I was dismayed by the data presented in a recent op-ed by Natan Ehrenreich for Real Clear Religion titled “Gen Z’s Conflicting Opinions on Faith, Religious Practice.” Citing data from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty’s 2023 Religious Freedom Index, he observes: “Overall, 59% of Americans see religion as part of the solution to the issues facing our country. However, that percentage is nearly flipped for Gen Z, of which 61% percent said that religion was part of the problem. A full 56% of Gen Z went even further and said that people of faith were also part of the problem.”
“Trust in the LORD with all your heart, on your own intelligence do not rely;
In all your ways, be mindful of him, and he will make straight your paths.” Prov 3
These observations about Gen Z parallel findings from the most recent American Beliefs study from ACS Technologies titled “America’s Largest Faith Group: The Faithless.” Over a quarter of the 15,000 respondents to the survey indicated “none/no religious preference.” By these statistics, “Nones” have supplanted Catholics as the largest faith group in America. This group is more likely than practicing Christians to express concern about life’s stressful circumstances.
The study also confirms an increase of “nones” with each generation, with over 35% of Millennial respondents indicating no religious preference. This is more true of Gen Z, many of whom have never had a relationship with a parish, so they have no reference to what it is like to be part of a parish community.
It would seem that the kerygma, presenting the loving plan of salvation that God has for us, would be an opportunity to bring “nones” into a relationship with the Church. However, a significant issue of trust must be overcome before the message can be heard. Respondents to the American Beliefs study say they do not trust organized religion and religious leaders.
So, is there any way we can attract Gen Z and other “nones” to our parishes? To overcome a distrust of religious leaders and an overall distrust of religion and religious people, we have started relationally outside of the Church. We must consider this to be a period of pre-evangelization and focus on building bridges of trust. Sherry Weddell, author of “Forming Intentional Disciples: the path to Knowing and Loving Jesus” refers to the 5 Thresholds of Conversion as defined by Everts and Schaup. People move through 5 stages, starting with “initial trust,” then curiosity, seeking, and openness before accepting intentional discipleship. Weddell adds the stages of “pre-evangelization” and “evangelization” to the start of this, suggesting that we must start outside of church, beginning with a personal relationship.
The booklet “Engaging the Next Generation: How the Catholic Church Can Connect with Gen Z” offers a range of ideas on how to start relationships. We are reminded in the opening section that Gen Z persons are disconnected from the Church: “Gen Z was raised with little or no experience with “church” and no reason to seek it out. In his Encyclical Redemptoris Missio, Pope St. John Paul II wrote, “The number of those who do not know Christ and do not belong to the Church is constantly on the increase. When we consider this immense portion of humanity which is loved by the Father and for whom he sent his Son, the urgency of the Church’s mission is obvious.”
This may not be a ministry to be conducted as a “Church ministry by Church leaders.” Knowing there is a lack of trust in Church leadership and in religious people, we have to work on a personal level to appeal to the spiritual concerns of Gen Z persons. This could be a ministry of parishioners conducted outside of the parish.
In summary, here are some key things to consider as we seek to reach Gen Z:
- Gen Z is largely part of the “Nones” – people who do not have a religious affiliation.
- Gen Z persons are more likely distrustful of religion and religious people.
- “Nones” say they do not trust religious leaders.
- Gen Z persons do have a strong sense of spirituality, which is often secular, informed by a desire for diversity, inclusion, and social justice.
- Start a relationship in the context of “pre-evangelization,” engaging in the topics and considerations valued by Gen Z.
While we can’t apply a process or program to have Gen Z or other “Nones” quickly join our parishes as full participants, we can take steps to introduce the Holy Spirit into their lives. This is truly an apostolic time where we must go out to them to understand and accompany them before we can begin to invite them into our parishes.
About Terry Poplava
Terry Poplava serves as General Manager, ACST Catholic. As a cradle Catholic, his faith was lukewarm until he was confronted by the intense challenge and commitment he heard in the message about Stewardship. “What do I own and what owns me?” which led him to executive roles at Our Sunday Visitor and Catholic Leadership Institute before his current focus on serving the Catholic Church at ACS Technologies. Terry has extensive experience working with churches across the U.S., supporting their planning, stewardship, and engagement efforts