You’ve heard, “Data is King,” but today we are talking with the queen of research, Brooke Hempell. Brooke is the Senior VP of Research at Barna Group and manages the firms research studies. Prior to joining Barna, Brooke led market research engagements for clients in the pharmaceutical, financial services and retail industries for more than 15 years. She lives with her amazing family in Atlanta, Georgia!
We are so excited to explore new trends and learn what research shows us about Gen Z and Millennials so we can know how to activate the next generations to be causal!
Stephanie: As I looked over your bio Brooke, I realized there are so many different things you could be doing with your career, but you chose to work at Barna. Please tell us why.
Brooke: My “why” definitely evolves over the years. However, when I started my career, I was in corporate and I consulted Fortune 100 companies on marketing strategy and research in financial services and pharmaceuticals. It was a lot of fun to me because even back then, in the dark ages, we had a lot of great data to play with. Now we take this data for granted, but back then it was unique. This was an absolute blessing to develop some great skill sets early on in research.
I really love my work. I love to find a story out of data because it helps us see things clearly. I had this God directed run in with David Kinnaman, President of Barna, while I was volunteering for a church planting ministry. When we met, I had an “aha moment,” I realized there is data in ministry, and it’s needed to understand how we do things in ministry. I hadn’t really considered it before or considered using my skills for the Church.
Now, I am so excited that I get to do this work every day. The insights we are learning and the understanding we are gaining about the world – which is constantly changing – can equip people to minister more effectively. My passion is to help people to be able to minister more effectively through our findings.
S: As I was thinking of Barna Group, it struck me how we compartmentalize generations. for the Context in our conversation today, can you tell us where this began?
B: Oftentimes people use the labeling of generations in a judgmental way and that is not the intention of generations. This idea developed 100 years ago based on shared events that a society was experiencing that was causing an impact on people’s worldview. For example, if you look at Baby Boomers, we know their experiences through the Civil Rights era, Vietnam War, and Watergate has shaped how they see and interact with the world.
Every generation has social dynamics, geo-political dynamics, and world events that impact them. It is often country specific as well. Whatever definition you give to a society really affects the way we see things. For example, if you look at Millennials, who are about 20-35 right now, they have grown up with technology like we had never seen in another generation. Although they weren’t born into it, they were introduced to it at a young age. They have grown up with a political correctness and respectful culture which is a worldview. They have grown up believing in educational opportunity and pursuing it with great vigor. They grew up being affected by financial crises because they have parents or loved ones who really suffered from the last recession.
These experiences shape how they see the world, the choices they make, and how they process everything else they experience. This generational study is a social science to help us understand how our world forms us.
S: This definition is really helpful. What are the date ranges for Millennials and Gen Z?
B: Gen Z is not their official name, it’s just what we are calling them until we understand them more. Gen X never actually got a name as they should have, but it’s because it was a really short period of time.
Currently, Gen Z begins in 1999 and could end in 2015. They are approximately age 20 right now, but we aren’t sure where the cut off will be yet. Millennials begin in the mid 80’s to 1998. They are your current 20-35 year old’s.
S: What are some of the key trends that you have uncovered with the Millennial generation?
B: Millennials identified as being sheltered growing up. When surveying them the phrase “helicopter parent” came up a lot. They have very high expectations for their life, and they’ve been given those expectations. Sometimes that produces great opportunity, but sometimes it produces anxiety. They have grown up with fake-news and social media, which sometimes go hand-in-hand. Millennials have learned how to navigate it. They have learned how to trust sources in different ways. They have grown up in an era where everyone’s world view is respected. Whatever someone believes is acceptable because it is a way to show someone respect and not give them a critical eye. There are some positives and negatives with this.
They have grown up, especially recently, in an era with massive political change. We have swung from one president to the next in the last 16 years or so that have been politically, increasingly, diametrically opposed. This has shaped them and how they interact with political forces. The last thing I would add is that they have some knowledge of the Church. Not all of them grew up in the Church, but many of them know of the Church. The lower in age in this cohort, the distance from the Church grows. Therefore, their value of the Church diminishes, and they are less “churched” than the generations before them.
S: Knowing all these attributes, how does it affect their view of faith and the Church?
B: Due to Millennials’ high value of achievement, they have delayed marriage and children within their generation by 10 years. This is significant when compared to societal averages. You do not often see this type of movement. They talk about the value of family though and that comes from the protected environment they grew up in. What this means is that they have delayed having the very thing they love, but they still seek it elsewhere. They want the intimacy you would have in a family, but they seek it in their friendships and social spaces. This is increasingly hard to do though due to the digital and fast-paced nature of our society.
