There is an entire industry of research professionals with an obsessive eye towards whoever happens to be in the 18-25 bracket at the present moment, so they can best figure out how to sell them something. Just like 8 years ago, Time magazine ran a now much-maligned cover story titled “The ME Generation: Millennials are Lazy, Entitled Narcissists who live with their parents,” the covers are now splattered with speculation and analysis about Generation Z, who are currently between about 11 and 25.
As a millennial myself, I am glad to be resigned to our anonymous 30’s, although I do still chuckle in the occasional meeting with older church leaders who bemoan being unable to get millennials to engage in church “because they spend all their time staring at their phones.” Sir, I have a mortgage and two children, I wish I had time to stare at my phone.
While generations are sometimes cut off with years, often they wind up being defined by a seminal cultural moment or feeling during their coming of age. Boomers tend to define themselves by the assassination of JFK, the Vietnam War, and the Moon Landing. Gen Xers name the end of the Cold War and the tech revolution. Millennials name September 11th, the economic recession of 2008, and the election of Barack Obama. Some of the events with the sharpest impact are those that shape the emergence into adulthood; as mentioned in the Time Magazine headline, many Millennials still don’t own property, even though they are mostly in their 30s. That may be a lingering aftershock of the 2008 housing bubble burst, right when Millennials began to graduate college.
So what events will define this current generation? It seems fairly obvious. The other nickname for Generation Z is, after all, Zoomers. As a former youth pastor, I watched in real time as high school and college seniors saw the future they imagined for themselves dissolve in a matter of weeks, with no way to stop it. The rites of passage they had imagined for themselves gone, the family gatherings canceled for fear of death and disease, the colleges they had worked so hard to get into be shrunk down to a zoom call from their dorm room. The dreams of graduation and moving to the big city for the fancy job shift into a virtual orientation from their parents house and months of working somewhere without ever meeting a single co-worker.
Generation Z, according to research by Cigna utilizing a standard scale developed in UCLA in the 70’s, is the loneliest generation of people ever studied. Gen Z’ers report the highest levels of anxiety and depression of any age group, and this is in a report that came out in 2018, aka before they were all sent home from school and their new jobs and had to move home.
So what does this have to do with church, with innovation, and with participating in God’s action in the world?
What Generation Z most desperately needs is something the church is well-poised to offer, and its not a viral TikTok or cool merch. What Generation Z needs is belonging, hope, and purpose. They need to be seen and known, they need a word of encouragement that everything they love and work for wont be ripped away from them, and they need to know that what they do matters.
How does your community meet those needs?
How does your community make itself available to the young people who could be served by the love you have to offer?
The meeting where the church elder made the joke about millennials and their phones was meant to be a conversation about how to engage young people in the mainline church. I found myself biting my tongue; if you want to reach someone with the Good News of Jesus, looking down on them probably isn’t a strong place to start.
Probably the best place to start is to listen, and not with the ear to sell what we already have to offer, but to hear where God is needed in their midst. The best place to start is to engage with empathy instead of judgment, to try to place ourselves in their shoes, and to offer the love and unconditional acceptance we all so desperately need when we are young. Young people want what the church has to offer, just like we all do, but as long as the church treats them like a burden, a lost cause, a problem to be solved, or a market to be sold to, and not a beloved part of the community, they won’t be able to find it there.
Take some time this week and intentionally listen to someone who is in this age bracket, and when you feel the urge to roll your eyes, to explain that their problems aren’t that significant, to teach them how they should feel, practice the discipline of holding your tongue. May we all learn to be the people we needed when we were young.