Aug 19, 2020

5 Trends Shaping the Next Season of Next Gen Discipleship

2020 has been a year of disruption, to say the least. From the pandemic to a movement of demonstrations for racial justice to the looming presidential election, U.S. residents—along with many of their global neighbors—are living in a state of uncertainty. And younger adult generations (in our research, Millennials and Gen Z) are facing some of the greatest challenges in this moment.

The outlook for young adults and teens—which, data show, was already starkly different than that of generations past—has been further altered in light of recent events. Young people are questioning their place in this new reality. Further, half of pastors say they are struggling in their ministry to kids and youth right now. How can the Church come alongside emerging generations right now and help them navigate change?

In this article, we’ll take a look at five trends—illuminated by decades’ worth of Barna research, including studies conducted during the COVID-19 response—about engaging with and discipling the next generation.

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The Church Must Help Younger Generations Wisely Navigate Screen Time
Well before this period of social distancing, young generations (and their parents) have had to contend with mounting device usage. In “Digital Babylon”—a term Faith for Exiles co-authors David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock use as a framework for the high-tech era 15-23-year-olds are living in—spiritual input is at risk of being drowned out by other forms of screen time. Innovation in youth ministry in the current moment requires creatively connecting with “digital natives” on their turf. For context, in a recent Barna study, Guiding Children to Discover the Bible, Navigate Technology & Follow Jesus, engaged Christian families reported using media for entertainment an average of eight hours per week. Other weekly activities included spending time with family in conversation or play (10 hours), reading books, participating in extracurricular activities and attending church activities (three hours each) and socializing with other children in-person (one hour)—but even these activities, at this moment, are also likely done from a social distance or through a screen.

Reports confirm that Millennials and Gen Z admit to significant increases in their daily screen usage during the pandemic. Barna’s own research shows the majority of pastors (85%) is concerned about this shift—but a similar percentage (86%) says that, despite the signs of more screen time, their church does not yet have a plan in place to teach on wise tech usage.

The Church Must Integrate Its Response to Injustice into Student Ministry
Years of Barna research show that teens and young adults are willing to listen to stories of injustice and hopeful to be a positive change in the world. But they are also looking to the Church to answer some of their questions. At this time, during a national conversation about discrimination and inequity following the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, this is particularly true when it comes to racial injustice. Though data show that the U.S. Church in general is divided on these issues, Millennials and Gen Z—more ethnically diverse and more politically progressive than their elders—are tuned in to disparities between white Americans and communities of color.

Recent data show that over half of Millennials (51%) and Gen Z (54%) would say our country “definitely” has a race problem, with another two in five Millennials (38%) and a quarter of Gen Z (38%) admitting this is at least somewhat true. Most in these younger generations also express motivation to address racial injustice in their society (75% Millennials, 68% Gen Z). They are certain that the history of slavery still impacts the United States, and while they are hopeful to see the Church step up, many believe that the Church does not have the best reputation for addressing justice.

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The Church Must Address Issues of Loneliness and Anxiety in Young Adults
According to data from a global study of more than 15,000 18–35-year-olds, despite being part of the most digitally connected generation, young adults and teens are prone to feelings of loneliness and anxiety. Concerns around the mental health of both old and young generations have grown since the pandemic’s disruptions began. Whether due to financial stress, ongoing social distancing or the loss of loved ones, U.S. adults are reporting higher levels of psychological stress amid the pandemic.

In Barna’s Caring for Souls in a New Reality webcast, Kinnaman reported on the needs and concerns of young adults since the virus outbreak, comparing their responses against those of older generations. As of late May, one in three Millennials reported being in need of food and supplies (35% vs. 24% Gen X, 21% Boomers), emotional support (33% vs. 25% Gen X, 13% Boomers) and financial assistance (32% vs. 31% Gen X, 12% Boomers). One in five (19%) said they were feeling lonely “all the time,” a quarter (25%) for at least some of each day and 21 percent at least one day a week. Only one in three (35%) hadn’t faced loneliness as opposed to half of Gen X (50%) and Boomers (59%). Due to low sample size, we are unable to report on Gen Z data.

