Each generation brings with it new challenges and opportunities for ministry, and Gen Z is no different. The Barna research group just released a report on this next generation, those born between roughly 1999 and 2015. That would make them, pretty much at this point, the age of every child in our preschools, elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools right now, with a few outliers on either end (ages 2–20). In other words, this group is a pretty big deal for the future.
In the Barna research, a few trends about this up-and-coming generation have emerged. These findings include (generally speaking) that the people in this generation are more ethnically diverse, more career driven, lonelier, more wrapped up in media consumption, and more non-Christian than any generation in American memory. In this blog post, I simply can’t cover all the details of the findings. Instead, after looking over the report for Gen Z, I’ve considered some important ministry implications the report poses for the future. Below are eight thoughts for how we move forward in ministry to the next generation.
1. We really shouldn’t be surprised.
The report of these trends is challenging but not surprising. Frankly, most of what is seen in Gen Z behavior would be pretty obvious from just watching them. The writing has been on the wall for a while. The real world for many of them is not the physical world but the digital one. Though this is also the case for many adults, it’s different for this generation. Speaking from experience, as an early Millennial myself, we didn’t have cell phones while in school. We didn’t have smartphones until college or later. Frankly, smartphones haven’t even been a thing for all that long. In other words, the trend of detaching from the physical world and retreating into constructed social media experiences (thus the loneliness) has been in the works for a while.
2. We can’t assume “they’ll come back when they’re older.”
It’s sad, but true. One of the things I’ve heard in the past when parents have lamented their children’s lack of involvement in the church is that they will come back later. Maybe this worked (somewhat) in the past. The sad reality is, however, that many young people who aren’t interested in attending church now will have nothing to return to because they never really were involved in the first place. The church as a community to return to only works in someone’s mind if that person has fond memories of it in the past. For Millennials, I’ve seen this play out, and it will only get worse as many of the kids in our kids’ generation are even less involved. As many Gen Zers have not been involved in congregational life so far, we can’t assume they’ll return later.
3. Don’t panic.
Yes, we need to be aware and we need to work at leading our congregations as they are, but we also need to keep some historical perspective. Generations in the past have also confronted seismic shifts in culture. In this regard, there’s nothing new under the sun. For many of us, our knee-jerk reaction when confronted with data like this is to panic, retreat, or lash out. We may be tempted to throw our hands up in the air. Instead of giving in to this temptation, we should remember that Jesus is Lord of the Church, and the Church will remain until He returns. Previous generations have remembered this, and our Lord has preserved His Church through these times. Instead of panicking, we should stand firm in our callings, like the saints of old, and boldly proclaim God’s Word into this world together.
4. Build community.
The idea that “it’s all about relationships” may seem cliché, but hear me out on this. On one hand, many of the complaints Gen Z had of the church revolved around their perception that Christians were hypocrites, foolish, and anti-science. They have not made these claims up on their own; they have been fed these lies by the father of lies their whole lives. Their intimate connection to the internet only makes these lies more available to them. At the same time, many of these young people have a gaping hole in their lives when it comes to real-life support. This includes adults who listen to them, care for them, and ask them about their days. This includes an environment where they don’t have to be their social media personas and instead can just be who they are in the moment.
5. Show them the power of conversation.
Anecdotally, I’ve heard that many Gen Z youth are terrified of having face-to-face conversations with others due to a lack of ability to deal with disagreement or end a conversation. At the same time, I’ve heard that when the same Gen Z youth get experience in having real, authentic conversations with others in a no-notifications environment, they thrive. The Christian Church is a community built on Christ. Each context is different, but churches don’t need to always provide pizza, games, and an escalating flurry of entertainment to attract young people. Many of these young people are already entertaining themselves to death. Instead, they need some good community conversations, people who really want to get to know their needs and desire to spend time with them. Be patient with them, and show them the power of face-to-face conversation.
6. Invite questions and inquiry.
All generations have questions. The difference is that this generation is used to having immediate answers. They will likely be less patient with the rest of us if we keep pushing aside those questions. They’ll eventually stop asking and simply look elsewhere. The church can, however, use this to our advantage and get back to the basics. Luther’s Small Catechism was written in the midst of a culture that simply didn’t have the right answers to the important questions in life. Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation offers a ton of different answers to all sorts of questions. As Gen Z learners approach us with questions and concerns, let’s gently engage in discussion around the timeless truths of God’s Word together. We must do this with gentleness and respect, of course, especially if they’re unused to meaningful conversations. But we also have an opportunity to impact lives with God’s Word right where our learners live.
7. Remember that technology is one tool among many.
Certain technologies have become standard. Information, communication, and entertainment have shifted radically over the last decade, and Gen Zers have been right in the midst of the revolution. People can find help for just about any problem online (YouTube is an ever-increasing library of all sorts of information). We need to understand and use this information-age technology as a tool for teaching and learning. At the same time, we must also always remember that it is one tool among many. As the previous points in this post have suggested, we need to be aware of the increased need for human conversations in the midst of a fragmented world. Just like we can’t ignore technology in our ministry, we dare not abandon interpersonal relationships in real time either. We must live within the tension of using technological tools while not abandoning the essence of the congregational community that is Christ’s Church.
8. Think vocation.
I must admit that many people in my Millennial generation didn’t think in terms of future careers, making money, and financial stability when we were in school. It seems from the Barna report that the Gen Z group has learned from our Millennial mistakes and is much keener on aiming for financial stability in the future. Again, this is a great opportunity for us. The doctrine of vocation is central to our Lutheran identities. God has called us to be His own through Jesus Christ and now uses us in the world to serve our neighbor. This transforms our daily routines into holy work. Thus, as we talk with Gen Z learners we can emphasize that they have a place in God’s epic plan to restore creation. Though we don’t worship money and career advancement, we are called to be stewards of all the gifts He’s given us to love and serve one another. All of us need to remember this, regardless of our generational group. Let’s tackle this together.
Like I wrote before, we have great opportunities and great challenges when facing ministry in a changing world. Yet, in the midst of this change, we have the unchanging, timeless truth of God’s Word. As God’s redeemed children, called by Christ from death to life, we have a secure future in the new creation. What we do now, and how we talk to the next generation, is what we’re called to do with the time God has given us. May He bless us as we engage Gen Z.