The reason I bring this up in the context of the Church is because church is a place where you can find community. You would think that would be a natural fit, but it doesn’t completely fit with their concept of what they need. They don’t think of the Church as a place where they will be known, understood, appreciated, and as a place to contribute, which is extremely important to them. What has happened is that Millennials want some of what the Church offers, but not all of it. They seek what they want elsewhere, what they are seeking gets affirmed in other places, and they continue to walk further and further away from the Church.
Decades ago, there was a theory of a natural progression in life. When you grow up you have some awareness or exposure to church. Then in college you walk away from church. When it comes time to get married or have a family oftentimes you would come back to church. This was true of previous generations. Millennials are not doing this, and they are taking longer to get married, so after 15 years they have found their place, comfort, and identity somewhere else. It’s a huge leap to come back to the Church after 15 years. Especially when they have not felt welcomed in the Church for the past 15 years because they were not married with kids. Their view is the Church is about having a family and they don’t feel a part of that.
These are some of the reasons there is a bigger gap for Millennials in the Church. This does not mean they cannot find a church that suits them, but the Church as it was known to previous generations doesn’t fit what they are seeking in their heart.
S: One of the stats that is hard to read is: “64% of young people who grew up in the Church in the U.S. won’t continue in the Church as an adult.” This is a challenging piece of your work, right?
B: Yes, especially because that number is growing. I want to be careful with my words because there is a lot of bad that I uncover, but a lot of good that the Church is doing. My goal is not to bash the Church in this. However, if we are aware of these stats and we ignore them because we don’t want to deal with them, the reality is that it is only going to get worse.
S: Well, we also have to look at this generation and feel empathy for them. Millennials and Gen Z are going a whole different direction and the Church is a lot slower to turn. How do we help the process and get them to meet somewhere in the middle?
B: I do think it is important to challenge the Church and look at it with a critical eye to help it grow, but we also want to learn how we can help Millennials grow. We are all humans and need to grow. The reality though is if the Church cannot accommodate the real world that Millennials live in, they will become irrelevant. In theory, how we should be responding is to be a community to them.
The number one thing we hear from data and feedback from young adults is, “There is no place or voice for me because I am single.” That is a very lonely place to be. The Church celebrates families and for good reason–a family is a community and God gives them as a blessing. However, it takes time and focus to make sure a family stays whole, so the Church does put a lot of effort into families. This can cause a Millennial to feel disconnected and unimportant which is a problem and very commonly the case.
In response, we see tribalism happening, which is a group of friends who become family to one another because they lack the opportunity elsewhere. It’s hard to cross those life stage boundaries in church, but it is so important to this group. Since they are coming from a place of not feeling valued or a part of the community, the Church almost has to overstep to welcome people in and reaffirm that their voice, God-given gifts, and insight as valued.
The other super critical part to acknowledge with this generation is that the world they are living in is different than it was 15-20 years ago. Then, desiring to learn from them what this world is like that they are experiencing. Millennials are going to be the best navigators of this culture. It is ironic that they are going to be the ones with the best insight on how to reach the world today. And we have to ask ourselves, “How can we reach them to engage them and to help us understand what they see and experience?”
One area that Millennials experience and really struggle with is in emotional health. This can be isolation, loneliness, anxiety, and behaviors that are a result of these feelings like destructiveness. If we don’t realize this reality and meet them there, then Millennials are going to stay there. I do look at the hard stuff of 64% walking away from the Church, but I also look at how the Church is supposed to be responding with, “We actually have the answer for you!” This kind of jumps us ahead to Gen Z though…
S: Yes! Let’s go there, share with us about this upcoming generation: Gen Z.
B: Gen Z has had the same trends as Millennials, but more exasperated. They not only adopted technology, but they grew up with it. They are the first generation to grow up with the smartphone, we don’t know what that means yet, but we suspect it means their brain is rewired differently. We won’t know until their brains are fully developed, but we are beginning to identify this and that is a huge finding! Our brain wiring affects how we intake information, the way we process and make decisions. For Gen Z, it could be a huge difference for how they process and make decisions because of the way they interact with technology.
They have grown up in an increasingly politically correct culture that they developed a name for! It is called “trigger-warnings,” which means you can’t just talk about things that might bring up a bad experience because it could be damaging. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, unless it is taken to extremes. Increasingly, they have grown up with no exposure to the Church and we have seen an increase from 3% to 12% of those who identify as atheist. This is really connected to science which has become a worldview to them as opposed to a way to discover and explore the realities of what God created. They see the Bible as though it conflicts with science and don’t see how they inform one another.
