As I think about the struggles of today’s students, I keep returning to a story from Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus asks his disciples a question, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Matt. 16:13). They answer by recounting the many stories they’ve heard: “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (v. 14). Then, without addressing what others have said, Jesus follows his question with another: “But who do you say that I am?” (v. 15).
What strikes me about this moment is the oddity of the first question. Why did Jesus ask his disciples to rehearse false reports instead of simply declaring what’s true?
Jesus intentionally helped his disciples first identify cultural assumptions. He wanted them to see the gospel in contrast with the stories they’d heard. In my years of discipling teenage girls, I’ve learned the necessity of following his example. Youth need to understand the stories their generation is telling them so they can see Christ’s greater beauty.
Youth Ministry in the Space Between
Most student ministers have just begun to grasp the distinct nuances and traits of Gen Z. It’s taken me years to learn their vernacular, understand the lens of their worldview, and grapple with their ever-changing technological needs. Yet like every prior generation, Gen Z has now begun their departure into adulthood.
The elder Gen Zers are now in their mid-20s, and Gen Alpha, the leading edge of which was born in 2010–12, is knocking on the door of middle school. This fall, the first of a new generation will roam the halls of our student ministries as sixth graders. This means youth ministry leaders are entering the beautiful and uniquely liminal space between generations that only comes every 15 to 20 years.
Youth ministry leaders are entering the beautiful and uniquely liminal space between generations that only comes every 15 to 20 years.
As we consider discipleship in the space between generations, it’s important to ask what cultural themes are forming these two groups. There will be many distinctions, but here are three cultural narratives shared by both Gen Z and Alpha youth.
In 2017, James Emery White gave Gen Z the moniker of America’s first truly post-Christian generation, one raised “without even a memory of the gospel.” Youth ministers could once assume base-level biblical knowledge among students, but no more. Even for youth raised in culturally churched areas, biblical literacy is at the lowest point in American history.
Recently I walked with a student and we passed a church sign. It read “Jesus died on the cross for your sins.” The young girl responded, “Well, that’s sad and morbid.” After asking more questions, I quickly saw this short statement carried multiple cultural assumptions. When youth hear about Jesus’s death without context, it sounds confusing at best and depressing at worst.
To find beauty and hope in the gospel, youth need to know that they’re sinners, death is sin’s penalty, and Jesus lived a sinless life as no other human could. Only then is Jesus paying the penalty for sin good news! For post-Christian generations, biblical knowledge can’t be assumed, so pre-evangelism and discipleship are more important than ever.
2. Digitally Native
Millennials were digital pioneers. Gen Z and Alpha are digital natives. They’ve never known a world without readily available technology. Today’s youth spend, on average, nine hours per day in front of screens. That’s 63 hours—almost three full days—per week. As a result, a 16-year-old girl in a Missouri youth ministry likely has more in common culturally with a boy of the same age in Manhattan than with a 60-year-old in her own church.
The digital world students inhabit can be completely compartmentalized from their physical world. Youth leaders may have no reference to the cultural stories told to youth through social media and video games. So it’s easy for students to believe these worlds have nothing to do with one another.
This means youth workers must learn the skill of theological integration. We should frame our illustrations and teaching contextually—in light of cultural artifacts and themes (see Mark 4:1–20; Luke 18:9–14; 1 Cor. 15:33; Acts 17:24–29). And following Christ’s question-asking model, we must help students understand and break down the cultural stories they hear.
3. Bad at Waiting
Gen Z and Alpha youth have grown up defined by, and desperate for, instant gratification. From self-checkouts to virtual waiting lists for restaurants, our culture has gone to great lengths to put waiting to death. We don’t even have to wait for news anymore. The idea of cultivating wisdom through seeking, studying, and sages is a thing of the past. Just ask Google.
The Bible tells a different story about waiting. Hope deferred is a divinely designed crucible for God’s people, necessary for our discipleship. How do we invite a DoorDash generation into a story that calls them to keep watch for Christ’s return?
How do we invite a DoorDash generation into a story that calls them to keep watch for Christ’s return? We must teach them to live in already-not-yet realities.
We must teach them to live in already-not-yet realities. Gen Z and Alpha students need us to boast not only of the victory to come but also of the promises beautifully fulfilled in Christ and his church. We need to weep with them over injustice while teaching them how the Spirit brings comfort in sorrow and that Christ will one day make all things new.
The tides of culture will ebb and flow, but the gospel never will. Because we carry Christ’s message of hope and salvation, we can boldly enter the waters of culture with students. We can unabashedly ask what the world says because we know its stories cannot stand in the face of Peter’s confession about Jesus: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”