Do you believe Generation Z is interested in Jesus? Many do, and we are trying to discover how to best reach them with the gospel.
Here are a few tips from collegiate church planting over the last six years.
Engaging with Generation Z is akin to a domestic missionary endeavor, where understanding pivotal aspects of the target audience becomes the initial and essential step. Presently, many Christians aiming to connect with Generation Z find themselves perplexed by the rapid and substantial changes this generation has undergone in comparison to their predecessors. Nonetheless, there exist common trends, much like any other generation.
Erosion of Trust in Institutions
Whether it pertains to governmental bodies, medical institutions, or religious establishments, Generation Z exhibits a disposition for skepticism toward organized structures and systems. “Is this a church?” a college student wearily inquired while stepping back from an information table on her campus. Such sentiments have become increasingly prevalent when interacting with this generation, particularly post-COVID. The mixture of factors like the pandemic, heightened social media consumption, cancel culture, and likely other influences, has placed the church at a significant social disadvantage in connecting with this current generation.
The number of youth lacking a concept of Jesus, little knowledge of the church, and an incomplete understanding of the gospel's essence is staggering. The prevailing rejection often stems from being uninformed and ignorant of Christianity.
BELONG, BELIEVE, BEHAVE
The “seeker-friendly” approach from the early 2000s aimed to make the “believe” and “behave” aspects (Sunday gatherings, discipleship, small groups, etc.) of church life more accessible to outsiders. However, this approach has had minimal impact on Generation Z, except perhaps for those who were already raised within a church community. The skeptical, justice-oriented, and passionate youth of today find themselves dissatisfied with superficial or emotionally driven approaches. They possess a keen ability to discern “bait and hook” strategies and feel more aggrieved and hurt upon discovering their participation in such schemes.
Since the strategy of lowering the threshold for traditional Christian environments doesn’t yield effective results and is not beneficial for either party, the focus should shift to creating distinct environments tailored to engaging Generation Z.
The skeptical, justice-oriented, and passionate youth of today find themselves dissatisfied with superficial or emotionally driven approaches.
The “belong” environment centers on building relationships and fostering trust. “They won’t care what you know until they know that you care” is the prevailing sentiment. This space involves regularly involving non-believers in your life with the intent of cultivating friendships. Even more effective than organizing specific events or environments, this approach thrives when unbelieving friends are integrated into your everyday activities. It’s here that Generation Z witnesses Christians as individuals with identities, personalities, ups and downs, and a living, active Jesus who has transformed your life. Christianity moves from a distrusted institution to a community shaped by the person of Jesus.
“Believe” environments hold paramount importance in engaging Generation Z. In previous generations, religious skeptics, especially those disillusioned, viewed religion as a societal construct meant to impose regulations. However, with Generation Z, a shift has occurred, characterizing religion as a coping mechanism for personal anxiety. In both scenarios, the “believe” environment allows our friends to witness that our faith isn’t blind but rather rooted in reason, logic, verified prophecies, historically accurate firsthand accounts, personal transformation, and a conviction that drives us to live by God’s gracious gift of faith. These environments can involve weekly gatherings to read and discuss the Word together, delve into specific books (e.g., “Reason for God”), or engage in intentional discussions about beliefs. Such spaces are usually cultivated through relational trust, where friends believe you genuinely care for their well-being.
The “behave” environment is designed for Christians. Attempting to enforce specific behaviors without a foundation of belief can be fruitless or even harmful. Behavioral transformation naturally follows a commitment to Jesus. When we undertake the task of discipling Generation Z, we unlock their potential to bear personal witness to their peers. Guiding young people toward comprehending how to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which we have been called” (Ephesians 4:1) not only honors God but also equips them to invite others into “belong” and “believe” environments. This is where discipleship and multiplication intersect. “Behave” environments should encompass more than mere lectures; they should be spaces where following Jesus and making disciples are demonstrated through a “I do, you observe; I do, you assist; You do, I assist; You do, I observe” approach – a “follow me as I follow Christ” model.
Rather than amalgamating these three environments into a generalized approach, the key to reaching Generation Z lies in creating distinct spaces for each aspect.
Guiding young people toward comprehending how to "walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which we have been called" (Ephesians 4:1) not only honors God but also equips them to invite others into "belong" and "believe" environments.
Finally, a specific recommendation pertains to high school seniors transitioning into their freshman year of college. Pastors, church leaders, and parents should consider establishing connections with churches or ministries active on college campuses within their state. Nurturing intentional relationships with these entities plays a pivotal role in safeguarding young individuals from succumbing to the secular currents prevalent on college campuses. Numerous professed Christians entering college eventually relinquish their faith due to a lack of readiness for the transition, often occurring outside of a commitment in the local church. Ensuring that freshmen are linked to local gospel communities during one of the most vulnerable phases of their lives is an integral aspect of reaching Generation Z.
Generation Z is reachable, teachable, and sendable, and we need to be relentless in our pursuit of them. Let’s be part of God moving through this next generation.
Generation Z is reachable, teachable, and sendable, and we need to be relentless in our pursuit of them.
Matthew and his wife Krista are living in Fort Collins Colorado and serving as church planters on Colorado State University’s campus. Matthew pastors as a part of the Resonate Church Planting Network based in the Pacific Northwest. Matthew is also a student at Gateway Theological Seminary’s campus in Denver, and he and Krista are expecting their first child in November 2023.