Polls consistently show that members of Generation Z—loosely defined as the cohort born between 1999 and 2015—are far less religious than their parents and grandparents. Young Americans are twice as likely to identify themselves as atheists in comparison to other adults, while a mere 59% identify themselves with some form of Christianity—a significant decline from the 75% of Baby Boomers who say the same.
Surveys also find that members of Generation Z are more socially progressive than other Americans, with as many as one in five identifying themselves as “LGBTQ.” Although some young people certainly attempt to blend the doctrines of biblical Christianity with the falsehoods of modern leftism, there is a remnant drawn to conservative religious traditions with weightiness and transcendence—which may even claim to uniquely feed the soul in a relentlessly materialistic era.
Talk to members of Generation Z who grew up in loosely evangelical households and you will discover that many have since turned to Roman Catholicism rather than the generic version of megachurch Christianity. The ornate architecture of cathedrals, the advent of the Latin Mass, and the otherworldly nature of chants are, to many young people, a departure from the emptiness of the modern age.
Take, for example, actor Shia LaBeouf, who recently made headlines for converting to Roman Catholicism. In an interview with Bishop Robert Barron, he explained that “Latin Mass affects me deeply.” When asked why, he said: “Because it feels like they’re not selling me a car.”
Big-box evangelicalism, on the other hand, is by no means transcendent. Pastors and worship leaders often find themselves limping and thrashing about their altars (1 Kings 18:26) with moralistic, therapeutic sermons and emotionalistic, shallow music. As LaBeouf correctly diagnosed, many evangelical churches merely make attempts at “selling Jesus” to their members. In the words of Pastor Rick Warren, you can simply give Jesus “a sixty-day trial” or get your money back—a tactic that is quite literally taken from car salesmen.
Amid churches trying to itch the ears of their listeners with marketing gimmicks (2 Tim 4:3) rather than the preaching of the gospel (1 Cor 2:2), many young people see no difference between such theatrics and a concert for Travis Scott or Billie Eilish—and rightly so. Formerly evangelical adolescents who journey across the Tiber are rarely drawn by Rome’s adherence to doctrinal claims such as progressive justification, transubstantiation, or the immaculate conception of Mary. Rather, they are attracted by a perceived connection to history and the spiritual world that simply cannot be found in the halls of government schools or the annals of social media.
In one sense, I can sympathize with such tendencies. I spent the first eighteen years of my life in an evangelical megachurch—mumbling repetitive lyrics to swill like “Good Good Father” and “Reckless Love” before sitting through sermons devoid of matters such as repentance, holiness, sanctification, and the sovereignty of God. However, when I entered college and witnessed several of my peers finding refuge in Rome, I instead found myself on a trajectory to Geneva.
When a handful of upperclassmen invited me to attend Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia during my first days on campus, my experience was nothing less than a culture shock. Never had I heard a congregation read a psalm responsively, sing from a hymn book, or even recite the Apostles’ Creed. Several months later—after I had begun seriously reading my Bible for the first time and coming to true repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ—I quickly began to notice the ways in which Tenth’s liturgy endeavored to honor God in every moment. “Ascribe to the Lord the glory due His name” (Psalm 96:8).
In other words, members of Generation Z who desire a sense of transcendence in their worship may simply need to look a bit harder. By fostering a dogmatic commitment to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture while retaining a deep respect for church history, much of evangelical, conservative, Reformed Christianity has managed to guard itself from the spirit of the age. Young people should by no means compromise on the true gospel (Galatians 1:8-9) to find a tradition that has retained its sense of reverence.
As Israel’s worship was to be different from the religion of the surrounding nations, faithful Christian worship ought to be utterly distinct from the idolatries of twenty-first century America—or those of any other age. Through the past several thousand years—from the conquest of Canaan to the social justice movement—the people of God have learned repeatedly that syncretizing biblical religion with “philosophy and empty deceit” (Colossians 2:8) simply results in the loss of biblical religion. The same is clearly true among those who have reduced Sunday morning church into an endless series of rock concerts and TED Talks.
Evangelicals should not seek to foster weighty worship merely because such practices could counterintuitively attract young people. Do not hear me arguing that Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church should add a pipe organ in its latest play toward seeker-sensitivity. Rather, evangelicals should foster biblical worship in every age and among every demographic because anything less is not befitting of the Lord Jesus Christ—who has conquered death and is putting His enemies under His feet (Psalm 110:1).
And praise be to God if members of Generation Z come to know Him along the way.