In my late teens and early 20s, I belonged to a rural church not far from a college town. In the summer, the congregation would contract, closing off its overflow room and sitting closer to the front on Sunday mornings. But as fall approached, the deacons would pull out every available chair and psalter, anticipating the return of the students.
As a student, I loved that first Sunday of the school year. I’d walk into the building with dozens of my classmates and seemingly every church member would be ready with a smile or a hug. “We’re so glad you’re back!” they’d tell us. “The singing is better when you guys are here,” they’d say after worship. “We need your help,” they’d hint with a wink, ministry sign-up sheet in hand. “The college students are here!” the children would gleefully shout to each other across the fellowship hall.
Over the past few months, I had the privilege of reading the submissions to TGC’s 2022 Essay Contest for Young Adults. Nearly 200 young writers submitted original essays, and the editorial team reviewed them. These writers’ testimonies of wrestling with faith and resting on the gospel encouraged our hearts. Their eagerness to be useful in Christ’s kingdom and their love for Christ’s church brought tears to our eyes. Their writing sang loudly of trusting God’s goodness at a time when Gen Z is characterized as being spiritually apathetic.
The students are here, and we are thankful.
The essays TGC received came from 195 young writers:
- They ranged in age from 16 to 22 (the youngest contestant turned 16 three weeks ago). A third of the writers were teenagers.
- Two-thirds of the writers were female.
- The writers were each a member of a local church—Presbyterians, Baptists, and Anglicans predominated, with many nondenominational churches also represented.
- They submitted their essays from all over the U.S. and from other countries including Canada, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
The writers set their essays in the context of their unique life experiences—eating disorders, chronic illness, abuse, church hurt, family conflict, adoption, sexual sin—as well as the common concerns of this generation. In the space of 800–1,000 words, each of them demonstrated a sincere desire to follow Christ in the place where God has set them. It was an honor to read their words.
In TGC’s contest guidelines, we gave several options for essay topics, and the students engaged a broad range of issues. Many chose to explain “Why the Gospel Is Essential for My Generation,” reflecting on the ways Christ changes everything about how to be a student, a family member, an athlete, or a creator. In these essays, the writers frequently drew on Great Commission themes, expressing their desire that the people they interact with would come to know and trust in Christ alone for their salvation.
Other students selected a particular theological doctrine and described how they had to wrestle with the truth of that doctrine and come to accept it as right—and good. The reality of hell, the exclusivity of Christ, penal substitutionary atonement, and the divine creation of the universe were the doctrines these young writers professed most often.
Additionally, many writers chose to defend a biblical view of contemporary issues: the pro-life stance, reserving sex for marriage, marriage between one man and one woman, and male eldership in the church were each frequently chosen topics. These may not be the prevailing positions of our day, but a significant number of godly young men and women are thinking deeply about these issues and coming to biblical convictions.
For those wondering how we can spiritually engage Gen Z, the biggest takeaway may be surprisingly simple: go to church and say hi to a teenager.
But the most selected topic by far was the prompt “Why I Love My Local Church.” In a time when church attendance among Gen Z is waning, nearly one-third of contest entrants chose to describe the beauty of the congregations where they worship every Sunday. And the overwhelming majority of those essays focused not on polished programs or splashy events but on ordinary people in ordinary churches who show up each Sunday, love Christ sincerely, greet young people by name, and take an interest in their lives.
For those of us reading the essays (TGC will be publishing many of them over the coming months) and wondering how we can spiritually engage Gen Z, the biggest takeaway may be surprisingly simple: go to church and say hi to a teenager.
Among the essays, three pieces stood out as well-crafted, thoughtful, and engaging. Our editorial team was clear about which winners to select, and we’re delighted to publish them on the site for you to read.
First Place: “Advice from a College Student: Go to Church” by Luke Engstrom
Luke’s essay impressed the editorial team with its excellent writing and clear-eyed love for Christ’s church. He writes, “The greatest blessing [my parents] gave me? . . . Bringing me Sunday after Sunday, morning and evening, to the same church for 18 years.” Whether you’re a member of Gen Z or generations older, Luke’s essay will warm your heart toward God’s people.
Second Place: “I’m a Gen Zer, and I Believe the Bible Is Inerrant” by Ashley Kim
A struggle with an eating disorder forced writer Ashley Kim to reckon with whether or not the Bible’s uncomfortable directives were true. “I didn’t doubt the inerrancy of the Bible, but I mourned it,” she writes. Many of us likewise wish the Bible wasn’t quite so true, but, as Ashley ultimately concludes, resting on the truth of God’s Word is the believer’s joy and peace.
Third Place: “‘But God’: Hope and Certainty for My Disillusioned Generation” by Sara Gonzalez
Sara’s essay opens in her Downtown Los Angeles classroom where her professor tells the class, “The world is falling apart but you are going to fix it.” Weighed down by society’s expectations for Gen Z, the young people Sara knows are close to despair. They know they can’t fix the world, but they don’t yet know who can. “It’s the hope of the gospel,” Sara writes, “that allows students to navigate an unfixable world not with uncertainty but with confidence in God’s promises.”
Take a minute today to read these essays and then join the psalmist in giving praise to God: “You, O LORD, are enthroned forever; you are remembered throughout all generations” (Ps. 102:12).