An earlier version of this article said that Teach for America had been banned from California schools. We regret the error.
Pastoring on a college campus less than 15 years removed from my own graduation gives me a front-row seat to the remarkable cultural changes underway among young people today. I attended a school quite like the one where I now serve as a campus minister for Reformed University Fellowship (RUF)—an elite private university attracting the champions of the meritocratic hamster wheel that is modern adolescence. Students are gifted, driven, and largely unacquainted with failure. The pressure to continue that success is immense, and the novel experience of being surrounded by similarly gifted peers is anxiety-inducing and identity-threatening. Suffice it to say, there is much need for the gospel of grace.
There are many other ways the 2020 college campus is a much different world. Despite frequently being lumped together with millennials, Gen Z is distinct in a number of important respects. And while discussions of generational differences often take the form of complaint, clear-eyed wisdom in such matters is crucial to faithful and fruitful ministry.
Millennials: Change the World
For me and my peers in the early 2000s, we understood ourselves as called and equipped to change the world. We had been raised on self-esteem, and now was the time to spread our wings. The world had big problems, but they were solvable, and we would be the generation to finally get it done. This was especially true for the chosen ones at America’s elite universities.
The spirit was everywhere. Teach for America created competition among the best and brightest to serve in low-income schools. Business schools promoted stakeholder capitalism. Christians increasingly saw their secular careers as kingdom callings. George W. Bush’s presidency gave conservative evangelical students open doors to power in Washington, while also energizing a new evangelical left. International Justice Mission exposed the evils of human trafficking and dispatched an army of suit-clad heroes with law degrees. And within Christian piety, the Passion movement typified a push toward “radical” Christian living among young people. Early millennials may have been entitled, but we were confident, energized, and excited to do good.
Ministry to me and my peers reflected both the needs and also opportunities of this zeitgeist. It is no coincidence that neo-Calvinism’s transformational view of Christ and culture found a large audience. Its vocabulary and vision for cultural renewal was a bridge to our world and gave us Christian foundations for our dreams. At the same time, pastors seemed to recognize a dangerous hubris to the spirit of our youth, which needed confronting—so we were often called to see our weakness and brokenness (sometimes they even used the word “sin”). And as we became adults and found that real jobs and young families were not quite so world-changing and radical as we once imagined, we needed to be discipled in the beauty of ordinary life and the simplicity of Christian spirituality under the means of grace. (Michael Horton’s 2014 book Ordinary, and Tish Warren’s 2018 book Liturgy of the Ordinary were helpful correctives here.)
Gen Z: Brave New World
For better or worse (and there is certainly some of both), this is no longer the world of college students. Today’s students are still concerned with big societal-level issues, but their attitude is decidedly less sanguine with respect to themselves and the world. Among the most common observations about Gen Z is an alleged fragility. They are said to lack grit and resilience, to be weak in the face of trial and unprepared for adulthood. Though a caricatured version of this critique can go too far, my own experience confirms there is something here. The dominant chorus of “you are strong” has been replaced with the subtle dirge of “you are weak.”
The dominant chorus of ‘you are strong’ has been replaced with the subtle dirge ‘you are weak.’
Identifying the causes and effects of this shift are complex. Some are developmental—a parenting philosophy that emphasizes safety has contributed to a lack of resilience in the face of real-world challenges. The rise of smartphones and social media has produced a bumper crop of bad fruit, including social challenges and an anxiety epidemic, which represent causes and/or symptoms of this generational fragility.
Added to these developmental issues is a striking shift in attitudes around therapeutic categories. My students today speak openly about their mental health—a term that until recently would have had primarily negative connotations. Many students seek professional therapy, and there is little remaining stigma around receiving a psychiatric diagnosis or taking medication. Indeed, finding the right therapist is often the hoped-for solution to a host of problems. This shift surely represents a great benefit for the effective delivery of mental-health services, but it comes with a potential side effect wherein some students see themselves as increasingly defined by their mental-health challenges (professionally diagnosed or not), ultimately leading to a more fragile view of self.
At the extreme, a call to strength can itself be seen as harmful to a person’s mental health. In the chaos of COVID-19 this past March, the school where I minister decided to make its winter quarter exams optional. One professor resisted this directive, instead emailing students to tell them, “You are strong. . . . [W]hen this pandemic is over, you need to be able to look back and say ‘I was strong.’ I am not going to make the final optional for your own good.” A day later, he was forced to relent and apologize for causing anxiety with his message. Mental health is sometimes used in this way—as something close to an excuse from trials and difficulty.
On top of all this, contemporary campus culture around matters of social justice can reflect and reinforce a sense of weakness. From freshman orientation on, students are taught to see the world through the lens of critical social theories that highlight the oppressive power structures at work throughout society, categorizing their various identities (i.e., race, gender, sexual orientation, age, socioeconomic status, and religion) as majority/agent/oppressor or minority/target/oppressed. The call to social justice is a call to reverse and remedy these structures.
