By Jacob Stewart
We have seen the data. We have heard the news. We get it. Gen Z is the worst.
At least that is what I am accustomed to hearing. Generation Z (comprised of people born from 1997 to 2012) may go down in history as the most analyzed, picked on, studied, and bashed generation in the world . . . right next to Millennials (those born 1981–96). Have you seen the memes? It’s brutal out there.
As a youth pastor for 10 years, I have worked closely with Gen Z. I agree with my current high school ministry student leadership team: the discourse on their generation has been overwhelming and depressing.
Data is hard to deny though. They are the most connected generation ever, but also the loneliest. Nearly half of Christian teens say they never read the Bible. Nearly half of teens believe all religions teach equally valid truths. On average, they spend 7 hours and 35 minutes online every day. More than half (55 percent) of U.S. teens believe marriage should not be exclusively between a man and a woman. I could go on.
I’ve seen churches all over the world say they are “all about” the next generation and long to see them repent and experience revival like what occurred at Asbury University earlier this year. And yet, these same churches are confused and frustrated about why their church is not growing and reaching young people. Church leaders want Gen Zers to know Jesus. Yet, I’ve seen them cast heaps of judgment upon the next generation . . . and a profound lack of hope.
In my opinion, however, this generation is the most open of any in our churches to experiencing the Holy Spirit and bringing about revival. Have we not learned from the failures of the Israelites that it takes intentionality to pass on faith and leadership to the next generation?
If we want to see revival like some are experiencing, we should ask ourselves, What am I doing to champion the next generation in a meaningful way in my church or organization?
At Northeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, our youth are giving us hope. The church leaders and the adult youth leaders are not doing anything profound or innovative, per se. We desperately want our students to experience Jesus’ grace and to learn how to be made new day by day and to become more like Jesus in their homes, schools, sports teams, and our city.
We are trying to envision a new way of youth ministry and to engage the next generation in profound ways within our church. This requires patience, trust, and humility because we think the old way of youth ministry is gone. The days of one big event after another, week after week, isn’t working anymore.
Youth ministry can’t ignore the culture. The targets at which we constantly aim include these:
A Web of Meaningful Relationships
If you want the next generation within your church to be thriving and active, they desperately need people who know them, love them, and are interested in them standing and serving alongside loving parents.
The next generation in our church doesn’t want to be siloed off. Instead, they want to be known by their friends, pastor, and leaders.
This next generation is lonely and unconnected, but our lead pastor and elders are devoted to changing that by disproportionally investing in the youth of the church . . . and not just through the budgeting process. The church’s leaders are sharing stories about the youth ministry and inviting the youth ministry team to “take over” specific Sundays and have students lead worship and teach. They allow our students to serve not just on Wednesday nights but also on Sunday mornings, and they have created a large spot in our Sunday-morning “adult” worship service for our high schoolers to gather and worship together as a part of our church.
We now structure our youth ministry around conversations instead of content. I’ll never forget my summer 2022 student leaders proposing their idea for a “HOT” summer. After I experienced a few anxious moments—I thought this might be heading in the wrong direction—one leader shared how they wanted our youth ministry to be “honest, open, and transparent.”
This student-leader-generated idea was preached to their peers that summer and became our theme for the entire year. This past May, we wrapped up the conversation of biblical community and learning how to be honest, open, and transparent with those around us. Empowering students to lead and drive conversation has been a game changer. (Of course, we still provide oversight and direction.)
This generation wants to be heard, so we work hard to equip our leaders to foster small groups of students to engage in honest and transparent ways with their leaders and peers. To build transparency and honesty, we tell them that hard questions are OK. We teach these student leaders how to navigate Scripture well so they can pass it on to their peers.
A Culture of Biblical Literacy
We see the mission as being like when Ezra and Nehemiah made a deep commitment to God’s Word and prayer when they returned from exile. We want this generation to know and love God’s Word. This is why I am preaching shorter messages. I want them to wrestle with the Scriptures and not just receive all the answers. We want to ask better questions that get to the heart of what God desires for them rather than serving them answers on a platter and making it easy for them.
To that end, instead of always doing “topical” sermon series, we are leaning into large book studies. This past January through April, our high school students studied the book of Acts. Yeah, that’s right. Four months, one book of the Bible, a few chapters a week. The transformation we have seen through having honest and open dialogue about our faith, the early church, and the challenges we see in our own community has enabled students to see that their church can be the greatest source of community.
Sure, I sometimes hear moans and groans as we tackle large portions of Scripture and assign weekly reading, but it’s worth it to see students engaging with the Bible and learning how to follow Jesus’ ways, together, as a youth ministry.
A Capability to Exegete Culture
For students to understand why they should not adopt some of today’s popular cultural beliefs, we must be patient and listen to their claims, while simultaneously presenting what the Bible teaches. This requires time, thought, and the skill set to exegete culture yourself in a meaningful way. You cannot just look at a cultural issue and say, “That’s bad! Don’t believe it!” This generation is looking for robust answers because, well, they probably have done their research (even if their research was inadequate and misguided).
We try to be thoughtful, create environments where students can share their thoughts and opinions freely, and teach them how to assess their culture in a meaningful way. Our church is passionate about helping not just the students but every person to better understand the world and how Jesus is redeeming it, and to more adequately engage with others who think or believe differently.
The next generation is open to discussion of thought and belief—they are eager to learn—but are you open to being challenged by someone younger than you?
Actual Experiences of the Holy Spirit
We want this generation to truly experience the Lord and his presence. We can easily stir up emotions among students and adults. Students typically are emotional, and sometimes they can confuse the hype of a service with the presence of the Holy Spirit. Whether our service, or any service, was Spirit-led will be proven by the fruit. Still, we want to try our best to teach students how the Holy Spirit is with them and working in them at all times . . . and not just on a Wednesday night or Sunday morning. Our worship team does an incredible job of creating moments to lean into what God is speaking to us in times of worship.
For us, this includes creating opportunities for not just worship but prayer. On some Sundays, Northeast’s leadership team plans services that focus more heavily on worship and prayer than preaching. On one recent Sunday, our lead pastor invited people to come forward just to pray and worship, and it was incredible to see not just the adults come forward, but also our students.
The next generation led the way; they stood up first to raise their hands in worship, to walk forward and kneel on carpets and pillows and surrender whatever was on their hearts to God. Even better, when they see a friend go forward, they go with them. They sit with them, talk with them, and pray with them. They do not care that hundreds of people are looking at them or concerned with who might be in the room to see them; they come forward anyway and show our church their obedience to the moving of the Holy Spirit.
We do our best to create space for them both in our youth ministry and on Sunday mornings so they can be silent before God, receive prayer and encouragement from leaders and others, and have a genuine response to whatever and wherever God may be leading them. We are nurturing a generation to not just be swept up in the emotion of a service but, instead, to obey the Holy Spirit in their everyday lives.
A Generation to Be Loved and Empowered
The next generation is teaching and leading the way in our church in so many ways.
We do not have it all figured out, and students are still struggling daily. Some haven’t yet made a commitment to Jesus. But we keep speaking life and hope over them, and they’re beginning to see that life with Jesus is better than anything else that is being offered. Life with Jesus makes the most sense when we talk about it with them over weeks, months, and sometimes years.
They need us to point to the hope Jesus offers and to see the hope that is in their life. Will you join us in raising up a generation like this?
Jacob Stewart serves as youth 9-12 pastor at Northeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky.