Much ink has been spilled about those born between 1997 and 2012, also known as Generation Z. In the call to make disciples, how can Christ’s church understand and care for the unique strengths and challenges facing this up-and-coming generation?
Based on a profile from aggregated data, the Barna research group described Gen Z as optimistic, engaged, malleable, curious, authentic, inclusive, and collaborative. Gen Z is also one of the most spiritually open and curious generations.
The Stats: Gen Z and Sexuality
Interestingly, Gen Z is having less sex than previous generations. In 2011, 47% of high school students reported ever having sex. By 2021, that number had decreased to 30%. For this generation, relationships are increasingly a place to pursue self-actualization and self-expression, whereas previous generations may have viewed relationships as a venue for sex, cohabitation, or marriage.
For Gen Z, a relationship can be a place to experiment with a new identity. There are increasingly specific ways to identify oneself with regard to sexuality, gender expression, and romance. The 1983 hit song “Obsession” by pop group Animotion boldly cries, “What do you want me to be, to make you sleep with me?” Gen Z, however, has inverted this standard, now declaring that “who I sleep with is an expression of how I choose to identify.”
Gen Z has the highest incidence of anxiety disorders, social fears, and mental health struggles of all recent generations; pursue patience and humility in discipleship relationships.
Gen Z has the highest rate of identifying as LGBTQ+ (only 50% identifying as exclusively heterosexual) and is more likely to reject a gender binary and embrace gender fluidity. The role of women is noteworthy: fewer and fewer women over the past decade have reported their attraction is exclusively to the opposite sex, while these numbers have remained stable for the same data set among Gen Z men. Gen Z women are leading the way in pursuing higher rates of casual sex and same-sex sexual expression.
Finally, increases in the availability of pornography and technologically-mediated sexual experiences have likely led to falling rates of relationships, marriage, and sex among Generation Z.
Called to Guard the Good Deposit
In 2 Timothy, the Apostle Paul describes the gospel as a deposit entrusted to him; he is guarding it and giving it to his younger disciple, Timothy. Paul says:
But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me. Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Jesus Christ. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you. (2 Tim. 1:12b–14)
To be sure, Jesus himself is the one in whom Paul has believed, and the Holy Spirit himself is the one who will guard the good deposit of the gospel. Notice that Paul does not lay out a detailed plan for guarding the deposit. Instead, he places his confidence in Jesus, who keeps and protects the gospel amid persecution, false teachers, evildoers, and shifting cultures.
If we ignore our culture’s view of sexuality and gender, we cannot faithfully proclaim the gospel of our King Jesus, who claims authority over all things. So how can we, like Paul, rely on Jesus as we are entrusted with the good deposit of the gospel regarding sexuality and gender to the next generation? Here are some practical considerations.
Start with Patience & Compassion
Gen Z has been steeped in postmodernism since birth. They do not know a time when same-sex relationships and gender fluidity were not celebrated. This generation is unmoored from basic premises that older generations may take for granted. Gen Z must sincerely ask questions like, “What, exactly, is a woman? What makes certain sexual practices morally wrong if they’re between two consenting adults?” Be compassionate and patient. Being mired in confusion about basic truths is a form of suffering.
Gen Z has the highest incidence of anxiety disorders, social fears, and mental health struggles of all recent generations; pursue patience and humility in discipleship relationships. Growing up in a digital age has ushered in a new level of fragility and pain. The church should both challenge and offer compassion for these weaknesses.
Assume Biblical Illiteracy
Gen Z is the most biblically illiterate generation in a post-Christian world. Start with the basics! Don’t assume foundational truths about God, creation, sin, or the cross. I recently heard about an interaction between my friend and a young man, where the young man marveled that Jesus was “the guy on the cross necklace.” He genuinely did not know that the cross connected to Jesus; he had always seen it as merely a symbol on a necklace and other apparel. Rather than mocking or decrying Gen Z for their biblical illiteracy, take it as a call to disciple them with God’s Word in hand. Model belief in the sufficiency of Scripture by searching for truth alongside your Gen Z friends. Dive into the deep questions with them.