Now, more than ever, young adults are longing for meaningful connection—something young people are hoping the Church will offer. A plurality of 18–35-year-old Christians (19%) agrees that friends are missing from their worship community.

The Church Must Support and Encourage Resilient Disciples to Grow Their Faith
Historically, Gen Z and Millennials are less likely than older generations to be connected to a church. In Faith for Exiles, Kinnaman and Matlock share that the church dropout rate among 18–25-year-olds has increased from 59 percent to 64 percent in the past decade. Data featured in Gen Z also sheds light on the fact that the emerging generation is less likely to see church as important, with those who hold this perspective admitting “Church is not relevant to me personally” (59%), “I find God elsewhere” (48%) and “I can teach myself what I need to know” (28%).

Over the last few years, Barna has invested in listening to young people and figuring out what makes for a holistic faith that lasts, in an effort to help pastors and parents partner with young adults in their spiritual walk. Data from Faith for Exiles highlight that most fall into the categories of habitual churchgoers (38%) or lapsed Christians (30%). One in five young adults with a Christian background (22%) has left the faith. However, there is much to learn from the 10 percent of Christian twenty-somethings who are what Barna refers to as “resilient disciples” and who counter the trend of leaving the Church.

The Church Must Reframe the Notion of Outreach and Faith-Sharing with the Next Gen
In the new report The Future of Missions, Barna presents 10 conversations church leaders and parents should be having with the next generation about global ministry—a key one being about whether there is a place for missions at all. Data show that while seven in 10 teens (71%) and young adults (72%) would say that missions is very valuable, there are still many who question missions’ ethics or who are wary of the way missions has traditionally been discussed and conducted.

These findings reflect young adults’ general hesitancy to share their faith with others. In the 2019 Barna report Reviving Evangelism, we found that almost half of practicing Christian Millennials (47%) say evangelism is wrong. Kinnaman says this highlights a need for Christians to bolster their confidence in certain convictions—among them, the belief that “evangelizing others is good and worthy of our time, energy and investment.” There might be more opportunity for these conversations than some people of faith assume; non-Christian young people are more curious and open to having spiritual discussions than are older adults.

So what can the Church do to not only grow resilient faith in Millennials and Gen Z, especially during a time when in-person discipleship is a rarity?

The themes above offer a glimpse into the complexity of discipling the next generation, a growing challenge as the U.S. rebounds from the COVID-19 crisis. The future of ministry to young adults, teens and children—and, when needed, the parents who raise them—continues to evolve. It is more important now than ever for leaders to check in with the young people in their church to understand what they are facing right now and how best to engage with and disciple future Church leaders.

Check out Barna’s Next Generation channel on Access Plus to learn more about discipling kids, teens and young adults.

About the Research

COVID-19 Data: Barna Group conducted these online surveys among Protestant Senior Pastors from March 20–July 30, 2020. Participants are all members of Barna Group’s Church Panel. Minimal weighting has been used to ensure the sample is representative based on denomination, region and church size.  

COVID-19 Data Collection Dates
Week 1, n=222, March 20-23, 2020
Week 2, n=212, March 24-30, 2020
Week 3, n=195, March 31-April 6, 2020
Week 4, n=246, April 7-13, 2020
Week 5, n=204, April 14-20, 2020
Week 6, n=164, April 21-27, 2020
Week 7, n=167, April 28-May 4, 2020
Week 8, n=165, May 5-11, 2020
Week 9, n=184, May 12-18, 2020
Weeks 10 and 11, n=191, May 19-June 1, 2020
Week 12, n=203, June 26-29, 2020
Week 13, n=256, July 9-14, 2020
Week 14, n=285, July 24-26, 2020
Quick poll, n=294, July 29-30, 2020

The Guiding Children study began with qualitative interviews of toy developers, children’s ministry leaders, educators, child development specialists and technology professionals. These interviews were conducted in the fall of 2018 and used a flexible script to explore respondents’ experiences in their specific fields.

