Whitney Houston sang “I believe that children are the future.” That would seem to be obvious, as they’ll be here running things when previous generations are gone. However, for Gen Z, the generation born between 1997 and 2012, that time is now, and your church needs to shift with the times to make sure they’re engaged, so your membership can continue to grow.
According to Beth Warren, Senior Vice President of Marketing for Creative Realities, businesses and organizations around the globe are already pivoting to focus on Gen Z because their presence and activity are already the driving force behind change on all levels.
Defining the generation
“Let’s look at who they are,” she says. “In the United States alone they are a population of 68 million, which puts them on-track to be the largest consumer group. They’re the most ethnically diverse group in US history. They are the first group in America in which white men will be the minority. They have a spending potential of $200 billion. They’re also the first generation of true Digital Natives. The A/V industry is for them, but it must be done right.”
This last point is particularly important. Every previous generation, including Millennials, had some exposure to hard media, and some understanding of a world without the Internet. Gen Z has always had the Internet. It has been part of their education throughout school. They have always downloaded music, and used social media and texting to communicate. Because of the size of their generation and their natural affinity for technology, they are the ones who determine how technology should perform. If something works they’ll use social media to promote that it works. If it doesn’t, they’ll use social media to tell people to stay away, and that product or service will likely fail.
“They move freely between online and offline,” Warren says. “They do everything in both places depending on what’s in front of them” This means they could be engaged with a group in-person, yet still communicating online via their phone. To attract their attention, your worship facility has to have a physical presence as well as a cyber presence. If you’re not online, with an active web page and social media presence, they’re not likely to get engaged.
Previous generations have been defined as being the Me Generation, where they wanted things to be about them. Others were known to be great consumers. Not so with Gen Z. They are above all, moral and inclusive. And they prefer using products, belonging to organizations, and getting involved with people and churches who share their values. Don’t just pay them lip service. Don’t forget, this is the digital generation. They will very quickly look past ads and statements and find the reality of how happy people are, what you do, what people have said about your church, who the congregants and staff are, and what they do and say. Thankfully, the standards they’re looking for are typically those that align very closely with faith.
- Inclusion. Gen Z doesn’t want to see anyone treated poorly, ever. That doesn’t mean that every person on your church staff or in your congregation has to be fit into a different societal slot in order for your church to be found acceptable. But it means all should be welcome. If the community around your church is primarily one ethnicity or another, that’s fine, you don’t need to go outside the area to find someone else. But make sure you’re also finding ways to include women, individuals who have disabilities, or different sexual orientations, so all can be involved. “Individuality is sacred to them,” Warren says. Don’t be a church that demands conformity. Love the individual.
- Pragmatism. Members of Gen Z grew up with their eyes wide open. They don’t want what’s perfect, they want what works, and they have seen through watching the stress on previous generations that the pursuit of perfect can result in a great deal of unhappiness, and result in nothing at all.
- Inquisitiveness. As stated earlier, they are not the Me Generation, born to consume. Gen Z are born to learn. They process information very quickly, and they would rather rent or borrow something to learn about it than to own something.
Warren expanded on this last point, which also has particular ties to components of faith. “They’re very comfortable borrowing or renting, and they like experiences. They don’t invest in stocks because they don’t see the point. They want access to things, not ownership of them. They want to learn from experiences and move on. They want to be able to borrow or rent something and then pass it on to someone else who might need it later.
Unlike previous generations that are almost invariably described as lazy, 4 out of 5 members of Gen Z believe they’re more driven than the Millennial generation. Half want to start a business, and 72% already have.
Consider that point. These people are no more than 25 years old, and the majority of them have already started a business. Couple that with the knowledge that they drive tech consumption, and will find the flaws in faulty tech and web sites, and the conclusion is startling. Members of Gen Z will find what works, and if they don’t find anything that works, they’ll build something better themselves.
You can put that to use by asking members of your congregation who are part of Gen Z to troubleshoot your existing web site, or to design one. Most likely, they could network to put together not only a dynamic site for you, but a thriving social media presence that would draw in new members from their generation. Plus, having the opportunity to work on such a project would help build your profile in their community.
Knowing what their values are, and that Gen Z wants to patronize products, programs, groups, and churches that they find ethically responsible, you should know what they want to see in you. Again, the standards aren’t hard to meet.
- Authenticity. Members of Gen Z are interested in reality, not ideals. “When they’re looking for fashion, they want to see pictures of real people, not airbrushed pictures of skinny people,” Warren says. For your church, that would mean if you have a website or social media account, make sure the pictures are up to date. If you’re showing pictures of a church that’s freshly painted, with new signage, but the reality is the paint in the sanctuary has been cracking for a year and the sign in front flickers you have a problem.
