Step aside Millennials, Generation Z is officially now the youth of today. Born somewhere between 1997 and 2012, this generation resides in our homes, schools and churches, and are the first generation to wear the tags #post-Christian #digital natives.
Hold up. Generation Z?
This is generational theory language and if you’re a newbie to the idea, here’s a helpful take on the theory from futurist Dr. Graeme Codrington:
“A generation can be defined as people born during the same era in history, usually a 20-year span when global events and critical moments shape and form the value systems of the young people at the time. Across different countries and cultures, people of a similar age experience similar forces at play, and inherit similar worldviews.”
Now, you may not be sold on generational theory. It smacks a little of reductionism. However, it can serve as an initial framework for strategising on how to connect with young people. Just remember to add your personal dose of contextualisation at a later stage. So, let’s get to some of what they are all about.
Generation Z traits
Digital natives with a hybrid identity. In the same way a home, school or mall is a real place – for this generation, the online space is just as real. Telling someone something over a digital platform is as real (if not better) as in person. Tobias Faux explains:
“For digital natives, the internet and social media are natural parts of their everyday life and are deeply entwined with the management of their identity, their relationships and their information.”
In a bumper sticker…’I surf, therefore, I am.’
Authenticity is a high value. For a generation that grew up with the birth of ‘fake news’ and a global buffet of political and church leaders as dependable as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, empty promises and token diversity are as welcome to them, as parents at a social function. It…the invitation, the programme, the person, the group… can’t just look (marketing) real, it has to taste real.
Socially minded. Swedish sixteen-year-old climate activist, Greta Thunberg, who started skipping school last year to protest outside her parliament, typifies this trait with words like:
“Adults keep saying we owe it to the young people to give them hope… But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic…and act as if the house was on fire.”
All aboard! Gender is not a big deal for Generation Z, unless you try to define it through the traditional lens of male and female. The experiences and viewpoint of the character ‘A’ in David Levithan’s New York Times bestselling young adult novel ‘Someday’, a spirit personality who awakens each day in a different body, champions this generation’s cry of not wanting to be defined by gender.
Religion still matters. Even though Generation Z is the first truly post-Christian generation (church was not a Sunday or holiday habit and the stories of the bible aren’t known), the things of the Spirit still matter to them. What doesn’t matter so much is what religion you choose. In fact, if you are going to ‘be religious’, choose one that isn’t going to start a war or exclude anyone based on their race, gender or moral choices.
How should the church respond?
Well, we are all going to have to do the hard work on this one. No fixed formula hidden in the small print here. We need to be talking with one another. Listening for what we see working with this generation. But here are a few thoughts…mostly questions…really, to get us started.
Online missiology. In the same way your church plans a mission trip to a foreign country, maybe they should be planning a mission trip to the ‘online space’? The church can’t stick its head in the sand like an ostrich on this one. It has to learn to speak digital before this generation disconnects completely from the church. Even if the invitation is ‘to come outside and play’, we first need to launch into cyberspace to deliver the message. In the words of that mighty missionary Paul:
“I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”
Make the Good News bigger. This is not a theological statement but rather a statement about our theology. I suspect that God has always been in the business of redeeming all of creation but somehow, along the way, we managed to package salvation into an ‘only us humans’ thing and not about all those who entered the Arc two by two. The state of our planet is not an environmental or social issue, it is a Gospel issue.
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”
When the church leads on this, don’t be surprised if Generation Z starts to follow.
Sharpen the right weapon. For a generation that hungers for authenticity and relational dialogue, smart strategies and great programmes may fall a little short of the mark. Has there ever been a better way to communicate the Gospel than a life passionately given to the cause of Christ? In the words of John Wesley:
“Light yourself on fire with passion and people will come from miles to watch you burn.”
Is there any greater weapon of evangelism than a life transformed by the Holy Spirit?
“The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.”
Leave the church. Leave the buildings and the programmes and the office and get to know the youth in your community. Stop inviting them to your place and go and spend some time in their places. The church needs to rediscover that ‘all things’ don’t orbit around the church but the Son who…
“made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!”
Classrooms, sports fields, malls, homes and beaches should be the new ‘youth room’.
Remember where you are. We are not in America or Europe or Australia. We are in South Africa. This generation of young South African’s have their own unique experiences beyond the generalised traits of Generation Z. Ask yourself, what has happened in South Africa these past twenty years? What has this journey meant for the young people of our nation?