In a previous post, I discussed the need to engage young people where theology and community intersect, namely their worldviews. In next three posts, I would like to address generational, spiritual, and practical considerations for doing so.
How is the youngest generation among us different from preceding generations?
The generational composition of the U.S. population has changed dynamically in the past twenty years. The two youngest generations have grown to make up nearly half of the population, the ubiquitous Millennials and the newly-named Generation Z. Up until recently, the lowest age brackets have been grouped together as Millennials. However, it has become clear that these two generations are distinct in many ways.
Millennials came of age before or during 9/11 and the War on Terror, while Generation Z only know a post 9/11 world. Millennials remember a time before smartphones, while Gen Z learned how to operate a touchscreen before they learned how to walk. Millennials make up the majority of the U.S. labor force, while most of Gen Z have yet to enter it. As Alex Williams wrote for the New York Times, “…it is also clear that a 14-year-old in 2015 really does inhabit a substantially different world than one of 2005.” The term “Generation Z” is meant to imply that this is the last substantial difference two generations will see, being as how the world moves faster than it ever has before.
Most of the disheartening statistics church leaders have observed in recent years have largely revolved around Millennials. However, we would do well to recognize the unique character of Generation Z. To reach the generation at hand, we must note the realities they face.
Reality #1: The abundance of information without the direction of wisdom.
Gen Z has never known a world without Wi-Fi. Most have only known a world in which the closest internet connection was in their pocket. Rather than having to research and remember, they can look up any information at any time. That can be a wonderful reality or a terrifying one, depending on which direction the mind wonders—or rather, where the web browser wonders. They are constantly one touch away from the answer to any who, what, where, when, or how. Yet, the one answer that Gen-Zers rarely find is the why attached to all their questions.
As skewed as his worldview is, E.O. Wilson got it right when he wrote, “We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom.” The funny thing is, he wrote that about a decade before the first iPhone was released. He had no idea how right he would be.
The problem, of course, is not that information is so readily available. It is that there is precious little wisdom, the skill of discernment, the ability of insight to help them distinguish the moral, emotional, and theological connections between cold, hard facts. The problem is that Generation Z is growing up without the ability to connect pieces of truth in order to discern reality. Instead, they take portions of reality in order to “live their truth.”
Reality #2: The availability of education without the difficulties of maturity.
The deluge of information in which Generation Z has grown up has given them the opportunity to know more about their world at an earlier age than perhaps any previous generation. The information that previous generations fought to discover, and which sequential generations struggled to learn, Generation Z can access in four-tenths of a second. However, knowledge is only half of one’s education; the other half is wisdom by way of maturity.
In a section that is worth the price of the book, Sen. Ben Sasse sheds light on this:
What separated childhood from adulthood previously was a secret or guarded knowledge about full adult reality that was understandable only by literacy. Adults knew much that children did not – things about sex and money and violence and death…. If you wanted to know what those hidden secrets were, you had to be able to navigate books. Learning how to read – an act of a budding adult – was a prerequisite to acquiring the new knowledge….
The problem, of course, is not that education is so readily available. It is that a young person should have to learn a lot of this information only when there is a certain amount of maturity to match. Without such maturity, they are left unable to handle the harshness of life. The problem is that Generation Z knows about life long before they are mature enough to handle it.
Reality #3: The opportunity of companionship without the demands of friendship.
Facebook is perhaps most responsible for the 21st-century redefinition of the word “friend.” Currently, a friend can be an acquaintance of an acquaintance of an acquaintance, or someone who “likes” (another redefinition) the same stuff you like. Communication comes by way of PMs and DMs. Emotional support comes by way of double taps and streaks. (For definitions of these and other terms, see the teenager nearest you.)
People are messy, and relationships are difficult. They know that. But, Generation Z has always been able to manage the messiness and steer clear of the difficulty by way of social media. This has resulted in a generation that sees friendship as a status and not as a relationship. They see love as something you can be good or bad at, not as something you commit to. They have a thousand “friends” and very few friends at the same time.
