By Greg Jao
To many church leaders, high school and college students can be an enigma. Their heads are perpetually bowed, as if in prayer, over their smartphones. They seem verbally uncommunicative, often preferring to text rather than talk.
Compounding the normal generation gaps every era experiences, this generation seems particularly alien.
“It really feels like they come from a different planet,” some might say. And it may be partially true.
Today’s emerging adults have grown up in a different world from prior generations. Consider these four realities:
- They are all ethnic minorities. The 2020 United States Census data will show that among those 18 years and under no ethnic group is in the majority according to researcher William Frey.While actual ethnic percentages vary by state and neighborhood (due to immigration history and historic acts of racial discrimination), Gen Z lives in a different demographic world than prior generations.
- They are the least religious generation. Barna reports that the percentage of Gen Z who identify as atheist is double that of prior generations.Nearly 35% identify as agnostic, atheist, or belonging to no religion – compared to 20% of Boomers and 30% of Gen X.
- Mental health issues are pervasive. The number of young adults reporting psychological distress in the prior month increased 71% between 2008 and 2017, according to a study led by Jean Twenge, a leading researcher of what she calls “iGen.”
- iPhones have been in their lives since childhood. The iPhone was introduced when high school seniors were two years old (in 2007).They have never known a world where social media, games, and information were not at their fingertips.
These four realities profoundly shape the life experiences and faith journeys of high school and college students. Many books and articles focus on the ways these realities distort a student’s engagement with faith.
This is necessary. It also is not sufficient. What if Gen Z’s distinct realities also equip them to offer helpful correctives to the ways prior generations have distorted our faith?
Learning from Differences
Cross-cultural experiences (including cross-generational experiences) provide rich learning opportunities. They can expose ways that our reading of Scripture is be overly influenced by our culture.
See, for example, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien.
Cross-generational experiences can also reveal ways the church’s mission is overly shaped by cultural blinders
See, for example, Lesslie Newbingen’s critique in The Gospel in a Pluralistic Culture which grew out of his decades-long service as a missionary in India.
They can enrich conversations which have become too insular by offering the insights of churches in other contexts.
See, for example, Graham Hill’s GlobalChurch, which features contributions from Christian leaders around the world on issues of church revitalization and mission.
Entering into a cross-cultural learning opportunity requires discernment. Emerging adults may be overconfident in their own wisdom—though that is a danger every generation faces.
And it’s essential that every generation’s passions, values, and wisdom be assessed against Scripture—though every generation (and culture) inevitably distorts Scripture in its own image.
But listening well to emerging young adults will offer new insights into the challenges (and opportunities) the church will face in the coming decades as these young adults gradually take their places in our neighborhoods, workplaces, and pews—if they do.
Before They Walk Away
Listening well also offers church leaders an opportunity to reach and to retain a generation that increasingly has walked away from identifying with faith.
Just as the Apostle Paul studied Athens before speaking to the Areopagus (Acts 18), every good missionary needs to survey their community and interview its people to understand their hopes and fears.
This allows them to preach using illustrations and metaphors the resonate with the community’s experiences. It equips them to engage the right idols and ideologies.
It points to the community’s open wounds and old scars. It helps them to see the redemptive analogies that shimmer under the surface of the culture.
This doesn’t mean that programs and preaching should be tailored to the emerging generation’s whims. The Apostle Paul is clear about every generation’s sinful desire to have their ears tickled with the things they want to hear (2 Timothy 4:3).
Emerging adults are no different than every other generation. However, it is also true that most ministry programs and preaching have already been finely tuned to the concerns and passions of the Boomers, Gen-Xers, or Millennials who show up each week.
Intentionally or inadvertently, churches and ministries can reinforce Gen Z’s alienation from faith by failing to engage their concerns and passions.
High school and college ministries are unified in what they report: The emerging generation is open to the gospel and will return to faith if we learn to engage them well.
As the homiletics truism states: Preach to the congregation that you want to fill your pews.
The Context for Listening
Ask four or five members of your youth group or college ministry if you can interview them. Let them know you intend to listen a lot and talk only a little.
Don’t choose students at the center of your ministry. Instead, invite students closer to the margins. Their lives have not been fully shaped by your ministry’s culture, and they may offer sharper insights.
Take them to a local coffee shop. It is a more neutral space than your office or youth group. As you ask questions, listen more than you speak.
When you do speak, use the opportunity to share what you are learning, particularly if it gives them opportunities to sharpen your understanding. If you ask follow-up questions, ask only those questions which clarify your understanding.
Do not ask follow-up questions primarily designed to point out the inconsistencies or errors of their thinking. This is a common tactic of parents and pastors. What they say may be illogical, incoherent, sub-Scriptural, or even heretical.
You’ll have opportunities to engage those problems in the future – if you win their trust.
Here are 10 possible questions to ask them when you meet:
- Where does Christianity, as lived and taught at our ministry, seem most disconnected or remote from your life?
- If your friends could identify someone currently alive as their “hero,” who would it be and why?
- What objections do your friends most often raise about Christianity?
- If God allowed you to add three commands to Scripture, what would they be and why?
- In what ways do you feel our ministry fails to live out the gospel as you understand it?
- Imagine life 10 years from now. How do you think your life will be better than or worse than the lives of the adults you know now?
- What insight, passion, or conviction do your friends have that you wish older Christians would take more seriously?
- What experiences do most of your friends share that you do not think older people take seriously enough?
- What are the three top issues that you wish the church would speak out on more frequently? What are the three top issues you wish the church would stop speaking out on so frequently?
- If the church really was salt and light in our community and in the world, what are the top three things you hope would be different?
GREG JAO (@GregJao) serves as the director for external affairs for InterVarsity.