I met 16-year-old Juan while leading a pastor’s seminar. He sat on the front row with his dad, one of the pastors, and listened intently while I spoke about generational trends and opportunities for the church to engage younger generations.
At the break, I sat down to chat with him, intrigued by his focus and attention. He shared his story of coming to America as a young boy and helping his dad’s work as a pastor of a bilingual church–a role he was grateful for, steadied by strong relationships. His strong faith was clear.
When talking about living out his faith, however, Juan confessed he doesn’t talk about God on social media or at school: “I would be ostracized and lose all credibility if I did.”
Juan’s story, passion, and struggle left a deep imprint on me–of the struggles Gen Z faces, even those who are strong in their faith, as they live in a post-Christian culture.
ONE GENERATION AWAY
It’s a scary verse: “And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10).
Why’s it a wee bit terrifying?
Because we’re always one generation away from the Church falling away from God.
Yes, God is infinitely sovereign, and far more passionate about his name and reaching humanity than you or I are. Full stop.
But God’s master blueprint for reaching the nations won’t end with you heading overseas.
So that means part of our responsibility as the Church is not just to reach others with the hope that we have, but also to work alongside God to raise up followers of Jesus who reproduce their faith–like Paul, with a Timothy.
Paul was all-in for making disciples who make disciples. (Along these critical lines, don’t miss Indigenous Movements: How To Reach Entire People Groups.)
So this means…what for me right now?
Let’s bring that back to 2023, shall we?
The oldest members of Generation Z (b. 1996-2010) are now graduating from college and beginning their careers. And as they do, the Church at large and missions organizations are facing new dynamics in mobilizing young adults with characteristics and perspectives sometimes wildly different from older Millennials.
Gen Z’s grown up in a post-Christian context, possessing significantly different values and ministry views than older generations.
Yep, there are challenges. But yep, there are also significant opportunities.
GEN Z MISSIONS Opportunity #1: Increased Commitment
As young people navigate a post-Christian world, they do not adhere to Christianity by default, just because others around them are Christians, as perhaps occurred in previous generations.
Gen Zers like Juan who follow God are making intentional, and often difficult, choices to do just that–often at the expense of their own social cred (or battling internally to do so, despite their fears).
And this level of commitment has made their faith tenacious.
Barna reports in the Future of Missions that “when it comes to men, as the cultural influence of Christianity diminishes, those who continue in pursuit of Christ—perhaps especially those who are male—tend to mean it.”1
Despite the trend we are seeing in many leaving the church, Kinnaman and Matlock report that “there is a countercultural 10% of young Christians whose faith is vibrant and robust.”2
In my book, Daniel Generation: Godly Leadership in an Ungodly Culture, I refer to this group of young people as the remnant, similar to Daniel and his friends, that God is using powerfully in uncertain times.3
We have an incredible opportunity to engage, encourage, and equip these resilient young believers whom God is raising up in and for this moment in history.
GEN Z MISSIONS Opportunity #2: Honest Conversation
Younger generations right now relentlessly ask “why?”
Deconstruction and questioning of culture, history, identity, and ideas have marked their culture. So they’re conditioned to want to seek the “why” behind activities and perspectives.
Many in Gen Z are struggling to understand the role of the church and missions in history. They’re keen to identify where mistakes have been made and what we can learn as we go forward.
This creates a vital opportunity to engage them in honest conversation as we learn together from the past and consider its implications for present and future.
These conversations with Gen Z about missions and the Church require humility. Reflection. Courage.
Gen Z hands us opportunities to learn about better, wiser, more loving, missions, but also a chance for young leaders to see godly leadership modeled by experienced leaders as we engage in these discussions rather than writing them off or forcing conformity. (Catch our series on Missions Trends to Help You Work Smarter.)
Shameless plug: In my new book, Mobilizing Gen Z, I explore coaching strategies to facilitate these conversations.4
GEN Z MISSIONS Opportunity #3: Innovative Collaboration
Technology connects Gen Z to the world in unprecedented ways. Zers have also been taught to value others and their perspectives.
So what do you get when you pop these two in a blender? Young people open to new ideas and collaboration.
God has well-positioned Gen Z to engage in the global age of missions as he raises up global workers around the world. I believe God has uniquely equipped them for the emerging season in missions. Rather than disparage Generation Z, we can affirm these characteristics of innovation, connectedness, and collaboration as we seek to engage them in ministry.
Baffled as a lot of us as we navigate a post-Christian, post-missions context, fear not: God is birthing fresh insights, ideas, and passion. Let’s actively, courageously engage young leaders in discerning God’s path for them and His heart for global missions.
- The Future of Missions: 10 Questions about Global Ministry the Church Must Answer with the next Generation. (Ventura, CA: Barna Group, 2020), 80.
- David Kinnaman, Mark Matlock, and Aly Hawkins. Faith for Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2019), 32.
- Jolene Cassellius Erlacher. Daniel Generation: Godly Leadership in an Ungodly Culture (Southern Pines, NC: Vigil Press, 2018).
- Jolene Erlacher, and Katy White. Mobilzing Gen Z: Challenges and Opportunities for the Global Age of Missions (William Carey Publishing, 2022).
Dr. Jolene Erlacher grew up as a missionary kid. She has spent the past decade studying generational trends in ministry contexts. An author, speaker, and coach, Jolene works extensively with churches, mission agencies, schools, and other organizations on engaging the next generation. She also teaches graduate courses at North Central University and Bethany Global University. Jolene’s latest book, Mobilizing Gen Z, was released in 2022. For more information on Jolene’s books, speaking, podcast or blog, visit www.leadingtomorrow.org