Like nearly all the leaders in our network of churches, I am what’s commonly referred to as a Millennial. I belong to a generation born 1981-1996. We’re typically accused of being self-centred, entitled and living life as though everything we touch turns to gold.
In my network, all of our churches are in university cities, most of our leaders started out as students going to one of our churches—I certainly did—and I’ve worked with students for years, first in Nottingham and now in Birmingham. In recent years, something has changed.
We are seeing less students willing to take on leadership responsibility, less students settling in the city after university finishes and students less willing to have someone ‘speak into’ their lives. The ways of discipling that others had used with us, doesn’t seem to have the same effect on this new cohort of Christians.
Once we started to explore this phenomenon, it became apparent that we’d met Generation Z. Born 1997-2012 and commonly accused of being anxious, individualistic and surgically attached to their phones. Gen Z weren’t responding in the same way to the rhythms of discipleship we had established and relied upon.
Here are a few of the things that we’re learning:
1. Build trust
Millennials—in our experience—wanted direction and liked robust conversations. There was a desire to listen to leadership. This is probably less true of my generation now we’re mostly in our mid-30s, but when we were in our early 20s, it was certainly the case.
I’ve made some big mistakes approaching Gen Z in the same way. The statisticians will tell you that Gen Z grow up ‘slower’ than Millennials did, passing through rites of passage at an older age. On average, a student arriving at University now is around three years ‘younger’ than I was in 2004.
Gen Z are warier of listening to ‘authority’ and seek a wider array of authority figures. The pastor preaching or counselling is set alongside any number of Instagrammers, YouTubers and Google searches. I’m one voice among many, and if I’m the only one saying different things, I get weighed accordingly. There are some advantages here, but it also means making disciples is harder.
We don’t really have answers yet, but where we have found success is through slowly building genuine relationships of trust. Once my Gen Z friends know that I love them, they’re much more likely to listen to me. Once they’ve sat around my dinner table and laughed with me (or at me), discipleship comes easier.
2. Use technology
I love technology, but we’re waking up to the fact that it isn’t always good for us. Gen Z are the first generation to grow up in the digital age (post-2007). I’m pretty savvy, but where I learned to swim, they were born in the water. It’s the air they breathe, and it’s having noticeable effects on their anxiety levels, attention spans and interpersonal skills.
Sometimes it makes me want to live in a monastery. However, I doubt that advocating throwing away our phones is going to track with Gen Z; after all, this is the world they live in. We need to find ways to teach digital discipleship.
I don’t have the answers here either (a developing theme). I’m trying to talk to my younger friends about the things I find my smartphone and social media doing to my soul. I occasionally share with them some titbits from papers I’ve read detailing their deleterious effects. I’m hoping to start to wake them up from tacit acceptance, and then maybe they can help me figure out what discipleship in the digital wasteland looks like. I don’t expect to have the answers—they will have to help us figure it out.
3. Affirm identity in Christ
The stats for this generation’s mental health are horrifying. Depression is up significantly. Anxiety is up significantly. Loneliness and isolation is up significantly. Suicidal tendencies, up significantly. And all of it more seriously effecting young women. The academic papers I’ve read detailing statistical studies make me want to weep. We could debate why—and I have some ideas—but there are serious issues brewing.
We find that their mental health is something many of the students we pastor want to talk about frequently. We aren’t experts, and we’ve had to learn to point them to medical help when appropriate. I spend a lot of time telling Gen Z friends who are followers of Jesus that he loves them, is for them and that they should get an appointment with their GP.
We can say lots about hope, joy and the wonder of the gift of God in Christ; much of which is directly relevant to the days our minds want to mug us. We want to support our friends to get the medical help that’s available, and we’re wary about medicalising sadness. We just keep pointing them to Jesus.
This might sound like doom and gloom, but it’s really not all bad news; Gen Z are great. They are deeply concerned about justice, they take life more seriously than I did at their age, they are much less entitled and self-centred, they want to contribute to society, they want to take responsibility for themselves even if they don’t always know how to, and they have much more realistic expectations for their lives.
They are different to me, and if we can draw them into the way of Jesus, we will be all the richer for it.
Tim Suffield is a learning and teaching manager at the University of Birmingham and one of the leaders at King’s Church
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