finished product. Plus, they’re super-expensive to buy, while buyers’ reviews for them are all over the place in terms of quality and taste. So why bother? If you have good crisp-tart fresh apples on hand, I don’t think you’d go wrong by mincing a 1/2 tsp worth and throwing it into your infuser on the spot. Otherwise, you can safely leave them out dried apples without worrying that you’re missing out on the 7th Heaven Shangri-La of herbal teas.
To brew, lightly shake canister. Add 1 Tb dry tea to infuser per cup of hot tea desired. It’s a tisane, so just make sure the water is simmering. Steep till it’s as strong as you like, 2-5 minutes. If the first cup is steeped on the lower end of that time scale, the used tea infuser can be rebrewed once without suffering.
You can brew this with black/green tea as well. Use half the hibiscus blend that you’d normally use, adding black/green tea to make up the difference. Follow the brewing instructions for the black/green tea.
Fancy canisters of this recipe make TERRIFIC gifts!