Tech is a way of life for many Millennials and Gen Z-ers but it's not filling the emotional gap and most pastors are not being proactive in teaching them how to use it wisely, research by Barna suggests.
Studies by the group show that a majority of pastors (85%) feel "very" or "somewhat" worried about the amount of time their younger congregants are spending on screens each day during the pandemic.
But a similar proportion (86%) said they did not have a specific plan in place to teach young Christians about how to be wise in their use of technology.
The findings have caused Barna to warn that spiritual input is "at risk of being drowned out" by other reasons for youngsters to switch on their screens.
Barna's advice to churches is to adapt or else risk falling off young people's radars.
"Innovation in youth ministry in the current moment requires creatively connecting with 'digital natives' on their turf," it said.
Young people may be more tech savvy and socially connected than any other generation before them, but Barna's research also suggests that they are lonelier than ever.
In research conducted by Barna in May, a fifth (19%) of Millennials reported feeling lonely "all the time" and a quarter for at least some of the day. Only a third (35%) said they hadn't experienced loneliness since the pandemic started, much lower than the half of Gen X-ers (those born between 1965 and 1980) and more than half (59%) of Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) who said they hadn't felt lonely.
At the same time, a third of Millennials reported being in need of emotional support, far higher than the quarter of Gen X-ers, and just over one in 10 (13%) of Boomers who said the same.
But Barna's analysis suggests that, in spite of the emotional need, young people are not looking to the Church for answers, with over half (59%) of 18- to 25-year-olds saying that "church is not relevant to me personally," and nearly half (48%) agreeing with the statement "I find God elsewhere". Over a quarter (28%) said they think they "can teach myself what I need to know."
"The future of ministry to young adults, teens and children—and, when needed, the parents who raise them—continues to evolve," Barna said.
"It is more important now than ever for leaders to check in with the young people in their church to understand what they are facing right now and how best to engage with and disciple future Church leaders."