Jonathan Morrow on Building Lasting Faith in Gen Z
Jonathan Morrow has been equipping students and parents in biblical worldview, apologetics and culture for 15 years, and is passionate about seeing a new generation build a lasting faith. He holds a Master of Divinity, Master in Philosophy of Religion and Ethics, and a Doctorate in Worldview and Culture from Talbot School of Theology. He is the director of cultural engagement at Impact 360 Institute and an adjunct professor of apologetics at Biola University. He is author of several books, including Welcome to College, and contributed to the Apologetics Study Bible for Students. Jonathan and his wife have been married for 16 years and live with their three children near Atlanta.
Gen Z appears hesitant to hold firm beliefs on moral or religious issues. Why do you think that is? What are the cultural factors that make it hard for them to discuss or make moral and religious claims?
I think there are two main reasons. First is the fear of being perceived as judgmental, unloving or intolerant. Our natural desire to be liked by others and our aversion to conflict notwithstanding, Christians genuinely don’t want to come across as judgmental.
The problem here is that Gen Z is confusing making a judgment about a question that matters with being judgmental. This confusion flows from a misunderstanding of Jesus’ command not to judge in Matthew 7:1–6. But a closer look at the context reveals that Jesus is for making judgments between good and evil, between what is morally right and wrong, between what is true and what is false. What he is completely against is people using knowledge of the truth to beat others up and belittle them, or to make themselves appear morally superior. Self-righteousness is not a Christian virtue.
Moreover, tolerance is not agreement—it is extending to others the right to be wrong and treating them with dignity and respect. And in terms of being loving, sometimes the most loving thing you can do is tell someone the truth. Loving our neighbor well means seeking their highest good in word and deed.
Another reason students are hesitant to hold firm on moral or spiritual truth is what I will call the crisis of knowledge. Knowledge is what authorizes and enables us to navigate reality. Knowledge is what I want my mechanic and dentist to have before I let them do anything to my car or to me. But our culture no longer assumes that spiritual and moral knowledge are a possibility—there is only opinion, personal preference and blind faith.
Why is this? Because we have inherited a way of viewing the world that believes only the hard sciences give us knowledge. In other words: You can’t know something unless you prove it scientifically. This view is called scientism. In Gen Z, scientism is not even argued for; it is assumed.
Yet it’s obvious that we can know things outside of the hard sciences, like truths about the past (history) or that human trafficking is objectively evil (morality).
The bottom line is that the Bible assumes moral and spiritual knowledge exist (see Hos. 4:1–6; Luke 1:1–4; Romans 1:19; 2:15; 1 John 5:13). But when Christians talk about this knowledge with our culture, our culture hears it as an individual taste, not as reality. So why have an uncomfortable conversation with a friend or teammate about religion or morality if it’s just like choosing a flavor of ice cream?
But if it’s medicine that will cure us, that is a different story.
In light of the challenges Gen Z faces with information overload and confusion about truth, how can leaders and parents help students build a strong faith?
Culture is what people come to see as normal. We don’t think about it. Whether we realize it or not, there are shaping and normalizing forces at work every second of every day in our society, schools and mobile devices. There is no way for teenagers—or any of us, for that matter—to grow up in a culture and not be shaped.
What is true and good can become normal for a generation, but so can what is false and harmful.
A person’s worldview is a web of habit-forming beliefs about the biggest questions of life that helps them make sense of all their experiences. Everyone has a worldview. And as followers of Jesus, we are not to passively allow ourselves to be shaped by our culture. We are not to conform to the ways of this world, we are to be conformed to God’s ways and become more like Jesus (see Rom. 8:29; 12:2).
As I have worked with Christian teenagers over the past 15 years, I have developed a framework that I call the “Three Rs of Worldview Transformation.” In order to build a strong and lasting faith, students need reasons, relationships and rhythms. These are the things we can directly influence.
First, Gen Z needs reasons for faith: to know why they believe what they believe (see 1 Pet. 3:15). Apologetics is not optional. They also need to be inoculated against false ideas while they are younger and in an environment where we can help them discover reasonable responses to objections to their faith. This requires safe space for them to ask questions and explore doubts. In short, teenagers need a grown-up worldview, not coloring-book Jesus. It’s so fun to see teenagers’ confidence grow and their faith come alive when they discover that Christianity is actually true!
Next, teenagers need wise relationships. Gen Z increasingly feels isolated and alone, but they hunger for real relationships. There are four strategic relationships we can help them cultivate: God, parents, mentors and friends (see Prov. 13:20). I am convinced that relationships are the most powerful shaping influence during the teenage years.
Last, students need rhythms to help them practice their faith. We become what we repeatedly do. Gen Z can’t build a strong worldview if they never practice it. We must help students ask who they are becoming. Formation of virtue is more than just doing the right thing; it’s about becoming the kind of person who loves what is good. Through rhythms and spiritual practices, we can indirectly affect our desires, loves and character (see Heb. 5:14). In addition to the work of God’s Spirit and our response to his grace, this process takes time, intentionality, honest conversation and mentors.
One of the things we have learned by working with Gen Z at Impact 360 Institute is that you can’t mass-produce transformation. True information is essential, but by itself it is not enough. It’s just as essential that students have space, relationships and practices to take ownership of their faith.
As our post-Christian culture increasingly marginalizes Christianity, it is critical for those of us who care about the next generation not to take a business-as-usual approach to their formation. If we do nothing they will be shaped away from life with God in Christ. We have the opportunity to reimagine what passing on our faith to the next generation looks like in this unique cultural moment. Let’s be creative, courageous and faithful!