InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an organization that specializes in ministering to college students nationwide, recently conducted a major survey of Christian Gen Z college students across the United States analyzing how they were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The study, “Christian Student Attitudes Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic,” revealed significant insights into the Gen Z COVID-19 experience and how, in light of this research, Christian communicators can better reach this generation.
InterVarsity President Tom Lin said that studies like this one help bring understanding to the overall needs and the spiritual needs of that particular generation of students.
“This year in particular, because of COVID-19, we really wanted to make sure we’re understanding the need, so we can orient our ministry strategies and prepare ourselves to serve students and to love students well as they return to campus,” Lin said.
With insights from these findings, InterVarsity hopes to reach Gen Z’s unique needs and share the gospel more effectively with this generation. Lin hopes that Christian communicators will also take advantage of this research to better communicate and connect Gen Z college students to Christian community.
Here are a few notable key findings from this study:
1. Gen Z college students’ overall mental and emotional health was negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic
InterVarsity reported that “limited social interactions and a lack of community as a result of the pandemic have led to a decline in the mental and physical health of Gen Zers and college students across the country.” Researchers reached this conclusion specifically based on students’ answers to three related survey questions.
On the survey, 47% of students said their mental and emotional health was negatively impacted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Students shared in an open-ended format what the largest contributing factor to the decline in their mental and emotional health was, and 71% of them said that it was isolation and/or a lack of community or social interaction. In other survey questions, students noted the importance of community both to their emotional and mental health as well as to their faith.
Finally, 59% of students said that one the greatest challenge they had faced in the past 18 months was keeping up with their homework, 58% said loneliness or isolation, and 36% said it was a decline in their overall mental health.
“15% said that they lost a loved one during the pandemic, and while a majority saw a decline in their mental health, some (12%) actually saw an improvement in their mental health,” Lin said.
Lin emphasized the importance of everyone getting to know their target audience before attempting to communicate with them. For Gen Z especially, the study reveals that organizations that only focus on one form of communication may be overlooking segments of this generation due to their varying experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Communicators should first understand their audience well before communicating to reach these students, because you just don’t know where your audience lands or what they’re going to experience,” Lin said. “To assume that they’ve had a certain COVID experience would not be wise. It’s best to understand what their particular COVID experience was like before communicating.”
Despite a portion of students seeing an improvement in mental and emotional health during the pandemic, InterVarsity expects mental health issues to continue even beyond the pandemic.
“Overcoming loneliness and isolation and finding Christian community will be important for these students for years to come,” Lin said.
2. Gen Z College Students Are Passionate About Social Issues
InterVarsity’s research showed that Gen Z college students are greatly concerned about a range of social issues. Racial justice (39%) was the top priority but surprisingly a cluster of other issues were important as well, including reducing abortion (26%), religious liberty (26%), climate change (29%), as well as foster care, and adoption/orphan care (28%).
“I think this generation is concerned about the justice and wellbeing of their neighbors. They want to both love God and love their neighbors,” Lin said. “If we can just come alongside these students as they navigate these social issues, help them know how to love neighbors from a Biblical perspective, I think that would be great!”
Gen Z wants to speak to social issues they’re passionate about, and Christian communicators have the unique opportunity to give Gen Zers a platform to have their voices heard and to teach them how to do so in a way that will advance God’s kingdom.
3. Christian Gen Z students are seeking out resources to strengthen and grow in their faith
When asked about what discipleship resources they needed the most, 60% of students said they wanted more resources to study Scripture, 52% said they wanted resources on prayer, and 47% said they wanted resources on relationships (dating and marriage).
“We’re encouraged that students are still hungry to understand Scripture and want to grow in prayer. I think because of the pandemic perhaps some of them grew deeper in their relationship with God; they depended on the Lord in deeper ways,” Lin said. “They learned how to lament, to cry out to God, to cry out on behalf of others who may be hurting.”
Despite the difficulties that students have faced, they still experienced growth.
“We saw students grow in what it means to walk alongside communities that may be hurting because we saw racial injustice. We saw COVID deaths. We saw a lot of challenges, and I think students really did grow in their faith this past year,” Lin said. “Hopefully, it will continue.”
The COVID-19 pandemic revealed opportunities for communicators to reach Gen Z college students and provide these resources through technology.
“There’s no more geographic boundaries. During the pandemic, we’ve had to shift a lot to communicating online or via Zoom,” Lin said. “I think that’s going to continue to be, an effective way to share the gospel, so I think communicators need to take that into account. We need to keep honing our skills in this area.”
In 2017 InterVarsity partnered with Cru to launch a ministry called EveryCampus, an initiative to spread the gospel message to college students nationwide by making Christian communities available on every campus.
“In light of this past year, there’s an opportunity for churches and ministries to grow to be first responders to these crises. I think this is one of the greatest opportunities in the history of the church,” Lin said. “There’s so many young adults and students who are longing for community and for hope. There are more and more unchurched students with no religious affiliation than any previous generation, so the need is urgent and great.”
Lin is excited about the opportunities that Christian communicators and ministries have to continue to reach Gen Z with the hope of the gospel.
“We’re praying for revival and believe that revival is coming to college campuses. We have this 2030 vision, or what we call a 2030 calling, which is to see revival and a witnessing community, a gospel movement as we call it, on every campus in the country,” Lin said. “I think that’s exactly what students need today, thriving gospel communities for Gen Z students on every college campus in the country.”