So what about Gen Z? Now that we’ve studied the X’s and Y’s, and the boomers and builders, what’s to say about the newest identifiable age group? Moreover, are the generations’ differences all they’ve been made out to be? For example, Gen Y’s are said to be more idealistic than their forebears, but many of the materialistic and pragmatic baby boomers were peacenik hippies before becoming yuppies. The change came with the accumulation of wealth and power, along with wisdom’s refining and cynicism’s scarring. Aging through life’s stages shapes mindsets and behaviors as much as generational baton-passing.
On the other hand, it behooves us doing ministry with and among children and teens to learn everything we can from every possible informed source so that we can help grow that generation into devoted followers of Christ.
They’ve been dubbed Gen Z, or the Internet Generation (aka Gen I), or Generation Text, those born generally between 1994 and 2004.
The future of the American Christian movement will largely be made or broken by them. The mainline churches’ success with the greatest generation was supplanted by the evangelicals’ success among baby boomers and, to a lesser degree, Gen X’s. But all brands of Christianity have been flubbing with Gen Y’s. And either we find a better way with the Z’s, or committed belief in the Gospel will fade in our land. If we fail today’s teenagers and children, the near extinction of Christianity in once-heavily-Christian Europe will be replicated here.
There’s hope. Those ranging in age from 8 to 18 are always the persons most reachable, most impressionable, most primed to learn and most open to committing themselves wholeheartedly to the Lord. And most of the adults in ecclesial leadership — the teaching and ruling elders, the deacons, the church school leaders and musicians — enjoy close enough contact with them (if only as their own children or grandchildren) to be able to exercise godly influence upon them.
So how shall we then raise this new generation of disciples?
Well, we can begin by learning about how their generation really does differ with those that preceded them. For example, the tsunami of information flooding them and the ease with which they multitask mean they learn quickly and work at the speed of electrons. It also means that they possess the attention span of a hummingbird. The rapid growth of the home-schooling movement means that the common influences their parents shared with classmates is gone, as their lives connect not through schoolteachers but via social-networking websites, apps and Internet gaming.
We do well to learn from another source — the developmental studies that track the common patterns of thinking and behavior reflective of adolescents in general. As Wayne Meisel points out (Pages 10-14), commitment to world-changing service is thriving among teens and young adults. The spirit of idealism — always a major driver among teens — is expanding in many places, although the church needs to jettison its self-absorption and judgmentalism or it will be left behind. Meisel’s thesis is strengthened by Mark Hinds’ exploration of teens’ need for risk and adventure, and the corresponding opportunity for churches to organize opportunities for extreme mission service (not just car washes) to tap and channel their energy and, especially, to explore God’s call on their lives (see Pages 15-16). Kendra Creasy Dean and Andrew Root remind us that the teens really want to wrestle with the big theological questions (Page 17). Matthew Rich witnesses to the impact being made in a confirmation program that’s doing many of these things (Page 18).
Most of all, we need to learn from the source that’s unchanging. So often, when God has chosen to change the world, the divine call has found teenagers to be just the right agents of change. They’ve been the ones to get the truly radical message of the Gospel. We do well to believe that that Gospel is just as radical today, that it’s still changing lives today, that it’s just what the “kids” of our day need to embrace, to experience, and even to spread like a contagion of transformation. Our best hope for revival through all the generations may well rest in them. May they lead us.