How to help Gen Z flourish – be a Bible guide

With research showing that Generation Z failing to thrive spiritually, it’s never been more important to show them why the Bible matters to their lives, says John Plake, Director of Ministry Intelligence at American Bible Society (ABS).

In its 11th annual survey of the spiritual state of adults in the United States, the ABS took a closer look at Generation Z to see what was going on with the youngest emerging American generation. The results from a sample group of adults aged 18-24 and a smaller group of youth aged 16-17 were concerning.

“Gen Z youth … are generally rather unhappy, unhealthy, and aimless, somewhat conflicted and even lonely.”

“The first thing that stood out for us, just top line, was that Generation Z, particularly Gen Z youth, are just not doing well – they’re not thriving,” Plake said in a Zoom interview from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

“We used Harvard University’s measure of wellbeing, which is called the Human Flourishing Scale, which looks at happiness, life satisfaction, mental and physical health, meaning and purpose in life, a sense of character and virtue, and having close social relationships. And in every single one of those dimensions, Gen Z youth scored the lowest followed by Gen Z adults and then Millennials a little higher.

“So there was this age-related progression. And what that told us was that Gen Z youth, compared to all the other generations we looked at, are generally rather unhappy, unhealthy, and aimless, somewhat conflicted and even lonely. And so that’s a pretty bleak picture of where they are overall.”

John Plake, director of ministry intelligence, American Bible Society

Asked if such findings were just a function of being young and confused, like every generation before it, Plake said it was possible, but Gen Z was facing some unprecedented challenges, particularly in mental health.

“When we talk to people who deal with college students, for instance, they’ve dealt with college students for 30 years.

“They’re always the same age and they say, ‘no, things are getting worse, there’s more suicidal ideation. There’s more difficulty, even in Christian college and university students.’ So these [data] may be not just noise. There may be some signal there that is saying we need to pay close attention to Generation Z.”

When it came to Gen Z’s attitudes to the Bible, the results were somewhat mixed. They were much less likely than older generations to be Bible users, which is modestly categorised as reading the Bible on their own three or four times a year.

Only one-third of Gen Z youth qualified as Bible users compared with 43 per cent of Gen Z adults, 49 per cent of Millennials, and 50 per cent of all US adults.

“So they’re certainly lagging here. They also have some varied opinions about the Bible, and frankly, they’re just undecided about the importance of the Bible for their lives and for the values that a society would hold,” says Plake.

When they were asked whether biblical teachings were essential to understanding seven American ideals – democracy, justice, liberty, unity, love, hope, and faith – Gen Z’s majority response was undecided. They just didn’t know.

“That’s interesting because this generation is in the midst of deciding so many things – they’re deciding what career path am I going to take, they’re deciding where am I going to go to university? They’re deciding what they’re going to do with the faith of their fathers or mothers, if you will. And so they are in the midst of making these really critical decisions that will shape the future of their life with others and their life with God. And I think it’s important that we come alongside them.”

“Generation Z is saying, ‘Can you tell me why the Bible matters?”

Plake says this unfamiliarity with the Bible among the young is the result of a major shift in American society. While it used to be popular in the 1970s to be affiliated with a church or identify as a Christian, that is no longer the case.

“Very simply, Gen Z is less biblically literate than any generation that we’ve seen in my lifetime at the same age. And that’s no fault of their own. They’re actually not opposed to the Bible, they are open to it, but they are not familiar with it and they just haven’t been exposed to it in the way that their parents were, perhaps. And in many ways that might be good because their parents were not always exposed to the Bible in ways that were particularly helpful.

“And so I think Generation Z is saying, ‘Can you tell me why the Bible matters? If you’re going to make a case for the Bible, tell me why it matters in terms of the issues I’m confronting. Does it offer me wisdom for today? Does it offer me something that I actually need?’ … we have to be able to make an appeal to Scripture in a way that is relevant to people who otherwise don’t care.”

“How do we present God’s word in a way that is true to the word, but that is also winsome?”

Having identified the problem, the first thing the ABS is doing is challenging the church to develop good solutions.

“The second thing that we’re doing is we’re really focusing on the group of people we identify as the moveable middle. This is a  group of people who interact with the Bible, somewhat infrequently, but they’re open. And we’ve been able to do some focused work with individuals in the moveable middle and understand what it is that they’re looking for, what actually helps them grow, and then publish that information and get it out to people who are creating Bible study programs and outreach programs and curriculum. And who were thinking about how do we present God’s word in a way that is true to the word, but that is also winsome.”

While Plake does not believe Gen Z needs a new translation of the Bible, he sees plenty of scope for innovation in packaging the Bible so that its content is easily accessible and easily understood by the youngest generation, such as digital forms of delivery and video-based presentations more in keeping with the communication style of 21st-century young adults.

Christians who engage with Scripture report the highest level of holistic wellbeing of any cultural group.

He adds that with statistics showing that Christians who engage with Scripture report the highest level of holistic wellbeing of any cultural group, it’s clear that the Bible influences human flourishing to a great degree.

“We are working with church leaders throughout the United States. The American Bible Society has spun up a new innovation hub where we’re inviting people who are doing innovative work in these areas to bring their ideas, and sometimes we can help match them up to funding for those ideas, and we can run pilot projects that then test the efficacy of these innovative Scripture engagement ideas.

“So that’s where we are predominantly right now, listening to the church, inviting innovation. The next step then is, as we identify breakout ideas, to then get those more broadly available, move to scale them and make them sustainable and available to the church throughout the United States.”

As for individual Christians, the most important thing they can do is be the Bible person in someone else’s life.

“So many of the people we talked to had a mother or a grandmother who used to sit with her Bible open and read it and make notes in the margin. And many of them told us their mother, their grandmother had passed away. Maybe they had even inherited that Bible and they would look through the pages and think to themselves ‘I wish I could be a spiritual person,’” he said.

Often they will reach for the Bible when they reach a change point in their life. But, says Plake, they need more than a Bible.

“It’s not just simply handing someone a Bible, even in the best format possible, even with the best language possible, even when they really want to understand it. The Bible is just not like any other book that they’ve ever read. And even if they know some of the stories of the Bible, they don’t know how to find them. And so they really said to us, ‘I need a guide to help me.’ And I guess that could be a digital guide. It could be a human guide, which is my preference, and they want someone to walk alongside them and help them and point them to the next thing.”

“Understanding that there are people who have an authentic, relatable relationship with God is the best gift that we can give to Gen Z.”

What it boils down to, he says, is Christians being Christians in a public enough way that we’re willing to invite a family member, a friend, or a neighbour to come along on the journey through Scripture.

“Honestly, I think Gen Z is looking for authenticity more than any other thing. They’re looking for people who have an authentic relationship with God, who have an authentic prayer life, who have an authentic love for God’s word,” he says.

“The key to reaching Gen Z is to find someone in your life who’s in that age range – from 24 years old and younger, someone you have a relationship with – and make sure they know what God has done in your life. Tell the story, show them the Scripture, just in the normal course of conversation. I believe that understanding that there are people who have an authentic relatable relationship with God is the best gift that we can give to Gen Z.

“And it will cause them to want to dig more deeply into God’s word and find that Christ is there waiting for them.”