A set of quantitative online surveys was subsequently conducted September 17 to October 18, 2018, using an online panel. The sample included 508 self-identified U.S. Christian parents of children ages 6 to 12 who are engaged in their Christian faith. The margin of error for this sample is +/- 4.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

The main research examination for Faith for Exiles was conducted with eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds who grew up as Christian. The charts and data shown in this article use data from qualitative interviews. The first includes data from a total of 1,296 US adults 18-29 who were current/former Christians. This data was collected online during January 2011 and the margin error for these respondents is +/- 2.7% at the 95% confidence level. The first and second chart both include data from a total of 1,514 US adults 18-29 who were current/former Christians that was collected online during February 16-28, 2018. The margin error for these respondents is +/- 2.3% at the 95% confidence level.

The Connected Generation study is based on online, representative public opinion surveys conducted by Barna Group. A total of 15,369 respondents ages 18 to 35 across 25 countries were surveyed between December 4, 2018 and February 15, 2019. See full details of sample distribution based on continent and country at Unless otherwise noted, all data referenced in The Connected Generation were collected by Barna, among a nationally representative sample of the population identified. For this study, Barna relied on online collection methods, including mobile phone users. The study used online national consumer panels that are representative by age, gender, region and ethnicity. Respondents were fully verified by the representative sample sources. Additionally, quality control measures checked that respondents were completing the survey at an appropriate pace and paying attention to the questions asked. The survey was offered in nine different languages, (English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, German, Romanian, Korean, Indonesian and Taiwanese), translated by a trusted translation service and verified by local partners in every country for context-specific nuance. Based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s International Data Base, the CIA World Fact Book and available census data from the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Chile, South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, the UK, Germany, Spain, Austria, Switzerland, Romania, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, India, Philippines and Singapore, quotas were designed to ensure the final group of adults interviewed in the study reflected each country’s distribution of adults nationwide based on age, gender, ethnicity and region. Online surveys necessitate literacy and an internet connection, which means the sample reflects adults who have those capabilities and does not reflect those who are unable to read or lack connectivity to respond to online surveys. Thus, in spite of a robust methodology, this sample is not meant to be representative of entire national populations, regions, continents or the world. The countries selected for this study were based on countries and regions where Barna and World Vision receive frequent requests for research-based insights. These and other concerns or limitations were respectfully considered while interpreting the data.

The findings from the Future of Missions study emerged from 3,606 online interviews with U.S. self-identified Christians, including 1,500 adults 35 and older (all engaged Protestants, see definitions below), 1,000 younger adults 18 to 34 (856 engaged Protestants), 602 teenagers 13 to 17 (380 engaged Protestants) and 504 engaged Protestant parents of children 13 to 25. Barna also interviewed 633 U.S. Protestant pastors of missions focused churches. Older adults, younger adults and teen interviews were conducted December 11, 2018 to January 8, 2019. Engaged Christian parents were interviewed September 11–27, 2019, and pastors were interviewed January 8–20, 2019.

Margins of error are as follows, all at the 95% confidence level:

  • Adults 35 and older: ±2.3 percentage points
  • Younger adults 18 to 24: ±3.2 percentage points
  • Teens 13 to 17: ±4.9 percentage points
  • Parents: ±4.3 percentage points
  • Pastors: ±3.8 percentage points

Research for Reviving Evangelism included two nationally representative studies of U.S. adults. The first was conducted using an online panel May 8–17, 2018, with 992 practicing Christians. A similar study was conducted online with a nationally representative study of 1,001 U.S. adults who do not meet the criteria for practicing Christians. Both lapsed Christians and non-Christians were interviewed. Both studies have margin of error of ±3 percent at the 95-percent confidence level. Respondents were invited from a randomly selected group of people matching the demographics of the U.S. population for maximum representation. Researchers set quotas to obtain a minimum readable sample by a variety of demographic factors and then minimally weighted the data by ethnicity, education and gender to reflect their natural presence in the known population, using U.S. Census Bureau data for comparison.

Photo by Teymi Townsend on Unsplash

© Barna Group, 2020.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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