Book Review…Meet Generation Z

During my years of ministry with youth, college students, and young adults there have been so many books that attempt to analyze each generation and they ways in which they perceive the world. The most recent book I’ve read in this genre is by James Emery White entitled “Meet Generation Z.” White is a former seminary president (Gordon Conwell) and a pastor in Charlotte, NC.

He begins by describing our current cultural context as an age in which a post-Christian mindset is becoming more and more prominent. About 30% of adults under the age of 30 now claim no specific religious affiliation. The have come to be known as the “Nones” because when asked about their religious affiliation they tend to mark the “none” response. The combined factors of secularization, privatization, and pluralism have created an environment in which the church has lost much of its influence and no longer represents the predominant world view of this generation.

In Chapter 2 he goes on to list five defining characters of Generation Z. They are Recession Marked, Wifi Enabled, Multiracial, Sexually Fluid, and Post Christian. Being “recession marked” refers to the impact of the Great Recession as their main economic memory. This causes them to be more entrepreneurial while also wanting to make a difference in the world. Although their older counterparts, the Millennials have been referred to as “digital natives,” Gen Z is even more immersed in technology living their entire lives with the “internet in their pockets.” They are the most racially diverse and inclusive generation so far. And they are sexually fluid, with great acceptance of gay marriage and transgender identities. Finally, post-christian is how White describes their basic understanding of spirituality. All of these characteristics tend to flow from their highest value of individual freedom. For Gen Z more so than any other generation, affirmation equals acceptance.

Chapter 3 touches on the issue of how Gen Z has come to be so self-directed and indicts Gen X parents as enablers. Being fearful of over-parenting and over-protecting, many parents have erred on the side of under-protecting…leaving Gen Z literally to their own devices. Although they have endless amounts of information, they have little wisdom and virtually no mentors!

The role of the counter-cultural church is discussed in chapters 4 and 5 and White challenges the church to be the “called out ones” (ecclesia is the greek word which is translated as church and means “called out ones.”) Unfortunately, the church often postures itself either as cloisterd (disconnected from culture) or combative (culture wars) instead of being engaged with culture. If the church would stay on its mission of helping people simply follow Jesus well, more cultural change would be affected. The church has to reclaim its prophetic voice and translate the Gospel for the current culture without transforming its message. Here he cautions the church to change methods but not change the message. This of course presents a real challenge for a demographic that equates affirmation with acceptance. So care must be taken to communicate well a Christian worldview which is the only worldview which really supports the value and meaning of a human life. According to a secular worldview, the human is really just a product of chance.

Rethinking Evangelism is the focus of chapter 6 and involves recapturing the idea of process, orienting heavily towards explanation, and communicating in quick engaging ways. Remember, if Gen Z is post-christian and biblically illiterate, we will need to use an Acts 17 vs. and Acts 2 model of evangelism. In Acts 2, the apostles were speaking to a religiously literate crowd with heavy Jewish influence and background. But in Acts 17, on Mars Hill, the apostle Paul is dealing with a much more secular crowd of people. So we need to be creative (as Paul was in Athens) and visual as we communicate the message of the Gospel and talk about Jesus in effective bridge-building ways.

White suggests in chapter 7 that our two most fruitful “bridges” to cross when communicating spiritual truth to Gen Z involve their tendency towards belief in the supernatural (paranormal activity, horoscopes, spirituality, etc) as well as their appreciation for cosmology–a basic awe and wonder when it comes to science and the universe. Gen Z is perhaps more open than recent generations to the idea that science may not be able to fully explain reality.

Chapter 8 is all about the “decisions” which White’s church (Mecklenburg Community Church) has made in order to effectively reach younger generations and would really be a great chapter for any pastor to read and consider. Some of the philosophical decisions they have made as a church might be considered a bit radical. For example, they have made a commitment to “Skew Young” by hiring young leaders, putting young adults on the platform, and generally acknowledging their younger audience. Those of us with ANY experience in church leadership know how this can potentially alienate some of the older folks in congregations. But White is for prepared for response to that kind of backlash. “Hey, it’s not about you.”

The book is conclude with 3 sermon manuscripts which give you a good idea of how he pastorally engages some difficult topics and again, pastors especially might find these appendices as quite practical and illustrative.

So here’s my take on “Meet Generation Z:”

  • Keep in mind, that it is written by a pastor
  • There are helpful observations about this currently emerging generation but they aren’t purely sociological observations
  • Rethinking Evangelism is something we have always had to do for every generation. White’s emphasis on being focused on process, explanation, & communication can lead to some great insights
  • The Five Characteristics are descriptive but not exhaustive (in my opinion)
  • As the parent of 3 Gen Zers, it challenges me to effectively pair truth & grace in my conversations about faith with my own kids…as well as with college students and young adults in my ministry
  • Helping the church engage culture instead of becoming cloistered and combative is crucial.

 

As someone engaged not only in a local outreach to University students (see more on The 86 Coffee Bar at the University of Cincinnati) but also as someone helping catalyze and resource campus ministry initiatives with church (see the Campus Mission website) I gained some very helpful insights from Meet Generation Z.

Although this is the first book of Dr/Pastor White that I’ve read, he is obviously not a one-hit-wonder. He has several other books worth looking into. You can find more of that here.

