In a 2020 interview with pastor Carey Nieuwhof, Tim Keller reflected on the changes he has witnessed in Manhattan in the 31 years since he planted Redeemer Church. When it comes to presenting the gospel, he observed that baby boomers often needed to see that only Jesus Christ could effectively handle the guilt they felt for not being good enough. Gen X, on the other hand, needed to hear that what they perceived as freedom was another form of enslavement, and only Jesus could give them true freedom.
For each generation the narrative that leads to Jesus is slightly different. And it has changed again with Gen Z, those born after 1997.
Now the emphasis is justice, creating your own self, and including marginalized peoples or identities, Keller told Nieuwhof. This change was happening just as I was stepping out in the last five to six years, and therefore if I was starting a church now, Id have to re-tool again.
Many pastors might not realize how quickly generations change, and with them attitudes toward the gospel. Understanding new narratives that resonate is key to presenting the gospel to the next generation.
Gen Z and Justice
Moses Lee believes Gen Z isnt asking philosophical questions about epistemology [the theory of knowing]. Gen Z wants to know that the gospel is beautiful and true, and that it is deeply concerned about justice.
Many pastors might not realize how quickly generations change, and with them attitudes toward the gospel.
Lee spent three years as a campus pastor at the deeply secular American University in Washington, D.C. In this hard soil, Lee earned the respect of students by demonstrating his concern for issues of justice and using social media the mother tongue of Gen Z to earn credibility and a fair hearing. Then he showed them how the gospel paints a richer, more compelling picture of justice than students could find anywhere else.
For truth, I go back to the Resurrection. For beauty, I show them that the Bibles way is more beautiful, he said. When students expressed concerns about justice, Lee explained to them how the biblical concern for justice was bigger and more expansive than their secular views were.
When they disparaged the biblical sexual ethic, he showed them how Christians around the world, whose churches are often older than those in the West, adhere to biblical models of sexuality. To force modern white, Western sexual mores on the rest of the world would be a form of ideological colonialism.
Though ministering at American University was challenging, Lee saw students respond to the gospel and submit their lives to Jesus Christ. And many of the students who participated in Lees college ministry now comprise the core group at Rosebrook Presbyterian Church, which Lee is now planting in North Bethesda, Maryland.
Gen Z and Identity
Anthony Paw” Forrest leads Reformed University Fellowship (RUF) at Jackson State University, the historically black college in Jackson, Mississippi. Though RUF established a ministry at Jackson State less than 15 years ago, students are already approaching Christianity differently than the students who came a decade prior.
Their first question, according to Forrest, is one Lee heard often at American University: Is Christianity a white mans religion? As the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in American history, Gen Z leads with this question more than previous generations. As an answer, Forrest walks students through lessons he learned from reading How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind by Thomas Oden.
Our students are so much more aware of their blackness, Forrest said. They want to know their blackness matters to God, and that there is a place for them in the PCA.
According to Barna research, 96% of Gen Z at least somewhat agree that the U.S. has a race problem, and 68% of Gen Z survey respondents express motivation to address racial injustice in their society.
If the church fails to reach Gen Z, there will be no one to reach those who come after them.
Identity has become a key watch word in emerging generations as well, writes author Ed Stetzer. Your teenagers are immersed in conversations about this. They are having questions about identity: sexual identity, personal identity, generational identity, and more. Stetzer notes that Americans a century ago never would have considered these questions, but we will (and must) discuss [them] in our Christian communities today.
Different Concerns, Same Gospel
Bryan Chapell has spent much of career preparing and training future church leaders, and now as the PCAs stated clerk pro tempore, he wants to help these different generations of leaders understand each other. Though elders may hold the same confession and the same high view of Scripture, they might nonetheless see the world very differently depending on how Christian was the perceived culture of their upbringing, he told the PCA stated clerks in December. But they still need one another.
If you are a young person in the church today we probably have the best generation of evangelists in our churches than at any other time in our history, Chapell said. Because if youre willing to identify with Jesus Christ and with the Scriptures in this culture, you are swimming upstream. You have taken a stand.
But evangelism will look different for this new generation. Chapell said younger generations want to know how to share the gospel with their friends and neighbors in a way that is less programed, but just as committed.
Theres urgency in understanding how the generations change. As Lee has pointed out, theres only a decade until Generation Alpha arrives on college campuses. If the church fails to reach Gen Z, there will be no one to reach those who come after them.