Gen Z and the Challenge of Discipleship: Retrieving the Doctrine of Creation

In January of this year, the Barna Group and the Impact 360 Institute presented the results of a deep and exhaustive look at the population that has been coined “Gen Z,” the generation born between 1999 and 2015.[1] The summary of their research, while perhaps not completely surprising to parents, youth pastors and leaders, and those who regularly engage with youth culture, is notable for the picture it presents about the beliefs that are at the center of this generation’s identity.  In line with the overall trend of North American Christianity, Gen Z is identified, on the whole, as a “post-Christian” generation (only 4% profiled as fitting within Barna’s definition of a ‘biblical world-view’[2]). But what is significant and what deserves the Church’s attention is the particular shape of the beliefs of Gen Z and what it is that creates friction with the historic Christian faith and discipleship—and how the Church is called to reimagine its task of discipleship for the present age.

The picture that emerged from this study reveals both tension between and intriguing opportunities for how many of the young men and women of this generation understand themselves in relation to the identity that is formed in the path of discipleship to Jesus. As a part of the study, Gen Zers were asked to fill in the blank to the following statement: “My ___________ is very important to my sense of self.” The results ranked in the following way:

1) Professional/educational achievement (43%)
2) Hobbies/pastimes (42%)
3) Gender/Sexuality (37%)
4) Friends (35%)
5) Family  (34%)
6) Religion/religious beliefs (34%).

This snapshot doesn’t tell the whole story, though. It’s not only that in comparison to previous generations we see that religious belief is not at the core of the Gen Z identity, having moved from second most important (Gen X) to fifth (Millennial) and now to sixth. It is what this new central identity marker has been replaced by that bears further examination and reflection. To begin with, young men and women increasingly identify themselves by what they do: professional achievement, closely followed by hobbies and interests, has become the central. Gender, which was ranked fifth most important to the Millennial sense of self is now third most important to the identity of Gen Z. And these gender beliefs are increasingly in conflict with the historic Christian tradition: seven out of ten teens believe that it’s definitely or probably acceptable to be born one gender and feel like another.

Alongside these movements in Gen Z identity, the Barna report showed that previous trends of obstacles to Christian belief continue to hold steady. For example, the perceived tension between science and Scripture persists in the Gen Z mind. Asked to describe the relation between scientific inquiry and biblical truth, 55% believe that they are either in direct contradiction or completely unrelated to one another. Moreover, the grievous racial and ethnic homogeneity of the American church is compounded in its contrast to what is the most diverse generation in American history. In its inability to provide a witness to a better hope for multiethnic community and in its struggles to welcome growing minority communities (the Barna report points specifically to the Latino and Asian population), the American Church faces deep challenges to its institutional credibility and longevity.

In the face of these continued and emerging challenges, how can the pastor-theologian summon the rich Scriptural and theological resources of the Great Tradition so as to equip a new generation for faithful presence in a fallen world? I would suggest that one way forward is to be found through identifying what is a single thread that runs through each of the above shifts in Gen Z identity. The common theme that runs through each of these discipleship deficiencies is the doctrine of creation, and it is this doctrine that the Church is called upon to retrieve and re-articulate so that this young generation can be formed to follow Jesus.

The Barna report identifies challenges that are more than sociological - they are deeply theological problems that reach back to concepts embedded within Scriptural teaching and the Church’s history of reflection upon it. The significance of personal achievement reflects both deep hunger and also deep confusion about vocation—what humanity has been made for and how we fulfill that calling. The increasing and contested importance of gender demonstrates persistent uncertainty about what Scripture teaches masculinity and femininity really are, an uncertainty formed in the wake of both the rigidity of certain ‘conservative’ voices and the vacuousness of other ‘progressive’ ones. The perceived conflict between science and Scripture betrays a lack of clarity about the nature of Scripture and its relation to the task of studying the created order, and whether the two are friends, foes, or something else altogether. And the Church’s stumbles and false starts around ethnicity and race, while stemming from a number of complex historical and theological issues, is also reflective of a fundamental ambivalence about how to name and steward the goodness of the cultural diversity of God’s good creation. And each is a symptom of a deficient doctrine of creation.

