Encouraging a new generation to go on for God
A new generation is emerging right before our eyes. The Millennials are now adults, and today’s current youth culture is dominated by members of Generation Z. Everyone from professional marketeers to church leaders are beginning to realize that things are changing dramatically.
Research abounds about the characteristics and motivations of Generation Z. Most sociologists and demographers agree that this generational cohort, born between 1995 and 2010 and which now constitutes over 25 percent of the US population, is about to have a significant and lasting impact. That’s why James Emery White makes this recommendation, “Drop everything and start paying attention to Generation Z. They will not simply influence American culture… . They will constitute American culture.”
Based upon my own personal reading, research, and observations, here are some defining features of this new generation.
Gen Zs are “digital natives.”
This generation has always had constant access to the internet in their pockets or purses. I’ve seen two-year-olds with their own iPads, and five-year-olds with their own smartphones. I’ll add to this later, but as Seemiller and Grace have suggested, the members of Gen Z are most likely the offspring of Gen Xers. Gen Xers were the first generation to use their PCs or Macs for work, and they are the first generation to be totally comfortable with their children utilizing various devices for continual connection to the internet.
Social researchers tell us that Gen Zs spend less time with friends, less time outside, less time at the mall, less time dating, and less time at the movies than any previous generation. Why? They are using their internet-enabled smartphones to accomplish all those things. The ubiquitous use of smart devices is perhaps the most visible characteristic of this new generation. This means that we are now seeking to reach a group of people who believe that access to anything and everything is through the digital devices in their pockets.
Church leaders will need to develop the balance between effectively utilizing modern technology to connect with this generation and finding ways to help them disconnect so that real-life, interpersonal relationships can develop and grow within the church.
Many are “post-Christian” and “post-church.”
Today’s pastors and youth workers must realize that Gen Z is a post-Christian and post-church generation. According to a 2017 Barna Research project, “Rates of church attendance, religious affiliation, belief in God, prayer and Bible-reading have all been dropping for decades. By consequence, the role of religion in public life has been slowly diminishing, and the church no longer functions with the cultural authority it held in times past.”
We can no longer assume that the church or church youth ministry will be an attractive option for today’s families and teenagers. However, this phenomenon provides a renewed opportunity for outreach and evangelism. Let’s remember that the discipline of youth ministry began in the hearts of visionary leaders who noticed a looming youth culture and who took the risks necessary to reach a new generation of young people with the gospel.
I am convinced, however, that we should return to our youth ministry roots with an emphasis on reaching kids for Christ. The days of ministering to church kids almost exclusively is over. Generation Z’s post-Christian, and most likely post-church, mentality gives them a craving for authenticity; they are desperately seeking answers to their tough questions. This provides an incredible opportunity for churches to creatively and strategically plan culturally relevant outreach endeavors and to train students to boldly communicate the gospel, most often via relationship-driven, personal conversations.
They have Gen X parents.
Most Gen Xers are now somewhere between 35 and 50, which means their children currently average about 15 years old. Therefore, the teenagers in your church’s youth group and the kids in your community are Gen Zs—with parents from Generation X. A quick review of the generational background of these current middle-age adults reveals that many were born during the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s and probably started college during the days of the O. J. Simpson trial and the Oklahoma City bombing. They came of age during the highest divorce rate in the history of the US and were having their children during the Great Recession. They were also the generation often characterized as being latchkey kids, growing up in a society where both parents worked outside of the home.
These trends emphasize that Gen Zers are more likely than other recent generations to grow up in dysfunctional, unstable, or broken homes. In fact, a recent publication from Barna Research—interestingly titled Households of Faith—made this statement about today’s homes: “Churches that want to understand and serve teens and young adults should focus first on true household ministry, and not just family ministry.” Perhaps more than ever, churches will need to be a family to reach out and minister to this new generation who are probably the products of nontraditional households.
The long-term goal, of course, for any church ministry is for our people to grow up and go on for God. As the apostle Paul instructed believers in Ephesians 4:11–16, our mission is for people to “no longer be children,” but that they would “grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ.”
I identified these three noteworthy characteristics of Gen Zs to emphasize that members of Generation Z are likely to be digital natives with a post-Christian outlook and are likely to be products of nontraditional households. However, we can impact this generation for eternity as we effectively communicate the gospel in ways that are in tune with this new generation.
Mel Walker and his wife, Peggy, are longtime members of Heritage Baptist Church in Clarks Summit, Pa. Mel is the cofounder and president of Vision For Youth, Inc., and is the author or editor of 10 books relating to youth ministry, including Going On for God: Encouraging the Next Generation to Grow Up and Go On for God. More information about Mel’s ministry and books can be found at www.GoingOnForGod.com.