I work on a college campus, a place where Generation Z is making themselves known. I am an older millennial, a generation that, for the past 20 years, has been the source of innumerable think pieces. That rite of passage is shifting now to the generation behind me.
As a pastor, I have read many articles and books about this new generation, attended workshops on their demographic data and religious trends and engaged in unending discussions about the rising tide of “nones and dones.”
However, in the first six months of my job as director of religious life at Duke University Chapel, I again have learned the immense difference between contemplating young people from afar and caring for them up close.
A large part of my work is to convene, support and advocate for our interfaith religious life leaders on campus. Across the weeks, I witness these leaders caring for students through countless conversations and cups of coffee. Their work reminds me that, while studies and think pieces have value, nothing will ever replace the moment when you sit down with someone, look them in the eye and sincerely say, “Please tell me about yourself.”
When it wants to, the church across time and space has done this beautifully. In our best moments, we ask questions that help us embrace the peculiar particularity of a person. In our best moments, we ask questions, listen to responses and discover together the ways that this person’s particularity might be knit together with the community and witness of the Holy Spirit.
However, in myself and others, I also know the other side — the side that reads the pundit pieces, that looks at shifting cultural norms, that sees the changes in church membership and stewardship, and gets frustrated. This side finds it easier to blame rather than engage young adults today.
Yet, these emerging adults are not only the future of our church, they are our present. They are our neighbors right now. We are called to be the church alongside them right now — even if they don’t show up in our pews on Sunday morning.
What do we have to do with each other?
I suggest: Let’s not keep that question to ourselves. Let’s ask that to each other, and especially to the emerging adults we know.
Indeed, it is remarkable how often Jesus encounters a person by first asking a question. When Jesus meets people, he rarely launches immediately into an instructional sermon. Rather, he continually sits down one on one and begins with some questions about life and faith: What do you want me to do for you? Do you want to be made well? Who do you say that I am? Who touched me? Why do you weep?
If the Lord of heaven and earth can hold off on giving his opinion for a little while, perhaps we can practice this too.
So, what is my grand conclusion? What is my solution for engaging Gen Z? What is my three-point plan for ministering to emerging adults? What do we have to do with each other?
I do not yet know. But I do know that there is a world of difference between trying to answer that question while typing away by myself in my office, and trying to answer that question while asking it to a young adult, face to face, as we sip a cup of coffee and break bread between us.