Some students see themselves as increasingly defined by their mental-health challenges (professionally diagnosed or not), ultimately leading to a more fragile view of self.
Though there is good in this attention to justice, there are two noteworthy effects for the outlook of the modern student. First, the world and its institutions are seen as corrupt and dedicated to the maintenance of oppressive power structures. Change within the system is viewed with suspicion and doubt. And so an organization like Teach for America—once the most coveted post-college destination for optimistic world-changers—has seen a drop in applications and increased criticism, including pushes by some lawmakers to remove it from California schools. The idea that privileged (largely white) students with no teaching experience should be sent to low-income (largely minority) schools is viewed as increasingly problematic for a host of reasons.
Second, individual students come to see themselves either as participants in these oppressive systems or as the objects of oppression—and somewhat surprisingly, identifying as oppressed is typically preferred within the social dynamics of the modern campus. This is even embraced by some otherwise privileged evangelical students, who find a strange comfort in seeing themselves as aggrieved religious minorities. Whether oppressor or oppressed, an identity defined in such terms can easily lead not to empowerment but resignation.
These therapeutic and social-justice dynamics create and reflect what Edwin Friedman called an emphasis on pathology over strength. Where my peers and I saw ourselves as well-equipped meritocratic climbers who could rise and effect change within culture and its institutions, today’s students are more pessimistic—of both themselves and also the world around them. The hubris of my college generation has been replaced with a sense of resigned weakness.
Needed: Pastoral Theology of Strength
I’m not particularly interested in judging the relative merits of these two generations of college students—neither reflects the fullness of biblical truth. But as a pastor, I’m greatly concerned to shepherd this generation well, and recognizing this shift is essential. One critical area of need is the development of a pastoral theology of strength. For my generation, gospel strength (in the form of cultural transformation) was a bridge, and we needed to be confronted with our weakness. The opposite is true today. Weakness is now the bridge, and the necessary confrontation involves a nuanced vision of gospel strength. If I needed to hear “you are weak,” my students today increasingly need to hear “you can be strong.”
If millennials needed to hear ‘you are weak,’ my Gen Z students today increasingly need to hear ‘you can be strong.’
The biblical vision of strength and weakness provides rich material for such a message. The gospel brings us face to face with our weakness, but it doesn’t leave us there. Moses calls Joshua and the people of Israel to strength and courage (Deut. 31:6–8) while also reminding them of their weakness (Deut. 8:17–18). Fearful weakness and arrogant self-reliance were both errors—two sides of the same coin (Deut. 1). So too Paul can boast in his weakness (2 Cor. 11–12) and yet call Christians to strength (1 Cor. 16:13; 2 Tim. 1–2). This pattern is reflected in the doctrines of justification and sanctification—we are justified in complete weakness on the basis of God’s grace and Christ’s strength alone, and yet in sanctification we are “enabled more and more to die unto sin and live unto righteousness” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, 35).
A generation tending toward weakness needs to be discipled in this way of gospel strength—strength in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit as adopted children of the Most High God; strength that empowers not unto glory but unto patient suffering and self-dying love in the pattern of Christ. Developing and teaching on these themes is a pressing pastoral priority.
Challenges for the Modern Church
If the Bible provides the resources, I still worry that the evangelical and Reformed world suffers from a blind spot on this issue. We are sometimes better at saying, “you are weak” than “you can be strong.” We do well to learn from the modern world of therapy, and yet we may also be unduly influenced by the therapeutic culture that emphasizes secular pathology over biblical strength. As good Protestants we love and defend the doctrines of grace, which testify to the salvation of weak sinners by a mighty God, but we can be squeamish about speaking of the Christian’s strength and ability.
Many of us are also rightfully cautious about moralizing Old Testament stories of courage, such as David and Goliath. But if calls to strength and courage persist into the New Testament, then Christ’s fulfillment is not the end of the story, but rather the basis for a deeper and more confident strength. We are the cowering people of Israel and Christ is David, to be sure, but after David’s victory on their behalf, the frightened soldiers rise up in courage to pursue and defeat the Philistines.
We’re also wary of ripping “strength” verses out of context for inspirational purposes—a common temptation of evangelical pop culture. These verses are fodder for high-school football teams (I was once an offending party) and the reason so many Christian schools choose an eagle for their mascot (mounting up on wings and all). Related and more concerning, the rise of the prosperity gospel globally gives us pause in speaking of strength and power in the Christian life, because such concepts are so easily abused. But if these passages are often misapplied, that is no reason to abandon them—indeed, all the more reason for developing a faithful account.
To this task we must set ourselves. If we are to care pastorally for Gen Z and the world they reflect and influence, we must get over these hurdles and offer a better way—better than the fragile weakness of the college campus, better than the self-reliant American spirit that looks on in dismay, and better than the prosperity gospel that makes false promises. There is much to grieve in our fallen world, and Gen Z is not wrong to notice. But Christ’s gospel offers a strength powered by the Spirit and grounded in a true and abiding hope—not in the mess of things seen, but in the already-but-not-yet of things unseen and eternal.