Teenagers Need the Church In Person (Not Just Online)
In 2017 Jean Twenge coined the term “iGen” and suggested that one of the defining markers of this so-called “i” generation is that they are “in person no more.” Her thesis was that this generation (also known as Gen Z) is primarily marked by coming of age at the advent of the iPhone. They spend unprecedented amounts of time online, leading them to be the safest generation physically, but also to deal with all manner of rising mental health challenges.
Drawing on several ongoing surveys that collected responses from adolescents over a number of years, Twenge found that today’s teenagers spend less than half the time in person with their friends than adolescents did just fifteen years ago. Another of her statistics shows that college students in 2016 spent an hour less per day with their friends than GenXers and early Millennials did at the same ages. Twenge’s research showed that in place of this in-person social time, teenagers now spend more time engaging online (via texting, social media, and gaming), more time watching TV and streaming services, and more time at home with their families—and this was all before the start of the coronavirus pandemic!
So what happens to a generation already struggling with in-person social connection during widespread shut-downs? I don’t have to tell you that the past 18 months have been brutal for middle and high school students. As parents, you’ve lived the anxiety and isolation with them. In the months of online school and widespread shutdowns, iGen leaned into their technical aptitude, while craving in-person relationships like never before. And although most of them were eager to go back to school in person, many have not returned for Sunday worship.
Some families cite the convenience of accessing livestream options and the benefit of more unhurried time together over Sunday morning pancakes as reasons for staying home. The reality is that it is easier for families to continue to turn to online options for church on Sunday morning. But church online will always be a cheap substitute for the gathered, in-person experience of worshiping Christ together each Lord’s Day.
Parents of iGen, I want to encourage you to come back to Sunday worship in person if you haven’t already (and if health concerns don’t prevent you from doing so). Whether teenagers recognize it or not, they are longing for just the sort of in-person interactions the Church is called to live out. Here are three vital interactions they—and we—are missing when we take church online.
Throughout Scripture we see that the biblical story affirms the goodness of human bodies. God makes human beings in bodies and calls them good. Jesus takes on flesh to dwell among us and then rises again in a physical body, an event the writers of the New Testament instruct Christians to anticipate in the resurrection of our own bodies when the kingdom of God comes in fullness. Jesus ministered to physical bodies by feeding them fish and bread, by touching and healing them.
It’s no wonder, then, that Paul uses the metaphor of a body to speak about the nature of the Church. He writes to the believers at Corinth saying, “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many” (1 Cor. 12:13-14). Paul goes on to explain that each member is needed, a reality that is all-too-easy to forget when we are worshipping from our living rooms.
As a church leader, it’s rare that I miss church on a Sunday morning . But while I was home with a new baby last winter, I was grateful for the opportunity to livestream our church’s worship service in those first few bleary, postpartum weeks. Experiencing our COVID-adapted service in this way, however, brought me into contact with its limitations. I was far less engaged when I didn’t need to stand to sing, or to turn in my bulletin to follow the liturgy, or to make eye contact with the preacher. Not only that, but worshiping from my couch was lonely. I missed the hugs and handshakes, the “how-are-you-doings” and “how-can-I-pray-for-yous” of gathered worship .
Embodied relationship is a hallmark of the people of God, one that we can’t dispense of if we’re serious about following Jesus. While we did well to adapt our Sunday services and youth ministry programming to keep one another safe in the height of the pandemic, we also must consider the very real spiritual cost of staying home on Sunday mornings. To continue remote worship indefinitely denies that both we and our teenagers are people in bodies, with needs for a side hug or a fist pound now and then. It divorces us from the opportunity to join our voices in the lilt of corporate singing and the comfort of spoken liturgies .
Even with the reality of lessening social time for today’s teenagers, the average middle or high schooler spends a significant part of her day interacting with peers at school and sports or music practice. It’s not often, however, that she gets to connect with other generations outside of her own family. This is part of the beauty of the Church, that as God’s people we value life and relationship from the cradle to the grave. So many of our affiliations in the community and the marketplace are siloed along age demographics. The Church is unique in its insistence that we come together across generations for mutual blessing and encouragement, that we “not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing” (Hebrews 10:25). And this, too, is difficult to do in our PJs from the comfort of home.
In the gathered body of believers, a teenager is invited to get to know the elderly couple sitting beside him in the pew. He runs into a middle-aged youth leader in the hallway who stops to ask how last week’s test went and whether he’ll be at youth group this week. He has the opportunity to say hi to some kids he met helping with recreation at VBS over the summer. All of these relationships, from the most intentional to the most casual, are significant as a teenager begins to see himself as part of a body of believers whose life together is anchored in more than special interests or social gain.
When teenagers “attend” church online, it’s too easy for their participation to be based on their own preferences or conveniences. They can watch a virtual service any time they want, rather than rising earlier than they might choose to participate in the messy physicality of gathered worship. They can select a service in which the music or preaching style exactly suits their tastes in place of bending to the preferences of others. They can fast forward if they don’t want to listen as opposed to being confronted with difficult truths from Scripture. They don’t even have to get dressed in the morning.
But in the fleshy reality of the local church, we bump up against one another’s needs in all kinds of ways. My baby fusses during the service and lets the whole sanctuary of worshippers know he needs a nap. We pass the bread and wine, serving one another before we take it ourselves as a reminder that it’s not about me. We have opportunities to meet one another’s needs through prayer and service as we learn of upcoming surgeries and openings in children’s Sunday school and faraway missionaries who count on our support.
In Acts 2:42-47, we read how the earliest believers met together daily in the temple, growing spiritually through teaching and prayer and sharing all they had with one another. Surely in that pagan world, they felt their need for instruction and encouragement in the things of God! But they also knew they had gifts to offer one another. Our world today is not so different in its tides of false teaching and of human need. Our souls need to be repeatedly formed in the gospel—the Good News that God saves sinners through the work of Christ, not through human effort or achievement. And we also need to follow in the way of Jesus by gladly giving of ourselves and our gifts for the sake of others.
As tempting as it may be to stay at home on Sunday mornings, I hope you’ll give your teenagers the gift of regathering in person as soon as it is wise for your family to do so. As you do, I pray your children will encounter the risen Lord Jesus through the beauty of his body, the church, so that they will be continually drawn to love and follow him.
 Jean M. Twenge, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood–and What That Means for the Rest of Us, (New York, Simon and Schuster, 2017).
I consider this book to be essential readers for the parents and youth ministers of iGen! If you don’t have time for the whole book, Twenge’s 2017 article for The Atlantic (see footnote below) offers a nice overview.
 Jean M. Twenge, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic, September 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/