Looking over the landscape of Gen Z, whose leading edge includes men and women now turning 25, we find reasons to celebrate. There’s a zeal among many young believers to make a difference in the world, to find and cultivate community, to share the gospel, and to pursue justice and show mercy. In every generation, strengths and weaknesses show up, and we do well to consider both the opportunities and the challenges of being faithful in our time.

Not long ago, I sat down with a professor I’ve long admired, a man who has trained future pastors and church leaders for decades. Curious to get his take on culture shifts and the next generation, I asked him how an incoming class of 20-somethings today differed from 15 or 20 years ago.

What’s the difference between older millennials preparing for ministry (my generation) and Gen Z? I asked him. He paused for a moment and then offered three general impressions. Pornography, gender confusion, and the weight given to one’s opinion. Those were three differences that stood out, and as our conversation continued, I felt a heavier burden to commit to pray for the next generation of church leaders.

Devastation of Pornography

Porn is the biggest difference, and it’s not even close, the professor told me. At first, I was taken aback. It was already a big problem when I was a student, I thought. But then he clarified: it’s not that pornography has just now become a problem, but that we’re dealing with a generation of young people who, in many cases, were exposed to pornography as children. Adolescent minds have been formed (or deformed) by consistent access to pornography available on the phone. Most students, he told me, have some sort of baggage related to pornography, or are fighting the addictive impulse of this habitual sin, or are dealing with the fallout from the mind-warping aspects of viewing so much sexual distortion.

Our society and (too often) our churches have failed to grapple with the long-term ramifications of this kind of porn use. Pop stars like Billie Eilish say viewing porn as a child “destroyed [her] brain.Time featured a cover story on men whose porn use has wrecked their relationships. Even many in the secular world understand we’re dealing with a serious issue. The impact on future church leaders is significant.

Gender Confusion

One effect of pornography exposure at early ages—the online initiation into a variety of sexual experiences—is how it messes with one’s self-understanding and view of gender. When the professor mentioned gender confusion, he wasn’t talking about the decline of “masculinity” in terms of stereotypical machismo; he meant the loss of wonder and awe at God’s beautiful design of male and female difference, as well as the devastation wrought by pornography as to what seems “attractive” or “repulsive.”

Recent surveys show an increasing percentage of young people who identify as LGBT+, which indicates that the fluidity of sexual attraction has become a commonplace cultural phenomenon, surely influenced, at least in part, by the ubiquity of pornography. Other surveys show a loss of appetite for sexual encounters, to the point some writers worry now about a “sex recession,” also due in part to the prevalence of porn.

The effect on future church leaders is confusion over sexuality and gender, not about what the Bible teaches necessarily, but at a deeper level: a loss of a sense of manhood and womanhood—what it means to honor God in our maleness and femaleness in a day when gender distinctions are in some cases flattened and in other cases heightened.

Weight of Opinions

The third difference is one I attribute to the rise and influence of social media. Many young people today have grown up in an environment where broadcasting their opinions is expected. Any one person’s opinion carries as much weight or validity as another’s.

The classroom gets interesting when so many students enter the room already convinced their assumptions regarding theology, preaching, ministry practice, and the like are correct, chafing against the expectation they’d accept an expert’s authority, no matter how time-tested or experienced the person in authority might be. Yes, everyone is entitled to an opinion, but social media has distorted the weight we assign these viewpoints so that nearly everyone assumes their perspective is just as valid as someone else’s. This is a sign of the “death of expertise.”

Fifteen years ago, students would come into the room committed to the views of their favorite preacher or theologian, and class debates and discussions would take place by appealing to different authorities. Today, students are less likely to appeal to any outside authority at all, other than their own experience. That’s one of the effects of social media: everyone is a broadcaster, and the incentives for reason and persuasion are overcome by the incentives for attention-grabbing rhetoric, no matter how uneducated.

Praying for Gen Z Ministry

These three differences can be traced back, at least at some level, to the introduction of the iPhone. The phone made it easier than ever to access pornography. The phone’s cultural impact amplified the notion that one can create and change one’s persona, leading to a malleable or plastic vision of the self, a trend with ramifications related to gender and sexuality, yes, but also to a host of other issues. The phone gives us an exaggerated view of the worth and weight of our opinions.

Hearing from this professor, I’m committed to praying even more for the future pastors and church leaders coming up in the generation right behind us. Every generation faces challenges and opportunities, and the next one will be no exception. These ministry leaders will need us to encourage and celebrate what’s good in what they bring to the church and to share our wisdom and experience in avoiding potential pitfalls. Through it all, we pray we grow in faithfulness and conviction so we can serve a world in need of God’s truth, expressed in our words and embodied in our lives.

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