If many Christian retailers are concerned about how to reach and serve millennials, then they need to further brace themselves for the generation coming up behind.

With attitudes and behaviors that diverge yet more from those long held by their predecessors, Gen Zers present an even bigger challenge for churches and the Christian products industry.

From faith and finances to shopping and sexuality, those born since around the turn of the millennium view the world very differently—requiring some serious thought about the most effective way to evangelize, disciple and serve them.

As the first post-Christian generation in American history, Gen Zers will be “the most influential religious force in the West and the heart of the missional challenge facing the Christian church,” according to James Emery White.

But the senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and author of Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World (Baker Books) told Religion News Service (RNS) that most churches are not positioned well to connect with Gen Zers.

“On the most superficial of levels, most churches are divorced from the technological world Generation Z inhabits,” he said. “But on the deeper level, they are divorced from the culture itself in such a way as to be unable to build strategic bridges — relationally, intellectually, aesthetically — to reach Generation Z. The church simply has too many blind spots.”

How true that is for the church’s partners in Christian publishing and retailing remains to be seen, but given that many stores currently struggle to engage with millennials, it seems unlikely they are any better prepared for the following generation.

A case in point may be social media. Stores that pride themselves on having a good Facebook presence, as an indicator of being up on generational trends, need to know that platform is largely ignored by Gen Zers, who prefer the likes of Instagram and Snapchat because they are more visually driven.

DIVERSE AND PLURALISTIC

So who are these Gen Zers, what are they like, and what do they like? If you don’t remember 9/11, you’re one of the 23 million Gen Zers who, according to the Center for Generational Kinetics (CGK) are set to become the fastest-growing generation in both the workplace and the marketplace over the next five years.

Consider some of the big cultural changes that have occurred since 2000, which are just part of Gen Zers’ everyday world: an ongoing war against terrorism, gay marriage and mainstreaming of transgender issues, the legalization of marijuana use.

“Early indications are that they are increasingly self-aware, self-reliant, innovative and goal-oriented,” said the CGK following a recent study. “They also appear to be more pragmatic than their millennial predecessors, but we’ll have to wait and see if that plays out as they become employees, consumers, investors and voters.”

Underscoring that Gen Z is the first generation to grow up in a world where social media is the norm, the center notes that its different experience with technology “will affect every area of their life—from healthcare and dating to education and shopping.”

Gen Zers “tend to live much more of their entire lives—from interacting with friends and family to making major purchases — online and via their smartphones.”

Gen Z is the most ethnically diverse generation the United States has ever known. A recent study showed a third of Gen Zers said they believed gender was how a person felt about themselves, not necessarily their birth sex. Beliefs that are making it hard for many churches to know how to reach them.

And while the unfamiliar profile of the Gen Z’s may seem daunting, many of those studying marketing trends agree the opportunity to connect with Generation Z is as wide as it is unique.

Some youth leaders note because it’s a generation that doesn’t want to offend others, the church has a great opportunity to speak to them. Embracing new ways to communicate and being positive. Listening and trying to connect instead of jumping in to tell them what’s wrong.

Then there is Gen Zers’ concern for social justice, which stores can tap into not only with relevant books but fair trade-type products. “Like millennials before them, they’re keenly aware of justice issues concerning poverty, human trafficking, refugees, racism, and more,” noted Facts and Trends magazine. “They want opportunities to have an impact, and they’re likely to become generous givers to charitable organizations as adults.”

White made the same point to RNS: “A faith that is privately engaging, but socially irrelevant, will not attract them.”

SHAPED BY TECHNOLOGY

Carrying the kind of resources and products that Gen Zers may be interested in is only part of the answer, though—retailers also need to be able appeal to young consumers who have a very different attitude to shopping than previous generations.

That difference shouldn’t be taken lightly. Millennials’ changing tastes and habits have already “killed” bar soap, diamonds, and napkins, according to Business Insider, which also came up with a list of things on “Gen Z’s hit list.” Among them: preppy brands and department stores, the latter being rejected because many are seen to lack “quality and a voice.” Rather, Gen Zers “prefer to order online from companies with strong digital branding,” the magazine reported.

Most concerning on that Business Insider “hit list” is paper: Gen Zers “tend to prefer the convenience of opening their phones or e-readers to enjoy a book.” Tiffany Zhong, CEO of youth-marketing firm Zebra Intelligence told the magazine, “We can find everything online, and for free.”

(*More on Gen Z coming in August CM)

—Andy Butcher