There is a new dynamic that we don’t see in Millennials as much which is gender. The question about what gender is has been completely opened up. When we did our Gen Z study, we had to do a second follow up study because this topic of gender was changing so fast and we needed to explore a little further. When we did the follow up study, even within that small of a timespan between the two studies, we saw changes. It made us nervous about fielding our survey in certain states because in certain states if you did not recognize all 52 gender terms as legitimate, then you could be fined.
This was a finding within itself though because this shapes people! We saw in this generation compared to any before they are willing to question their gender identity. A third of them say they might not be the gender their parents tell them they were when they were growing up. We see this happening a lot more strongly in girls than in boys which leads us to believe that part of it is them being empathetic. If they are affirming others about their gender identity, then they believe that it could be true for themselves as well. Which leads us to a bigger question they are facing, “What is truth?” They don’t know what it is or if truth is even relative. We tracked that question forever and increasingly so, truth is relative. It is defined by what you feel in your heart and what society tells you.
Immediately you see the split in Gen Z because before you could maybe fake it and be a Christian, but you can’t fake it anymore! Suddenly, your worldview is going to get called into question and you are going to have to wrestle really hard with what you believe.
S: Where is this group then going into faith, Church, and how does the Church become compelling to this generation?
B: Two different dynamics are happening, and this is where my blood pressure begins to drop because I can see the hope. One dynamic is we are producing more resilient and strong disciples. A resilient disciple is a beautiful picture of someone who has wrestled with and come to a place of confidence in what they believe, but also has been shaped by the community of Christians around them in a good way. Resilient disciples mean they have mentors and people to process questions with. They have a sense of purpose in their life and are empowered to pursue their purpose. They feel connected to God in every aspect of their life and don’t compartmentalize faith.
S: What’s the percentage on these disciples?
B: It’s about every 1 in 10 people but could go up to 2 in 10. It just depends on how we are defining it. 10-20% have this faith that means they are solid in their convictions because they have wrestled through them, believe them and know they have to live counter culturally. The cool part is that they probably know how to do this in a way that is sensitive to others because they do live in an environment that is very different from their worldview. They have a beautiful approach to the world that is focused on reconciliation. There is a small group of them, but I believe we can replicate this group by learning from what has shaped them.
We have found that adversity has really shaped them. We bubble wrapped our Millennials, but this made me have to reconsider how I parent and ask myself, “What am I doing to expose my kids to tough things?” God tells us that all through his scripture, that challenges and trials we face they shape us, bring out the good in us, and prepare us for what we will face. I want to be challenging my kids to things that maybe will knock them off their rocker a little bit, but not so far that they can’t get back up. We should give them a chance to fail, to question, and stand on their own.
S: If only they all wore t-shirts so we could see who they are!
B: Well, let me give you a little bit of context. In this study we surveyed 18-29-year old’s who grew up as Christians. Some of them are Millennials, but there are Gen Zers who move into that. 52% have completely left the Church and 38% percent are still in the Church but are not showing the resilient disciple characteristics. Really, it’s only the 10% who are resilient disciples. There are people in the Church who do not display these same characteristics, so it is really tricky to find them. However, when you see the fruit of their lives and how they stand up counter-culturally you begin to realize they are the resilient ones and have been shaped in a good way to resist a culture that wants them to go in different directions.
S: I see them standing up in two ways. one way is against culture, but also, they are standing up against the bad reputation of the Church culture.
B: Yes! Historically, Christians have been known for what they are against and they stand up against things. But the Church today needs people to stand up for things and this generation loves to stand up for things. They stand up for injustices against people groups and individuals, they stand up for God in their workplaces, they stand up for peace, and standing for these things is important to them.
We see in our research not just here, but around the world, this generation’s faith needs to be coupled with action in a positive way. They want to move forward, not put up a wall or hand. This posture is really appealing to the world. They navigate this world with this posture really well.
S: What do you say to the people who are feeling a little overwhelmed?
B: The most important step is recognizing we need to learn from them and that they could be our guide to the world we want to know more about. They really could help us to understand and navigate this culture. We have to first listen and learn from them. I might be a little biased because my job is to listen, but someone once said to me that Jesus did not start his ministry for the first 30 years that he was alive. He just listened and learned even though he knew it all! We need to even more so take this same posture.
Another important first step is being aware of our Church culture because the reality is that it is not a blank slate. We have to have a critical eye of it and make sure we are assessing what we are doing that might not make someone feel welcomed in the Church because of the culture that already exists. For example, we should be examining if our culture is not inviting to different ages, racial groups, and even gender differences.
On the other side of all this is that the Church should feel relieved. I am speaking to Gen Z especially, but in our culture as a whole, the Church has some amazing answers to some societal problems that are going to become worse and worse. We have the choice to be a part of the solution or not. We are seeing people who might have been cultural Christians in the past who came to church because it was their social club, or they felt guilty, so they came… they have now left. There is no pressure to be there, therefore, a lot of that baggage has gone with them.
