Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World
By James Emery White
205 pp. Baker Books. $16.99
I’ve long been suspicious of broad generational labels, the assumption that one’s birth within a certain arbitrary frame of years means that commonalities within a guild or a family or a church or a town are going to mean less than the pop-culture references that one gets or the technologies with which one orders pizza. To say that “Millenials are this way” or that “Baby Boomers will not understand this thing because they were born too early” strikes me as a blunt instrument at best and at worst a capitulation to the advertisement culture’s obsession with age-based demographics.
Of course, some of you are already saying, “He must be Generation X.”
A World and a Generation
James Emery White’s recent book Meet Generation Z begins not with generational stereotypes–that was a relief–but with a distinction between formal atheism, which is still quite rare in North America, and functional atheism, which has given rise to the census-phenomenon that Christian writers love to call the “Nones.” In case this is the first time you’ve ever read a Christian blog, the “Nones” are folks who do not answer “Protestant” or “Orthodox” or “Muslim” or “Atheist” on demographic surveys but, in the spirit of Brewster’s Millions, choose “None of the Above” as their religion. According to White and the surveys he cites, parallel trends (29) of secularization (the removal of religious distinctives from the public square), privatization (the relegation of religious convictions to the home and away from common life), and pluralization (the situation of any given religious tradition as one among many in the public imagination) mean that the “squishy center” (31) between those most shaped by religious tradition and those most hostile to religious tradition are drifting away from the Christian-inflected culture of 19th-century North America and towards something more like post-World-War-Two Europe.
Only after that table is set does White start to recite the standard generational-analysis-book catalog of perhaps-relevant realities that characterize “Generation Z.” Their dates of birth start in 1995 and go until about 2010 (38). They think that they’re going to redeem the world’s sins of racism, bigotry, and other such distasteful attitudes (41). They’re less likely to use public-profile-creating Internet programs like Facebook and Twitter and more inclined to stay within more guarded online circles with SnapChat and Whisper (44). About three-quarters of them believe in God, even as less than half of them attend any religious services (49). They have a more fluid notion of race, as many of them come from multiracial homes (46).
White is not immune to the hasty-generalization habits that sometimes characterize these kinds of books: based on one case study (and presumably some of his young church staffers, which I’ll discuss later), White concludes that the population as an aggregate is more entrepreneurial than previous groups (40). He also indulges in these books’ tendency to blame parents for what’s come down the pike, noting that Generation Z’s parents have abandoned the overprotective attitude that gave us Millennials in favor of chronic underprotection (53), especially in matters of Internet usage and exposure to pornography. The vehicles by which this generation consumes porn, by White’s account, perhaps constitute the greatest seismic shift: because smart phones have become near-ubiquitous, pornography has also become something to be accessed at any moment, in any setting (58), and White takes a fair bit of time on both the sinful character of pornography consumption (60) and the psychological damage that researchers are beginning to trace to long-running pornography habits (61).
White’s picture of things should strike readers of generational Jeremiads familiar: “Kids these days” are learning the wrong things too soon and the right things not at all, and we parents (both my kids are in White’s demographic) are to blame. Also familiar will be the modes that White recommends for rescuing Generation Z from itself.
Suburban Megachurch to the Rescue
The second half of Meet Generation Z proposes Church as the best mode of resistance to the cultural trends that the first half details. Up to that point, I’m firmly in White’s camp: just as every cultural-historical moment stands as an occasion for Christians to rethink our relationships with the powers and principalities of our own present darkness, so the individualism, consumerism, and all the other groovy marks of the Obama/Trump call for Christians to offer alternatives. And White’s picture of church isn’t all bad; it’s just not the revolution that the book wants itself to be. It’s something more like a call to get one more generation’s work out of the more-butts-in-the-seats megachurch model that has worked so well for White in the suburbs of Charlotte, North Carolina.
First, White offers, such a church should not identify itself primarily as a denominational outpost (91). Although White acknowledges that his theology and church-polity and preaching style and other such things are Baptist, he only offers the B-word if someone directly asks, and thus he avoids the cultural baggage attached to “Southern Baptist.” He also counsels Christians to reframe evangelism to account for the eight-second attention spans of 21st-century Americans (116) and provides, as an example of such evangelism, a lengthy transcript of an “Emoji Christmas Story” (121-124).
I have to admit that three pages of emojis had me yelling at kids to get off my lawn.
White also calls for an active search for relevance that acknowledges that there might be costs to consistency if we lean too far into the quest for contemporary approval (94). He notes that speakers like Rob Bell have sacrificed the core of the Christian message in exchange for relevance when they’ve taken (what White takes to be) anti-Biblical positions on marriage, salvation, and other questions (92). Instead of capitulation to cultural trends, he advocates a kind of “What’s up with” apologetics (130) that starts with skeptical, “unchurched” people’s suspicions about Christians and addresses them with sermons on the occult (132), on science (143), and on controversial social issues. (He provides transcripts from three of his sermons, one on each of the previous, in the book’s appendices.)
At all points White assumes that a traditional oratory, with an authoritative speaker up front dishing out the knowledge, has always been part of important historical moments and must remain central to this sort of church (96). On this point, White starts to sound like the how-to-reach-Generation-X authors of twenty years ago and the how-to-reach-Millennials authors of ten years ago. It’s all about starting up churches that “target” men so that their wives and children come along (148). It’s all about hiring the young, presumably young men, so that their “new ideas” can help drive the old model. And importantly, it’s all about pitching this kind of community to people who aren’t in yet and letting Millennials leave the churches that they’re already going to leave anyway (146). At this point I was somewhat confused: if indeed Generation Z is uniquely secular, as the first half of the book argues, why does White assume that these folks are going to marry and have children young (those born in 1995 are only 21 or 22 at this point) and that men are still going to be the traditional “spiritual heads” of these young families? My suspicion became that White’s call here was not really to revolutionize the American Church in the face of grand cultural change (a la Rod Dreher’s call for a Benedict Option) so much as to continue the church-planting projects of previous generations, to replace established, intergenerational churches with new gatherings that give privilege to those more-traditional denizens of Generation Z that remain.
White’s Afterword confirmed that suspicion. Calling for “aggressive” Christian leaders for our moment, he envisions a new generation of suburban church-planters that could have leapt full-fledged from the head of Mark Driscoll:
When I think of aggressive leaders, I think of
people who don’t immediately take no for no
catalysts for change
those who take charge in the heat of battle
upsetters of the status quo
those with a backbone
creators of action
those with righteous anger
people who are “hungry”
top-of-the-line, competitive athletes for the kingdom of God (158)
After this bullet list, White goes into a paean for Michael Jordan (a model of marital fidelity if ever I could think of one) and ends the book with a final call for such aggression. So while he rightly notes that a generation of suburban Southerners has been taken captive by some cultural trends, his response is a call for an alternative captivity, to trade the gods of sexual consumerism and science-worship for the gods of corporate-controlled spectator competition and the pursuit of dominance over one’s enemies.
Ultimately I’m not entirely averse to the culture of church-planting; a few of my favorite professors and several friends from seminary are big advocates of the same, and although there’s no place in that culture for a question-posing sort of fellow like me (believe me on this one), I know that there are good people in it. My concern is not for whether the remaining two-parent families in suburban America will find places to hear a Sunday-morning speech (I have little doubt of that) but for what happens among the single-parent families, among the poor who don’t have access to the suburban life and whose pursuit of manly dominance over enemies takes the form not of NBA-worship but of gang culture, violent schools, and other such realities that White doesn’t really address. Perhaps in the suburbs of Charlotte another generation of mega-church-plant can keep things going, but I do wonder about elsewhere.