June 11, 2018

By Craig Lovelace, Resonate Executive Director

At Resonate, we’ve always been about impacting the next generation. You can’t miss this part of who we are. We are unashamedly aimed at transforming the lives of college students and in turn sending college students to transform the world. But, while the average age of students doesn’t change, the culture from which students enter our universities is changing rapidly. When Resonate began in 2007 we were right in the middle of the Millennial Generation. I, myself, am a Millennial and while it seems all anyone wants to talk about these days are Millennials, it’s often a negative thing being said. Yes, we have our issues, but doesn’t every generation?

Most of the time, the term Millennial describes people born from the early 1980s through the mid to late 1990s. Very rarely do people include kids born in the 2000s. If that’s the case, even the youngest Millennials would be freshmen in college this year. Regardless of our issues, Millennials are now reaching the age where they are stepping into leadership roles in every sector of society. If we haven’t impacted Millennials by now, it’s not likely not going to happen on a college campus.  

However, most social scientists argue that the rapid growth of the internet at the start of the millennium and the effect of 9/11 radically changed the upbringing of kids thereafter. Kids came of age in an America that embodied a very different global identity than the one prior to 9/11. A case could be made that even as early as 1995 the internet was ubiquitous enough that very few kids hadn’t encountered technology such as instant messaging, something previous generations never had. It was a whole new way to interact and it began to change our social expectations. So what does that mean for those kids who don’t fall into the Millennial Generation (Those born in the late 1990s or later) which, by fall 2018 will be every student currently in college. Well, they are called Generation Z, for now, and they are more unique and larger than any prior generation.

As a people with a missionary heart, it’s important we understand the people we’re hoping to reach. What was it like to grow up with a smartphone? What was it like to grow up with the first black president? What was it like to only know our country at war in the Middle East? What was it like to grow up in an age where the internet is at your fingertips at all times, for better or worse? What was it like to watch parents and siblings lose jobs and struggle financially through the Great Recession?

Here are 10 things you should know about Generation Z if you want to impact the current generation of college students.

1. They don’t know life without Wi-Fi. They’ve never known a world without the internet or cell phones; younger Z’s have never known a world without smartphones. Google has always existed. They take Wi-Fi for granted.

According to a Pew Research study, “smartphone ownership has become a nearly ubiquitous element of teen life: 95% of teens now report they have a smartphone or access to one. These mobile connections are in turn fueling more-persistent online activities: 45% of teens now say they are online on a near-constant basis.”

In addition, their preferred choice of social media is image-based and temporary. Gen Zers are more tech savvy than their Millennial siblings and value the disappearing digital footprint that platforms like Snapchat offer. They know that what they post online can come back to affect them later on in life. One article I read asserted that marketing wouldn’t be effective it it wasn’t less than 5 words and one big image!

3. They’ve seen pornography. And maybe lots of it. No other generation has had such easy access to pornographic material. While it isn’t a topic the church world likes to approach, there is no compelling reason to avoid talking about this issue. The average age for most kids to encounter pornography is now 11. Most studies claim that anywhere from 75% to 90% of kids have seen pornography before age 18.

Why does this matter for the church? As our culture wrestles with sexual ethics and healthy relationships between men and women it will be vital that the church help young people understand their views on sex and how they may have been influenced negatively by exposure to porn. We must help them understand the brokenness of sex in our world and to reimagine a redeemed sexual understanding. In addition, it will be difficult for many to understand healthy intimacy with community as their views on relationships in general will be influenced by a distorted and hypersexualized culture online. A culture of love, grace and healing will be paramount in reaching Generation Z.

4. They’re more accepting of sexual fluidity. It would be incredibly rare for a person from Gen Z to not have an LGBTQ friend.

Additionally, a 2016 survey of gender and sexuality by J. Walter Thompson Company, a New York-based marketing firm, found only 48 percent of those 13 to 20 years old described themselves as “completely heterosexual,” compared to 65 percent of those 21 to 34.

In his book, James Emery White describes the Gen Z attitude as “an increasing sexual fluidity that refuses either the homosexual or heterosexual label. The idea is that both labels are repressive.”

