Generation Z has taken over college campuses across the country. While social psychologists and authors write books analyzing this generation, college and campus ministries have been on the front lines, seeking to contextualize the gospel to this fresh generation of college students.
As a college pastor myself, I’ve thought a lot about effective discipleship for Generation Z. I believe the following six points are of increasing importance for the current generation of college students.
1. Radical Individuality
We have more options than ever to find the ideal worship service. Whether through online sermons, podcasts, or apps, choosing the right “church” is only a swipe away. In the context of Christian communities on campuses, the crushing burden of individuality and declining in-person interaction due to a spike in smartphone usage has resulted in unrealistic expectations for socializing (as well as rising rates of depression and anxiety).
Students seeking raw, authentic friendships often find Christian settings wanting, especially when vulnerability is covered by a thin veneer of Christian niceness. On the other hand, radical individuality also raises unrealistic expectations for having personal needs met, pet sins untouched, and the “service” to be on par with one’s favorite restaurant or local gym—leaving little room for “dry” seasons and mistakes by other community members. Strangely enough, I’ve seen this more often with students who grew up in the church than with new believers.
Radical individuality raises unrealistic expectations for having personal needs met, pet sins untouched, and church services to be on par with one’s favorite restaurants or local gym.
2. Unbridled Speech
I’ve lost count of the number of college students I’ve personally known who stopped coming to campus ministries and churches because of gossipy Christians, an increasingly growing problem in an age where unfiltered, dehumanizing speech via social media has become normal. This commonly plays out as either character assassination of peers or discrediting leaders, ministries, or churches through complaining to other students instead of having the courage to talk to their leaders directly (1 Tim. 5:1). Unfortunately, with ongoing revelations of misconduct by Roman Catholic priests and high-profile pastors, some of their distrust of church leaders is justified.
However, we often forget that after sexual immorality and the teaching of false doctrine, few sins are as strongly and explicitly condemned in Scripture as gossip, slander, unbridled criticism, and sowing division among believers (Prov. 6:16–19, 19:5; Ps. 101:5–7; Jas. 1:26). In addition to condemning those who spread strife and division, Scripture also chastises those who entertain or give audience to lies, gossip, slander, or divisive speech (Prov. 16:28; 17:4).
3. Hyper-Sexualized Culture
Whether due to our hyper-sexualized culture, new attitudes toward sex and gender, the solidarity and courage inspired by the #MeToo movement, or a combination of all three, I’ve observed (and heard from other leaders) a disturbing increase in the number of sexual assault crimes committed against female college students in recent years. Further, if Gen Xers introduced online pornography to the world and Millennials normalized it, Gen Zers are the true generational victims of pornography.
If Gen Xers introduced online pornography to the world and Millennials normalized it, Gen Zers are its true generational victims.
Rarely do I meet college students whose addiction to pornography began after middle school (many start in elementary school), and rarely do I meet students who haven’t at least entertained the thought of engaging in hookup culture. In my context there are also many female students just as addicted to pornography as male students are. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, to see this generation’s confusion over sexual ethics.
1. Pursue Church Membership
It all starts here for healthy college-aged Christians. Spiritual formation and maturity is best demonstrated by service to a local church and submission to godly elders (Heb. 13:17). I cringe when I think about all the times I disregarded the wisdom of older folks in my life as a college student—only to realize as an adult that they were right all along. Save yourself the heartache of learning from mistakes and pursue mentorship from older folks in your church. As Proverbs 13:20 says, “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.”
2. Pursue Missional Friendships
Pursuing missional friendships means pursuing authentic Christian friendships with those who won’t only tell you what you want to hear but also what you need to hear, even when it hurts to hear it (Prov. 27:6). Pursuing missional friendships also means pursuing non-Christian friendships and sharing the gospel with these friends, praying that through the friendship and stories you share they might come to embrace Jesus. The college years are a deeply formative time of openness for young people. Seize this season to share the gospel through your own stories of God’s faithfulness, through Christ, in your life. Don’t waste your college life by hanging out only with Christian friends.
Don’t waste your college life by hanging out only with Christian friends.
3. Pursue Biblical Justice
My experience working with this generation has given me great hope for continued gospel-oriented conversations about certain social justice issues. Gen Z has a heart for justice, but they don’t always know how to connect it to faith or draw on the wealth of biblical texts about justice. There is a real opportunity to help disciple Gen Z in understanding and pursuing biblical justice.
I’m also encouraged by the willingness of these students to work with people of all faiths and backgrounds to pursue justice and the common good—what Francis Schaeffer called “co-belligerence” against common social ills. Discipling Gen Z in this will entail cautions against relativism (“all faiths are the same”) but also opportunities for winsome dialogue and apologetics, helping students articulate how a Christian worldview offers the best basis for pursuing justice, the best solutions for addressing injustice, and the ultimate hope of the gospel.