The doctrine of creation reaches back to the origins of the Triune God’s fashioning of and purposes for human creatures and the created order. In so doing, the doctrine leads the Christian to understand to what end creation has been made. What does it mean to be made in the Image of God? In what way do men and women bear that image together and in differentiation? For what purpose has humanity been set within creation? How are we to understand the cultural diversity of this creation? These are the now-pressing questions that the doctrine of creation can answer.

Doctrine is formed through the study of Scripture, and its articulation takes place in and through the particularities of controversy and the requirements of the Church’s proclamation of the Gospel for the age and context in which it finds itself. As heirs to the legacy of the Reformation, the Protestant tradition has rightly and with careful precision given a central place to the doctrine of justification. But among certain camps of the Protestant church, the centrality of justification has developed unintentionally to a disproportionate preoccupation with justification. A doctrine that is of central importantance should still exist in a proper relation to the other loci of systematic theology. In the first chapter of his excellent Justification and the Gospel: Understanding The Contexts and the Controversies, Mike Allen makes a persuasive argument for recognizing both the central importance of justification and also the dangers of making the unqualified statement that this is “the article of the standing or falling of the church.” Allen demonstrates how the doctrine of justification should exist in proper relation to each of the other doctrines and also how a myopic focus upon justification alone is not sufficient to expound all of Scripture’s counsel. “We can think of justification in terms of architecture. It is surely not the only part of the house, but it does serve as the historical foundation of human fellowship with God in Christ.”[3]

Naming a tendency of some of the inheritors of the Reformation tradition to focus upon justification to the disservice of other doctrines is important as a first step toward addressing the ways the American church might evangelize, disciple and catechize Gen Z. While in previous ages pastors might have been able to rely somewhat on a latent cultural consensus about the nature of gender identity or the purpose of work (or, in the case of ethnicity, perhaps there was no helpful cultural consensus), in our own age we no longer have this luxury. Theories concerning the cause of this deficiency in the doctrine of creation are manifold, often assigning blame to John Dun Scotus,[4] the Reformation,[5] or some combination thereof.[6] Determining the real source, a task that is more complicated than the ambitious and sweeping metanarratives that have become fashionable, is surely a part of the task of reconstructing the doctrine of creation in our modern age.[7] But that is just one part of the larger work of catechizing the Church in a proper understanding of the nature of vocation, gender and sexuality, and the diversity of human culture. And this is a work both of formation and of mission. This is a task that requires the full resources of the pastor-theologian, both in the articulation of doctrine as it emerges from Scripture and in the formation of saints into the image of Jesus through the power of the Spirit. To quote Allen again, this time from his recent work Sanctification: “The cultural moment (at least of the post-Christian modern West) calls for deeper attention to systematic theology precisely for missiological reasons, however much presumption may tend to identify the systematic task as impractical or esoteric. In a context with much remaining capital in terms of Christian imagination regarding questions, terms, or categories, one might proceed with less overt attention to synthetic connections. In Babylon, however, we dare not presume that the basic lineaments of the gospel have taken root without constantly tracing our way back to the principles of faith.”[8]

In Babylon, we need pastor-theologians who will embrace the task of discipling and forming the emerging generation. This will involve the creativity required to engage the entire—head, heart, and embodied soul—person. It will also involve the work of doctrinal retrieval that is asked of the Church in every age. And finally, it will require the patient endurance that is involved in every work of discipleship. This is one of the glorious and challenging tasks that is required of the American Church in this moment.


Joey Sherrard is Associate Pastor of Discipleship at Signal Mountain Presbyterian Church in Tennessee. He received his Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, UK. Joey is a member of the St. John Fellowship of the Center For Pastor Theologians.


[1] Gen Z: The Culture, Beliefs and Motivations Shaping the Next Generation (Barna Group, 2018). The statistic that follow all come from this report.

[2] See Gen Z, Appendix B.

[3] R. Michel Allen, Justification and the Gospel: Understanding the Contexts and Controversies (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 30.

[4] John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006).

[5] Brad Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2012).

[6] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007).

[7] See, for example: Carl Trueman, “Taylor’s Complex, Incomplete Narrative,” in Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor (Deerfield, IL: The Gospel Coalition, 2017), 13-22. Richard Muller, “Not Scotist: Understandings of Being, Univocity, and Analogy in Early-Modern Reformed Thought,” Reformation and Renaissance, Vol 14 No. 2, 2012, 127-150.

[8] R. Michael Allen, Sanctification (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 44.