When we do research with people who are in their 40s and 50s, they carry a lot of baggage in regards to the Church. When we do research with people in their 20s and teens it’s a completely blank slate. They don’t have those perceptions and they are open and curious! I had a parent of one of my kid’s friends say, “I grew up in the church, I’m not a Christian though, but I kind of feel like my kids should have some exposure and learn what Christmas is about. Could you bring them to church with you?” That blew my mind!
Their kids had never been exposed to the story of Jesus and have no clue who Jesus is. And the parent is open to letting their kids learn and maybe even them! A lot of the baggage going away is actually a healthy thing and allows us to invite people into a place of healing, peace, and truth. If the Church can approach people in a humble way, then we have a lot of answers to the questions that these people are seeking.
S: I want to turn our attention to evangelism because Barna did a study with Alpha that showed that 47% of Millennials feel it is wrong to share their faith with someone from a different faith in hopes that one day they would share the same faith. Can you shed some light on this research?
B: We wanted to test evangelism without using that word because it is such a loaded word. We had to use the phrase “sharing your faith.” This phrase doesn’t come with a negative connotation. It just means they are going to have a conversation with someone about their faith and in my heart, I hope one day they will share the same faith.
However, at the same time 9 out of 10 people said the best thing that could happen to someone is for them to come into a relationship with Jesus. The same people who are concerned with sharing their faith, believe their faith has life-giving properties to it. One of the things we are confident is at play here is social acceptances. They don’t want to tell people that they are wrong, so really, they are trying to be kind and empathetic towards others. At the same time, they are afraid to speak the truth.
We have had people read these stats and be judgmental of this generation and we don’t want that, but we need to be clear on what truth is. For their continued discipleship they need to know and believe in that truth. What we see happening though with Millennials is that they desire to live out their faith through their actions. They will gently insert opinions in cultural contexts about situations that have to do with things like joy, kindness, and justice. These are all based off their biblical beliefs, but they have a concern that someone will think they are trying to push an agenda on them. So instead, they gently work those things in.
I think we can all be more upfront with our why and sharing Jesus, but their intuition about culture is important. For part of the study we interviewed non-practicing Christians and these people said when they had spiritual conversations, they really thought the conversation went well. They were open to more conversation if the person listened well and without judgement. They also wanted to be shown value as a person and asked questions. You can totally communicate the gospel in that way; however, you can also communicate the gospel in a way that is judgmental or just trying to make people happy which is not the point either.
S: What do you suggest for people who are training this new generation in evangelism?
B: Personal style and gifting matters. The most important thing is to be authentic and they can tell if you are not being real! God has gifted us with a certain personality and style, so use those! The second thing is that the last 30 years or so many ministries have focused on helping people to see truth, but this generation doesn’t know if truth is relative. They see so much fake news and so it makes it difficult because there are already strikes against you. It won’t resonate as well, but what they are interested in is if Christianity is good and if it is personally good to them.
If we believe that Christianity is good and we want them to know Jesus, then first we need to get to know them! While getting to know them, we get to see God in them, but we also learn what they are wrestling with. They don’t care about what happens when they die, they care about what they are facing now!
S: I think that is so helpful. Thank you for doing this work. We know you also have information on cities. how can people who are doing work in their cities access information about their cities?
B: Thank you for asking! We have had fun taking a deep dive into our history and making it accessible. We have so many great tools available in society, so we are trying to use those. We have collected data about people’s beliefs and what they do. So, we have these questions and we pull them together and group them by city. This enables us to say, “We have talked to 200-500 people in this city and we can tell you a little bit about what they believe, not just who they are, but what they believe.” This year we were able to put that information into an online database called “FaithView.” The cool thing about this is that if you want to just know about Millennials in your city you can do that! You can look at single parents or people who say they have a faith in Jesus.
People say that their neighborhood is unique though, which is true, but what we are able to provide is a worldview of their city and it is actually a bit of a continuum in our country. We refer to the South as the Bible belt for a reason and New England and Pacific Northwest as post-Christian for a reason. If you look across the country all the cities fit into a continuum within those categories. You might think, “Wow this area is highly secular in Chattanooga, but really you can see that Chattanooga is the highest-rated evangelistic city in the country.”
Earlier we talked about what shapes your worldview, well your city shapes your worldview. You soak in all the beliefs and culture around you, so it is so important to know your city and see how God is calling you to be a part of it and how to pursue your city.
S: I recommend checking it out HERE!
I am so grateful for you Brooke, your story, and what Barna is doing.
B: Thank you Stephanie for letting me share and I hope everyone feels as encouraged as I do after listening to this!