The problem, of course, is not that communication capabilities are so advanced. It is that the connection is so easy that it vastly understates the potential value of a true friend. Generation Z is the best at making connections and yet struggles to build meaningful relationships. The problem is that you cannot make it through life without a friend who has invested more than an “accept” to the relationship.
Reality #4: The distraction of amusement without the depth of thoughtfulness.
That America is an entertainment-driven culture is both common knowledge and an understatement. However, entertainment has been largely taken over by amusement. What is the difference? The word entertainment comes from a Latin word, meaning “to keep up, maintain, to keep (someone) in a certain frame of mind.” The word amusement, on the other hand, begins with the word muse, “to think.” Add the prefix “a-“ (as in “a-theist,” “a-symptomatic,” and “a-symmetrical”) and you have a “diversion of attention.” Our culture is saturated with amusement, diverting our attention away from a bigger, more meaningful life.
I often play a game with my students. It goes by many names, but my personal favorite is “Mr. Satterfield Ruins Everything.” They give me a song, TV show, movie, etc., and I find the worldview implications—which are usually pretty terrible. Whether it is the class warfare in A Bugs Life or the pantheism in Avatar, the typical reaction is, “Who is really thinking about that?” My response and the point of the game is, “Who is really thinking?”
The problem, of course, is not that we have much to entertain us. It is that there is much to deter us from thinking while being entertained. It is more distraction than reflection, more amusement than substance. The problem is that Generation Z largely lacks the ability to discern worldview influences and implications in what entertains them.
Reality #5: The expression of individualism without the details of substance.
The gospel that is being incessantly preached to Generation Z is that of expressive individualism. It is the message that the only life worth living is the one they find by themselves, looking inside themselves, deciding who they want to be, and avowing their self-proclaimed identity over against any competing suggestions. The only reality that matters is the one they determine for themselves.
Expressive individualism is the subtext of virtually every book, TV show, and movie made in the past two decades. Nemo does what he wants, and dad apologizes in the end. The same goes for Moana. Elsa proudly declares, “No right, no wrong, no rules for me. I’m free!” As popular as dystopian fiction has become among teenagers, the theme is tiresome: an oppressive regime tries to dictate how everyone lives, so the heroine has enough and breaks the mold. Even in children’s books, we can observe the emphasis on internal happiness rather than external values. (See? Mr. Satterfield ruins everything.)
The problem, of course, is not that individualism is expressed. It is that individualism is idolized. Self-discovery takes the place of objective morality and parental authority. Under a guise of liberation, our young people are told to throw off the confines of tradition, when in reality they are simply trading one demand to conform for another. The problem is that culture imposes an identity that has very little authentic substance. Moreover, when a young person fails to find that identity, or the identity fails to deliver on its promise of fulfillment, the aftermath is devastating.
But Wait, There’s Hope!
So, here’s the thing…
As different as the world is in which Generation Z is coming of age, this generation is not without hope. In a world where information is rarely discerned past the first page of Google results, wisdom shines brightly. In a world where life is known so early, maturity to match is a rare commodity. In a world that makes companionship one click away, true friendship is all the more meaningful. In a world where amusement numbs the realness of life, thoughtfulness allows us to feel the fullness of it. In a world where one is expected to determine one’s own identity, there is an unspoken longing for objective reality.
There is a reality behind the realities Generation Z experiences, and that greater reality makes the future seem less bleak.
The greater reality is that the ultimate problem has not changed. There certainly are aspects of our culture that magnify the fallenness of humanity in ways not seen before. But, just because the symptoms change or worsen, that does not mean we are dealing with a different disease. The sinfulness of Generation Z is the same sinfulness of their parents and grandparents. They are merely dealing with different symptoms of the same problem.
The greater reality is that the ultimate solution has not changed. The gospel is still the power of God unto salvation. All truth is still God’s truth, and we have been made in God’s image to know his truth. What is more, we have been made in his image to know him.
The reality is that this life is a mere echo of things to come. This life is meant for something that this life does not contain. Generation Z is more evidence of the reality that God has made us for himself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in him.
For further discussion on these spiritual considerations, tune in next time.
 Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE), The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance (New York: St. Martin’s, 2017), 51.