The church can no longer be ignorant of LGBTQ realities in our world because it intimidates us or makes us uneasy. We can no longer see it as a secondary issue because to Gen Z, it is very much a primary issue. For the most part, the way our broader church culture has handled this topic has made it very difficult for LGBTQ people and their Gen Z friends to see Jesus clearly. Until we know how to lovingly, directly engage this topic, we won’t reach this generation very well.

5. They’re racially diverse . . . and multiracial. Gen Zers have friends from a variety of ethnicities. About half of kids under 5 in the U.S. are ethnic minorities, according to the U.S. Census. If your church’s congregation is not diverse, Z’s will wonder why. Diversity is the air they breathe.

And when Z’s get married, they’re more likely to marry someone from a different culture or ethnic group. In 1980, the rate of multi-ethnic marriages was fewer than 1 in 10. Today, that number has jumped to 1 in 6.

While the Gospel and God’s mission must remain our main thing, diversity and reaching people from all “tribes, tongues and nations” must be a big thing for us as a church. Again, our globalized world is increasingly diverse, if our church can’t lead the way in this Gen Z will begin to doubt our relevance to their communities and our adherence to the Gospel.

6. They’re very independent. Gen Xers, repeatedly warned about “helicopter parenting,” have swung a pendulum by giving their kids—Generation Z—plenty of space. This hands-off parenting has yielded both pros and cons.

On the pro side, they are the most informed generation in history. They know a ton about the world and they have learned to be self taught in almost every sense of the word. They don’t need anyone formal for information, they just ‘Google’ whatever it is they want to know about. They are more savvy about the world than any generation of young people before. However, what they possess in information about the world, they lack in wisdom as to how to navigate the more confusing parts of life. And, if we’re not careful, older generations will be too far removed from their lives physically and culturally to help.

7. They’re aware of a troubled planet. Most Z’s have grown up since 9/11 and have only known a world where terrorist attacks are the norm. Additionally, they’ve lived through the Great Recession, and they’ve seen their parents, or many of their friends’ parents, struggle through job losses, foreclosures, and more.

And yet, for all the trouble they have seen, they are more passionate than previous generations about making a difference and seeing change happen. They want to be personally involved in something bigger than themselves, something that can actually make it better. This must be seen as a massive opportunity for the church to invite them into the greatest story with the greatest potential for world change.

8. They’re justice-minded. Gen Z wants to make a difference in the world. Like Millennials before them, they’re keenly aware of justice issues concerning poverty, human trafficking, refugees, racism, and more. They want opportunities to have an impact, and they’re likely to become generous givers to charitable organizations as they become adults and have more income.

I believe this is one of the sneaky benefits of the internet. It has made it possible to bring change while starting out from a place of relatively low influence in the world. Gen Z has seen all kinds of people change the world in small ways with nothing more than a Youtube Channel.

9. They’re post-Christian. According to Pew Research, almost a quarter of all US adults (23%) consider themselves religious “nones”; meaning they have no defined religious identity. Many Z’s are growing up in homes where there’s no religion whatsoever, and they may have no experience of religion.

We’ve known this from experience on campus for some while but it’s only getting more clear. It will be very common in the coming decade to meet someone who has almost no true understanding of the bible, christianity or even who Jesus is.

When reaching Gen Z we cannot assume anything. We must begin with the basics of christian worldview and help deconstruct bad assumptions and misunderstandings about who Jesus is.

This is actually a really beautiful thing for the church. While they may have bad assumptions, chances are they will have less religious baggage, too. We have an opportunity to become a missionary people who win people over with a love and community they won’t find anywhere else. We have to think about how we become good story tellers and allow our lives to simply communicate Jesus. His words, works and ways.

10. They’re open to faith. Although only 4 in 10 attend religious services weekly, 78 percent of older Gen Z’s say they believe in God, according to a survey by Northeastern University. Gen Z want to change the world, and they are more open to transcendent solutions to the world’s problems than previous generations. They are hungry for a radical, powerful, connective something to come and make a difference. Doesn’t that sound like a group of young people who would love to meet Jesus?


For more resources, visit growingleaders.com