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privatization, and pluralism have created an environment in which the church has lost much of its influence and no longer represents the predominant world view of this generation.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.