 

 

Trail Names & Faces

Me & May

Some people seem confused when I talk about my Appalachian Trail experience, that I’m throwing in lots of stories about community and the people I was hanging out with on the trail.

“Didn’t you go hiking alone?” they might ask.

So here’s the deal. Lots of people hike the Appalachian Trail. Some for a few days, some for a few weeks, and even some for a few months. There was only 1 night during my 23 days on the trail that I was completely alone at a shelter or campsite at the end of the day.

In the picture above, “May” was one of the people who joined our “shelter family” that first evening at the Stover Creek Shelter. I didn’t know it at the time, but he and I would hike together for a little over two weeks. His trail name was “May” because when he was 19, he shattered his femur in an accident and one of his doctors said “You MAY never walk again.” Over those two weeks, “May” and I got to know each other pretty well and spent several hours each day chatting about his life in Charlotte and my life in Cincinnati. So the relationships on the trail really became a substantial and great part of the experience!

Trail names are also an interesting part of the hiking experience and community on the Appalachian Trail. Some people can get a trail name when they do something weird or interesting. Like one thru-hiker we met was “Subway” because when he started hiking at the northern terminus, he had several Subway sandwiches in his pack so he didn’t have to cook anything for the first few days. Folks started calling him “Subway” and it stuck.

JavaMan & Catfish

One of the other guys I hiked with (actually the first hiker I met when I was signing in at the visitor center in Amicalola Falls) whose real name is Jim almost got the trail name “Boyscout” because I noticed him wearing a Philmont t-shirt. But then I learned his nickname in the Navy had been “Catfish” because of his mustache…so we called him “Catfish!”

My manual coffee grinder

My trail name didn’t take long to stick because I woke people up each morning with the sound and aroma of grinding fresh coffee. “JAVAMAN” quickly became my moniker.

One of the younger guys we found ourselves trying to keep up for a few days was “Boots.” He seemed to be intent on experiencing maximum pain & suffering because he had a 50lb pack and boots that must not have been quite right. There were several times when I saw blood as he removed his hiking boots and socks to doctor the feet. But he was an ROTC-engineering student at Princeton who was just trying to develop his ability to withstand intense physical struggle in preparation for future military training. Super smart kid and fun hiker connection! Here he is with May & I shortly after (or before) we cross the state line from Georgia to North Carolina.

Boots, JavaMan, & May set off for the day’s hike

And there were lots of other hikers we spent time with along the way…like Sherpa, Smiles, Duct Tape, Veggie Delights, the Gossip Girls, another “Sherpa”, Stone Legs, etc!

The Appalachian Trail has this power to create community. It brings together a diverse group of people who share this passion to be outdoors and challenge themselves physically. Any amount of suffering (sometimes what hikers may call “embracing the suck”) tends to create some extra relational bonding energy that catalyzes community more quickly than what we usually experience in our normal day-to-day lives.

Praying with Your Feet

As I look back on my hike and the first couple of days of journaling, I remember the first quote I was reflecting on as a prayer exercise while hiking.

Charles Spurgeon wrote these words: “God is too good to be unkind and He is too wise to be mistaken. And when we cannot trace His hand we must trust His heart.”

The hashtag #PrayWithYourFeet had become one that I often used when posting photos about my pilgrimage on Instagram and Facebook. To me, the idea is that prayer not simply be a routine spiritual exercise but something grounded in physical activity…integrated with the hiking itself. As I hiked the first 10 miles or so to get to a shelter area that first day, my hope was that the very act of walking along this blazed trail would become a way of spiritually engaging with God.

It is difficult to say exactly at what point in my hike prayer became fully integrated with the physical journey, but I know that it did not take very long. And after experiencing significant struggles with prayer over the past few years, I was pleasantly surprised to find my conversations with God while on the trail were coming more freely than they had in years.

By the 2nd day of my hike, I had also made some relational connections with a couple of fellow hikers. “May” and “Catfish” would be my main hiking companions for the first few days and then “May” continued to journey with me for the first two weeks on the trail. We had some great experiences and conversations together, but I found myself eager to hike ahead of these guys for the first few hours each day in order to protect my times of solitude and prayer on the trail.

For the next few days, I would slowly immerse myself in the 23rd Psalm which became the most impactful passage of scripture for me during the entire 23 days of hiking (coincidence?) and I began each hiking day prayerfully quoting each section of the Psalm as I walked along. Although it took a few days of hiking meditatively to get through the whole passage, each day of my hike would begin with these words:

“The Lord is my shepherd, I have everything I need!”

God as shepherd and Christ as our “good shepherd” (John 10:11) are very familiar images and motifs in the Bible. All throughout scripture, this image of being a sheep under the care of the Good Shepherd recurs but it has often felt like churchy or religious language that doesn’t make much sense to non-agrarian folk like myself. However, over the next 23 days, I owned this language and began seeing more deeply into the words and David’s proclamation in Psalm 23 that the Lord is my shepherd.

Pray with your feet! This phrase has become more than a hashtag, it has become something like a prayer activator for me. To walk…to take steps along any path towards a destination reminds me to keep in step with the Spirit.