- Social responsibility. This extends not only to the church itself, but to the members of the board. Your church may be kind, but if your minister or any stuff are known through deeds or words to not be, and they’re unrepentant and allowed to remain active in your organization, it’s a problem for the individuals and for your church. If you abide by the Golden Rule as well as “there’s no place for hate in this church” you should be fine.
The key qualities Gen Z looks for are:
- Fair wages
- Ethical practices
As a church leader, you should examine, and be aware of, your practices top-to bottom. Remember, this is the younger generation, the people who are likely to be in your youth programs, and your lower-level staff. They’re going to see everything. When you had your last church dinner, what happened to the leftovers? Did they go home with the guests, were they donated to the needy, or did they end up in the trash? That’s just one example of a question you should ask, because if your answers are wrong, you may be harming your church in more ways than one.
Proof vs. brand
Moving past values and authenticity, it’s critical to note that Gen Z has no brand loyalty.
“Social proof outweighs brand,” Warren says. “Peer trust is essential to them, so they will write and refer to things like Yelp reviews to start to learn the truth about an organization. They’ll also ensure that the reviews are made by real people, not members of the organization itself.”
That means that, even more than before, your church can’t rely at all on being the neighborhood or community church, where families have gathered, married, celebrated, and mourned for years or generations. If you have successfully drawn or retained younger congregants to keep your house of worship thriving, but then you adopt a new policy that excludes some members of the community, they will turn on you instantly and go elsewhere.
Cashless and virtual
Because they are the first generation of digital natives, Gen Z doesn’t expect you to have tangible song books or prayer books. They can download a Bible of any translation onto their phone to follow along with Bible study or services. They’re happy to stream your service to stay engaged from anywhere in the world. And they’ll readily talk to other congregants and ministry leaders on social media or on Skype rather than face-to-face.
“Real is not important,” Warren says. “Virtual stuff is fine. And social is their economy. They like apps, social media sales, buy buttons, and Instagram moments.”
That means if your church likes to sell items such as t-shirts, or recorded music from your church singers and musicians, make sure you can do that through your church social media page, or the church’s main page. At your in-house shop, make electronic payment through an app such as Apple pay an option, because like younger Millennials, Gen Z almost never uses cash. They’re happy to buy what they want, but they’re going to use their phone to do it.
This might also be a way to facilitate church donations. The days of passing the collection plate or basket may still be fine for older generations, but that won’t work with a cashless generation who gets paid through direct deposit or through an app. Going to get cash for them would be a complicated process. Even the normal collection envelope for monthly tithes would be useless to them, as many members of Gen Z never use checks, even to pay rent and utilities, which can now be done online or automatically.
Speak their language
Finally, to make your church and practices more appealing to Gen Z, learn to speak their language. According to Warren, this means:
- Deliver ‘snackable content’ – 8 seconds or less. Remember, they process information very quickly. Sound bytes of information are going to work better than long speeches or sermons. Don’t have a long build to your sermon, deliver the hard point to draw them in, then explain.
- The more personalized, the better. Individuality is key to them, so address them as individuals, showing you know who they are and what they care about and are challenged by.
- FOMO is a [good] thing. FOMO = fear of missing out, and because they’re continually connected to each other, “Individuals with a hive mind,” who relish experiences, members of Gen Z don’t want to miss out on anything good. If they hear that something good is happening at your church, something that they can learn from that will benefit them and others, they’ll want to come.
- Show them what others think, feel, do, say. When done appropriately, Gen Z will listen. And remember that authenticity is key.
- Amplify their voice back to the venue. This means showing that not only have their views been heard, you’re sharing them. One great example of this is Twitter. If you posted a sermon that a young congregant enjoyed, and they commented about it, you could like that comment to make them feel recognized, but retweeting it to all of your followers, so their words are seen by hundreds or thousands of people, would really make them feel good.
- Offer teachable moments. Anything you can teach them in a short period of time would be great. A short video of how your production lights are controlled would be an example, which they would not only find interesting, but they could share it.
- Raw & Real vs Perfect & Polished. Authentic, timely, relatable. When Gen Z go to events now, they record the parts they like with their phones and share them on social media. Are those recordings professional grade? No. You see the action, with a bunch of other hands and a bunch of other phones in the foreground. But, that recording comes out either during the event or immediately after, and it ends up getting shared to multiple platforms from YouTube to Twitter, where it’s commented on and possibly shared again. Give them the opportunity to share something, and learn something, and even if what you say or do isn’t technically perfect, they’ll forgive that as long as they like what you’re saying and doing. Stay that course and they’ll stay engaged.