Thomas Jefferson once said, “Every generation needs a new revolution.”
Church attendance has been declining, yet the way most church leaders conduct weekend services has largely been unchanged for over 30 years. This makes the weekend church service ripe for a new approach.
So, here’s a question every church leader might ask: Did what happen at Asbury University in February of 2023 give us a sneak peek into the future of Gen Z Church?
But if you think about the way most churches (even growing churches) approach their weekend services, not much has changed since the 1990s. Sure, the music has evolved and various elements have shifted, but the general approach is to have a well-produced set of music and a 30-40 minute message that connects scripture with people’s everyday life.
Even before the pandemic, attractional churches had hit growth ceilings while charismatic churches gained momentum. But something deeper is shifting now, and Asbury perhaps gave us a clue into what’s happening with Gen Z church as leaders try to reach people born between 1997 and 2012.
Here are five shifts that every church leader should consider as they plan their weekend services, especially if they hope to reach young adults in a post-Christian world.If you think about the way most churches (even growing churches) approach their weekend services, not much has changed since the 1990s. Click To Tweet
1. Less Performance, More Presence
Generation Z is the first genuinely digital-native generation. They have grown up with smartphones, social media, and on-demand entertainment.
They are more diverse, socially aware, and skeptical than any previous generation. And they’re also less likely to attend church than their parents or grandparents. And while they’re more open spiritually, they’re still skeptical of organized religion.
What we’ve seen at Asbury and beyond hints that Gen Z is looking for presence, not just presentation, for an experience of God, not just more information about God. They’re longing for a touch, for something real.
For preachers and worship leaders, that can be a tough transition. Should you be rehearsed and ready to go? Absolutely.
But it also perhaps means being less over-the-top in delivery and in control, and more open and sensitive to what’s happening in the room. It means paying attention to tone and posture as much as it does to preparation.
It means being a little less rehearsed and a little more real.What we've seen at Asbury and beyond hints that Gen Z is looking for presence, not just presentation, for an experience of God, not just more information about God. They’re longing for a touch of something real. Click To Tweet
2. Less Production, More Participation
Worship belongs to the people. Gen Z appears to want to take it back.
Many growing churches have embraced higher production values as a standard for weekend services.
That means everything from lights to video to services timed down to the minute (or second). While that’s a definite improvement over sloppy or lazy approaches to weekend worship, it also has a downside too.
Slick production can leave the congregation feeling like spectators rather than participants. And when everyone on the platform is amazing at what they do, it can leave the average person feeling like they have nothing to do but sit back, watch, and take it in.
Historically and theologically, though, worship is something you bring. It’s a communal experience that goes back and forth between the people presiding and the congregation.
The sense of worship as an offering has been lost in many churches today.The sense of worship as an offering has been lost in many churches today. Click To Tweet
Liturgical churches hold on to remnants of that, but even then, it can also be a staid echo of anything authentic rather than a genuine collective expression of worship. And for those in the charismatic tradition, worship involves more than simply singing loudly with your hands raised or giving an ‘amen’ during the message.
One of the most endearing things about what happened at Asbury and beyond is that most of what took place happened in the congregation, not from the front of the stage.
While there was marathon worship, it was more congregation-led than band-led. And the amount of prayer, confession, repentance, and sheer experience of God happened far more in the congregation than from the front.
I don’t know exactly what the takeaway is here, except that the wall-of-sound production that characterizes a lot of churches may need a rethink.
Worship belongs to the people. Gen Z appears to want to take it back.The wall-of-sound production that characterizes a lot of churches may need a rethink.Worship belongs to the people. Gen Z appears to want to take it back. Click To Tweet
3. Less Noise, More Space
One way to move away from more production and performance is to create more space.
Many weekend church services are so crammed with ‘programming’ that there’s no room to think, breathe, imagine or pray. It’s just a wall of noise. Even ‘announcements’ have bouncy music under them these days in many churches.Many weekend church services are so crammed with 'programming' that there's no room to think, breathe, imagine or pray. It's just a wall of noise. Click To Tweet
Prayers in many churches today are often monologues with very little space for reflection. Music morphs from one song to another, and even the bridges can feel loud.
It’s important to remember that most people who attend church haven’t had much silence in their lives in the last week. Many young people run into church having spent their week bouncing from TikTok to TikTok, app to app, and task to task. Most people haven’t sat in silence for more than a few seconds.
Creating space in the service to breathe, reflect, think, confess, pray, and contemplate is something many churches need to consider. I’m not talking about ‘dead air’, but instead an intentional use of quieter moments to help people process.
The church, after all, should be an alternative to the culture, not just an echo of it.The church, after all, should be an alternative to the culture, not just an echo of it. Click To Tweet
4. Less Personality, More Humility
If you look at how many churches —not just megachurches, but many small and large churches—functionally operate, the pastor is at the center of the church.
Sure, some profile for a pastor is inevitable—things really do rise and fall on leadership. But leadership is more than just the leader.
The challenge is that too many churches make the pastor the product. That can work, until, of course, it doesn’t. So many megachurch pastors have fallen, and even when that doesn’t happen, having big personalities in the pulpit can create real problems for succession and successors.
Asbury was anything but a personality-driven phenomenon. Though some well-known Christian influencers made the pilgrimage to Asbury, the leaders there didn’t give them the mic, which was wise in many ways. (By the way, I’m sure most never asked for it.)
I’m not arguing that leaders who have bigger personalities should bottle up any God-given gifts. Still, it’s long overdue that those gifts get exercised with an even more significant amount of humility.
Younger generations are looking for a Savior, and it’s pretty clear to them that the Savior they’re looking for isn’t the pastor.Younger generations are looking for a Savior, and it's pretty clear to them that the Savior they're looking for isn't the pastor. Click To Tweet
5. Less Head, More Heart
There’s a generation of people leaving the church who know many things about God, but who would say they don’t know God. That phenomenon is one of the factors fuelling deconstruction.
A lot of Christian preaching is centered around information, not transformation.
If Sunday morning doesn’t facilitate transformation, it’s time to rethink Sunday morning. Sure, small groups, programs like Alpha, one-on-one discipleship initiatives all spawn transformation, but Sunday morning can’t be left out of the picture.There's a generation of people leaving the church who know many things about God, but who would say they don't know God. That phenomenon is one of the factors fuelling deconstruction. Click To Tweet
You could see Gen Z and younger Millennials as being generations whose hearts have already been broken by life. To encounter information and head knowledge when they engage in church probably won’t change them for the better.
The authenticity that fueled Asbury—the heartbroken confession, the sincere worship, the heartfelt prayer, the brokenness before God—may be exactly what the next generation is longing for.
It’s one thing to know about God; it’s another thing to have had an experience with God. Perhaps in the future, the church will be less about what you learned and more about what happened to you.It's one thing to know about God; it's another thing to have had an experience of God. Perhaps in the future, church will be less about what you learned and more about what happened to you. Click To Tweet
The Next Few Years Will Tell Us More
The next few years will tell us a lot about how to connect with the next generation. But in the meantime, it’s not like they haven’t already left us a lot of clues.