Writer Heather Tomlinson speaks to YouTuber Mikhaila Peterson and Instagrammer Jon McCray about getting the Christian message to younger people. And they are hopeful about the next generations. 

Screenshot 2022-11-15 at 16.34.04

Source: Instagram / @mikhailapeterson

Mikhaila Peterson is a YouTube star and daughter of the famous psychologist Jordan – and has very recently found Christian faith – as you can read about in the November print issue of Woman Alive. Mikhaila’s life experience gives her a good insight into the spiritual well-being of her generation, as does that of Jon McCray, a Christian who runs the popular YouTube channel, Whaddo You Meme? which explains Christianity through the lens of popular culture.

Both Mikhaila and Jon have large audiences in the Gen Z and millennial generations, and both converted to Christianity as adults – Jon’s conversion being driven more by powerful intellectual arguments than Mikhaila’s path of experiencing God through life events and prayer. This made them perfect partners for a Premier Radio’s "Big Conversation" event, hosted by Unbelievable host Justin Brierley in July.

Mikhaila and Jon aren't pessimistic about the spiritual health of their peers, even though Pew Research shows three in ten US adults don’t have a faith, and that rises to 49 per cent in Gen Z and millennials. But Mikhaila thinks that people are more open to faith now than they were when she was young. She said: “From what I’ve seen online I think that there are more people who are interested in religion and God and Christianity than there were when I was a teenager.”

Research shows three in ten US adults don’t have a faith, and that rises to 49 per cent in Gen Z and millennials.

For Jon, the difference in generations is that older folk may want to pick and choose a worldview or tribe such as atheism, Christianity, Islam, New Age and hold onto it, but younger people are more interested in their own identity and how to express it. Jon said: “Typically for at least millennials and some of the Gen Zs, is they’re looking for meaning and purpose in personal identity. So they’re looking to personal freedom – so that freedom of self-expression, of being able to express your personal identity.”

However adopting Christianity wholesale may be seen as too rigid to achieve those aims. Jon said: “Because of that, I think people are a lot more hesitant to identify as Christian, even if they hold to a lot of core Christian beliefs." There are also ideologies and beliefs that are becoming dominant in society and held every bit as passionately as Christianity once was, such as beliefs about social justice, transgender issues and feminism.

Generational groups in 2022

Boomers aged 58-76, born 1946-1964

Gen X aged 42-57, born 1965-1980

Millennial aged 26-41, born 1981-1996

Gen Z aged 10-25, born 1997-2012

Source: Pew Research Center

“Do you think people truly are becoming less religious, or are they simply placing their faith in something else?,” asked Justin. “I have wondered… whether what we’re seeing is not necessarily people becoming less religious, they’re just becoming religious about other things. So there are all those kind of identity politics issues, there are political issues, cultural conversations and ideologies and everything else, that people almost treat as sacred, in a way that maybe once people treated conventional religion.”

“Yes, I think I’d agree,” said Jon. “I think people need meaning and purpose and so they’re going to find it somewhere.”

As ever, the behaviour of the Christians they encountered had a big role in their faith or lack of it. On the one hand for Mikhaila, she saw a positive change in her mum after her conversion, and felt the “really comforting vibes” of many Christians, including believing families that are “generally happier, more kids and just calmer and more forgiving.” But some of Mikhaila’s interactions with Christians had put her off - she said they sounded “cultish”, “rehearsed” and as if they “look down on other people."

There are ideologies that are held every bit as passionately as Christianity once was, such as beliefs about social justice, transgender issues and feminism.

Jon’s background without faith helped him to understand that mindset and he deliberately keeps in touch with “pop culture” in order to help explain the gospel. He said: “Jesus… would talk to people where they were and what they were going through; he wasn’t starting from some high-end abstract theory that wouldn’t resonate with his audience. So if you look how he talked with the Pharisees, compared with how he talked with the woman at the well and so on, he’s always meeting people where they are and then adjusting for that person – this is how he’s going to talk to them in order to persuade them.”

It’s common for spiritual experiences and personal stories to be seen as the answer to finding faith for the younger generations, said to be influenced by postmodernism and the power of story and narratives rather than rational argument. But Jon argues that such experiences are also the reason why many people choose other religions: “If Christianity were just based off of people having personal experiences, then it would be hard to know if Christianity were true.” So he thinks they may be a starting point, but we need more, like the first disciples who saw the risen Christ. “That’s more concrete, because it happened in reality rather than just in their head, and it can be verifiable with external reality."

He described a friend whose spiritual experiences led him to Islam – yet when he started investigating more deeply it led him to Christian faith. “The experiences are what really helped him to get motivated to start considering Christianity, where he otherwise wouldn’t have.”

The discussion presents a more hopeful vision of the future for faith in the younger generations than we often hear. However vast the gulf between generations and cultures, Jesus is being found. 

This interview was featured in the November 2022 issue of Woman Alive magazine.

Click here to watch Mikhaila on Premier Unbelievable's The Big Conversation