Often, when you hear an “expert” speak or write about reaching a particular generation, it will inevitably be someone from an older generation. For example, you’ll have a Baby Boomer or Generation Xer talking about how to connect with millennials or Generation Z. I am in no way saying that this is an ineffective approach. In fact, there are a plethora of resources out there done in this particular way that are extremely helpful. However, I wanted to take a different approach.
Over the last year, while speaking at student camps, DiscipleNows, conferences, young adult worship services, and other events, I took the opportunity to sit down and ask these students some probing questions. One of the things I love the most about young people is that if you want to know what they’re thinking, all you have to do is ask them. Sometimes, you don’t even have to ask! So, instead of adults telling other adults how to reach students, I decided to ask students, “What do adults need to know about your generation, known as Gen Z?” It was an incredible journey of me becoming a student myself so that I could hear from this generation about reaching their generation.
With that in mind, here are seven things we need to know about Gen Z in their own words:
- Gen Z wants to be seen as people, not projects. If the main drive of the church is to reach students so that pews will be filled or that your church or student ministry will be seen as cool, trendy, or relevant, then you’re completely missing the point. So often, the number one reason churches say they want to reach the next generation is that “if we don’t, then our church isn’t going to exist in ten years.” I understand the fear and sincerity there. However, even that is not the right view to have. The main purpose for reaching Gen Z cannot be to prolong our local church’s name or logo. Instead, it must be a desire to reach students because they are made in the image of God, have souls, and matter to the kingdom of God. No one wants to be someone’s project, and neither do students.
- Gen Z wants more out of church than potluck dinners. This generation wants to be a part of “doing” something. They’ll want more out of their church than sitting on a pew, listening to sermons, and going to potluck dinners while waiting for the Rapture Bus to swoop down to pick them all up. They are not scared to die young; however, they are terrified to die at a ripe old age while not having done anything significant with their lives in their own eyes. They are not typically impressed by a church’s size or budget. They’re more interested in being noticed relationally and in what the church is doing outside the walls of the building. Let’s mobilize a generation. They will fail, but so will we. That’s why grace is so amazing.
- Gen Z is not ageist. People tend to think that students don’t want anything to do with the older generation. However, this Gen Z is in desperate need of older generations to invest in them. This is largely a fatherless generation. They often seek out or are more open to discipleship or mentorship than we tend to believe. But, they won’t know how to ask for it, so they may ask you to “hang out” by using some other word that sounds like gibberish to you. Nevertheless, if this generation wants to spend time with you, they give you the most valuable thing they have to offer – time.
- Gen Z largely values the “why” over the “what.” Students do not typically want to do something just because it’s the way it’s always been done or because it’s what their family has always known. They are not driven by heritage. For example, a student will not grow to be Southern Baptist just because his parents were. If we can’t answer their “why” questions or get defensive over them, we’ll lose them. Be ready to answer their honest questions with love, patience, and kindness. Their experience with something or someone will often dictate their views more than history will.
- Gen Z doesn’t want to be seen as the future of the church. Remember, the younger generation is not the future of the church — if they’ve been redeemed with the blood of Jesus, then they’re the church right now. So, let them have some ownership of the ministry and be patient with them when they mess up … possibly a lot. A great way to keep students engaged in the ministry is by constantly communicating, illustrating, and empowering participation in the vision and mission of the church. Sometimes, we’ll schedule an event to reach Gen Z using all older generations to plan it, then plead with students to bring their friends. Then, we get upset when they don’t show up. Want them to show up? Want them to invite their friends? Then, let them have a voice in planning it.
- Gen Z wants authenticity and transparency. Nearly all students grow weary of gimmicks and ‘sleek presentations’ quickly. The more transparent and vulnerable a communicator is, the more students connect. There was a time when speakers and teachers were told not to use themselves in personal illustrations; however, this generation wants to hear those personal stories. As adults, if we act as those who have it all figured out and are not in desperate need of God’s grace daily ourselves, we’ll lose their attention because they won’t believe that we’re “being real” and that our faith is unattainable for them.
- Gen Z knows brokenness at an earlier age. They are exposed to more violence, graphic images, and evil at an earlier age. Internet exposure, media coverage, and broken homes are unfortunately the norm for far too many. They don’t know a world without the fear of mass shootings and terrorism. This is also a pornography-saturated generation — the average age of first exposure is 11. The fastest-growing consumers of internet pornography are girls between 15 and 30; 70% of guys and 50% of girls admit to interaction with internet pornography. This generation is looking for solutions at a much earlier time in their lives. They know they’re broken. Thank God for the gospel because it is mighty to save Gen Z. Share it with them because they’re starving for it, whether they know it or not.
I’m personally encouraged by this generation of students. Even as an adult, I resonate deeply with their views. According to a recent Wall Street Journal survey, 30% of Gen Z says that “religion is very important to them,” the lowest in U.S. history. But, 78% say that “living a self-fulfilled life is very important to them.” This should be extremely eye-opening to us. That’s the threshold to cross in communicating to Gen Z – help them see that a “fulfilled life” only comes from someone outside of “self.”
Shane Pruitt will be the guest speaker at the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware’s Youth Summit on Oct. 26 at South Columbia Baptist Church. This event is an opportunity for those that serve youth to gather together in encouragement, collaboration, and fellowship. Tickets are still available online!