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Gen Z Teens Need to Belong, to Be Heard, to Be Together

Today’s teenagers are being called the first “post-Christian” generation in America. That’s according to a new

Barna Group research study that reports the percentage of Gen Z 13-18 year olds that identify as atheists is higher than any other previous generation. (Read the report HERE.)

But the study wasn’t all doom and gloom.

It also showed that of those teens who do attend church, more than 80% of them feel positive about their experiences. They report feeling they can be themselves in church, that it is relevant to their lives, and is a place to find answers to live a meaningful life.

Portland Adventist Academy Chaplain Monte Torkelsen has served as a youth minister for Gen Xers, Millennials, and now Gen Z.  He says one thing has always been true about teens, no matter the generation.

“They want to belong,” he says. “They want to be heard. They want to be together. And they have a deep longing for meaning.”

From music, presentations, personal testimonies, and service projects., historically, PAA holds a tradition of valuing students in spiritual leadership. Many young alumni go on to be spiritual leaders at college and eventually their home churches. PAA is committed to continuing this tradition with all generations to come. 

Even while Gen Z teens are expressing beliefs that challenge the norms of tradition and religion, PAA remains committed to meeting teenagers’ spiritual needs.

One thing is certain: times have changed.

While PAA has always held weekly chapels and prayer in classes, the modern landscape for spiritual guidance shows Bible teachers encouraging open dialogue to sincere questions; a learning and teaching style that many previous generations were not given. Gen Z teens hold value in these kinds of church communities and PAA remains a place parents trust to send their students to get meaningful answers to life’s biggest questions.

Modern Bible classes encourage open dialogue to address sincere questions, all guided by commissioned pastors.

Beyond the classroom, Torkelsen makes fostering spiritual leadership a priority at PAA. Among the usual spiritual opportunities at PAA, there has grown a strong interest in student led spiritual events.

One such event is a Friday night worship called Community. The event is always optional and supported by parents who open their homes as hosts.

“My son and daughter have both, at separate times, expressed how much Community has meant to them,” says PAA mother, Emma Slabbert. “Both of them felt like they had meaningful and deep thought-provoking conversations.”

“The girls-only Community was my favorite,” says Slabbert’s freshman daughter, Olivia. “The senior girls led with a big-sister, little-sister theme and it made such a big impact on me. I felt open and comfortable talking about personal things.”

Events like Community Agape Feast serve to strengthen bonds that have been formed through spiritual experiences.

Community is optional but often attended by nearly half the student body. Its popularity is likely due to its organic ability to meets those very core needs Torkelsen noted earlier: belonging, being heard, and fostering friendship.

“It’s like you’re with your closest friends just hanging out,” says Olivia Slabbert. She also says Community is more appealing because friends are leading it. “I actually pay a lot more attention at Community than I do during chapel. It’s just more relatable.”

Student planned events have the added benefit of bringing teens to the leadership table. “When youth see that their efforts to make a difference can actually be productive and helpful, it can ignite a passion for continuing that journey,” says Torkelsen.

Students write and act out skits to help teach fellow students important life-lessons.

PAA senior River Neil regularly speaks to his fellow PAA students. He has held leadership roles throughout his time at PAA, including those in Campus Ministries and S.A. He has become a respected mentor to friends in his class and to younger students alike.

PAA’s Campus Ministries team is made up of students who are committed to sharing Jesus through personal testimony, spiritual events, and service projects – including mission trips. Students plan chapels, quarterly Week of Worship chapels, group service projects, and are frequently found leading music and speaking about their spiritual journeys; all of this is carefully supported by Torkelsen, teachers, and area youth pastors.

Bringing teens into leadership roles strengthens a foundation on which young people can stand. “We know from research that the strongest non-parent voice in a young person’s life is the oldest person who gives them respect and love,” says Torkelsen. This means churches and Christian schools hold important role.

The unique attribute of an Adventist education is its ability to open doors to life-long relationships grounded in spiritual experiences.

“PAA is surrounding kids with adults who love them, affirming their growth and opinions, and helping them to love and cherish the God and Jesus story; questions and all,” says Torkelsen.

“And THIS is the reason I send my kids to a Christian school,” says Emma Slabbert. “

[It’s] the venue in which my kids can grow deeper spiritually.”


Learn more about PAA’s spiritual opportunities HERE.

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