Speak the Truth in Love: Name Sin
Have clarity based on God’s Word. It’s not loving or winsome to fail to tell someone of the dangers of sin for their soul. Gen Z is sometimes called “the open generation” because of their openness to spiritual things. Gen Z has uniquely displayed an understanding that, fundamentally, something inside of them is broken and they need help from outside themselves to repair it. This understanding reveals why therapeutic and mental health treatments have increased among Gen Z and why transgender ideology has taken root. Gen Z is prepared to look outside themselves for a solution to their felt needs.
Remember to declare the beauty of God’s design for sexuality and gender. We have a better story to tell!
The gospel is poised to reply to this worldview. Jesus is the only Savior. Speak the truth about humanity’s need for him because of our sin nature. Sin is not merely the bad things we do; it is a power at work in us that requires radical salvation from outside ourselves (Rom. 7:23–24) and ongoing, daily repentance in the life of faith. Teach the whole gospel—it is good news for sinners like us.
Regard No One According to the Flesh
2 Corinthians 5:16 calls us to “regard no one according to the flesh.” Are you obeying this in your perceptions and opinions of Gen Z—including those inside your church family? An obvious temptation for older generations is to throw stones of judgment and ridicule rather than come alongside our younger brothers and sisters. There is even a well-documented feud online between Gen Z and millennials, where mockery is commonplace. This ought not to be in the household of faith! Regarding Gen Z according to the flesh might look like:
- Assuming the worst of them—cynicism
- Attributing their shortcomings and sins solely to their age
- Lacking patience in their weakness
- Assuming that you could never connect with them because of their age
For my fellow millennials, Gen Xers, baby boomers, and beyond, I urge you to repent of these views and answer the call to Christ-honoring discipleship in gentleness and love.
Tell a Better Story
Do not merely teach the “don’ts” of sexual practice. Remember to declare the beauty of God’s design for sexuality and gender. We have a better story to tell! Imagine if you asked me to describe magnificent Sequoia National Park—with its vast canyons, ancient trees, and breathtaking rock formations—but instead, I went into detail about the border, fence, and entry gate. Did I really describe what Sequoia National Park is like? Certainly not! But this has become common in the church’s teaching on sex. We major on the rules and how to avoid breaking them while God is declaring something beautiful about himself in the very design and shape of sexuality for singles and married people. When was the last time your heart was captivated by rules?
Faithfulness to commands about sexual practice should come from worship of the God who designed it all, because it points to him! Start by engaging Gen Z in the grand story of God’s love, which—in part—is imaged in his design for sexuality and gender.
Discipleship: Jesus’s Plan for Building His Church
Older saints, remember: there is nothing new under the sun (Eccles. 1:9). While green hair, gender fluidity, and niche online jokes may appear new to you, you will find that, at the heart level, you are more alike than different from your Gen Z counterparts.
“No temptation has overtaken you but that which is common to man” (1 Cor. 10:13) and therefore common within the ordinary life of the local church through all generations. Don’t be scared away by the seeming novelty of this thoughtful, sensitive, and open generation. You’ve been entrusted with the gospel. What will you do?
 The Barna Group, “The Open Generation: How U.S. Teens & Young Adults Relate to Jesus, View the Bible, and Make an Impact,” The Barna Group, 2022. (www.barna.com/the-open-generation, accessed 6/6/23)
 The National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, Centers for Disease Control, 2021. (https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/data/yrbs/yrbs_data_summary_and_trends.htm, accessed 6/8/23)
 Morgan, Elizabeth M., and Van Dulmen, Manfred H. M., Sexuality in Emerging Adulthood, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2021.
 On the surface, this may seem to contradict our culture’s focus on self-actualization. However, things like joining online affinity groups, cosmetic surgery, and gender transition are all unique markers of an effort to seek affirmation and identity confirmation from outside the self. I interviewed many college leaders who mentioned that, while the trend in the ‘90s was to “look within,” they are now seeing this focus inverted.
Director of Women's Ministry
Caitlin McCaffrey is the Director of Women’s Ministry at Harvest USA. She holds a BA in liberal studies from The Master’s University and an MA in teaching with an emphasis in applied behavior analysis from National University. She is a board-certified behavior analyst and certified brain injury specialist with training in trauma recovery and biblical counseling.More from Caitlin McCaffrey