Who do Gen Z trust to teach them more about Jesus?
Data from The Open Generation: United States—one of many country-focused reports created as part of The Open Generation project—show that U.S. teens are largely interested in learning more about Jesus throughout their life. This article looks at current levels of Christian commitment among U.S. Gen Z and who they might turn to with their curiosity about Jesus Christ. Along the way, we observe some notable shifts in commitment to Christ as teens enter adulthood.
A Sharp Decline in Christianity Starts Early in Adulthood
Overall, Gen Z in the U.S.—both teens (13–17) and young adults (18–22) have a positive view of who Jesus is. Most often, U.S. teens believe he offers hope to people, cares about people and is trustworthy. Even so, holding these perceptions doesn’t always correlate with identifying as a Christian. Further, even when teens do identify as Christian, it doesn’t mean they’ve made a personal commitment to follow Jesus.
Barna has long made the distinction between nominal Christians and practicing Christians in its research, which is especially important in areas such as the U.S. that may be culturally Christian. We can also assume that some teens are young enough that they identify with the religion of their community or upbringing without having yet made deeply personal decisions around that faith.
Overall, two-thirds of teens (65%) and nearly half of young adults (48%) in the U.S. identify as Christian. To sharpen our analysis of Christianity among young people, Barna also developed a segmentation based on a personal commitment to follow Jesus.
- Committed Christians self-identify as Christian and say they have made a personal commitment to follow Jesus Christ.
- Nominal Christians self-identify as Christian but have not made a personal commitment to follow Jesus Christ.
- All others do not identify as Christian and / or are unsure about who Jesus is.
By this definition, just shy of one in four teens (22%) worldwide is a committed Christian.* In the U.S., this rises to roughly one in three (32%). Another one-third is nominally Christian (33%), close to the global proportion (30%). Broken down by denomination, 44 percent of Catholic teens and 58 percent of Protestant teens in the U.S. are categorized as committed Christians.
Looking at older Gen Z in the U.S.—adults ages 18–22—we see just how sharply faith may decline in young adulthood. The committed Christian category shrinks by nearly half (to 17%), while more than half of young adults (52%) do not identify as Christian or don’t know of Jesus.
*Editor's note: Read more about global teens' perceptions of Jesus in this article.
Committed Christian Teens Find Joy, Relevance in Jesus
Committed Christians are a minority who often have meaningful experiences of faith. Globally, three-quarters of committed Christian teens strongly agree their connection to Jesus brings them joy and satisfaction. In the U.S., the reported benefits of this rare relationship with Jesus are slightly less pronounced; 69 percent agree strongly that they experience this joy and satisfaction. As one might expect, nominal Christian teens in the U.S. are even less inclined to agree; they are nearly half as likely as their committed peers to say the relationship they have with Jesus is satisfying.
This large gap emerges once more among the committed and nominal Christian teens who find relevance in what Jesus has to say. Globally and within U.S. borders, nominal Christian teens are more likely than their committed peers to say they just aren’t sure whether Jesus offers them joy or relevant wisdom.
Three-Quarters of U.S. Teens Want to Learn More About Jesus
Curiosity about Jesus is widespread in the open generation. Teens in the U.S. are far more intrigued than their global peers, with 77 percent being at least somewhat motivated to keep learning about Jesus throughout their lives. A teen’s personal commitment to follow Jesus goes hand in hand with their motivation to study him—the percentage of teens who want to learn more about Jesus rises significantly among committed Christian teens. Even among teens who are non-Christians or don't know who Jesus is, however, over half is at least somewhat motivated to keep learning about him.
So where do teens turn when they desire to learn more about Jesus?
Regardless of their level of commitment to follow Jesus, U.S. teens place a significant amount of trust in religious texts and their households to learn about Jesus. Teens are more likely to report looking to these sources than to social media, the Internet, their friends or influencers.
Digging into their top trusted sources, we find some challenges to instruction about Jesus. Nominal Christian teens, after turning to scripture or a family member, are quick to look to themselves. In fact, teens without a personal commitment to follow Jesus will trust themselves before they go to a pastor, church leader, Christian or the Bible to learn about Jesus.
A number of discipleship opportunities present themselves in this data. American Gen Z, of varying levels of commitment to Jesus, may be lacking instruction on how to follow Jesus and to find meaning in the words of Christ and in scripture. Additionally, in the absence of trusted guidance, nominal Christian teens may attempt to take on the task of discipleship as a solo endeavor.
With a departure from Christian identity and commitment already becoming common among elder members of Gen Z, faith leaders who work with the next generation have urgent relational and spiritual work ahead of them. As Barna CEO David Kinnaman writes in the U.S. report on The Open Generation, "Having a spiritual mentor is one of the strongest factors for helping young people develop a resilient faith—one that grows and sustains them over time and helps guide them toward meaning and purpose in life."
Further reading and resources:
- Interested in learning more about Gen Z—both in the U.S. and around the world? Check out The Open Generation series as well as the country-specific reports that will be released throughout 2023. These resources are available both in the Barna online store and on Barna Access Plus.
- For an interactive learning experience featuring data from The Open Generation, sign up for Engaging Gen Z: Why There's Hope for The Open Generation and the Church, a webinar hosted by World Vision, Barna, Alpha and other project partners.
- Barna has been reporting on Gen Z since 2018, as the leading edge of this group was just beginning to enter adulthood. For our other reports on Gen Z, check out Gen Z and Gen Z: Volume 2, available in the Barna store and on Barna Access Plus.
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About the Research
This study is based on online, representative public opinion surveys conducted by Barna Group. Teens were recruited to participate in the quantitative survey through their parents. Parents answered seven screening questions about their teens, which included demographics such as age, gender and ethnicity. In each country, quotas were set to obtain a sample of teens representative by region, race / ethnicity / nationality, socioeconomic status and gender. A total of 24,557 respondents ages 13 to 17 across 26 countries were surveyed between July 21, 2021, and August 24, 2021. An additional 313 responses were collected in February of 2022 in New Zealand. (See page 7 for sample distribution by country.) The margin of error for each individual country is assumed to be +/- 2.1%. In the United States, responses were collected from 1,010 18–22-year-olds to support a full Gen Z study (2,025 respondents total, including teens and young adults). The margin of error for the U.S. data is assumed to be +/- 2%.
Photo by Vince Fleming from Unsplash.
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2023