I had a college professor who used to say, “Every generation is a direct reaction to the previous generation.” I believe that much of our concern about the next generation stems from them being different than us. I often hear adults speak about young adults and teenagers with concern. Similar to how we can more easily point out the sins of others versus our own, generations can more easily see the struggles of other generations. You can even find old news articles written about the selfishness of the group that we now call The Greatest Generation (those young adults who fought in World War II) when they were teenagers.
I work with the next generation daily through my position as the campus minister at the Fort Smith BCM and with my role on the College and Young Leaders Team with Arkansas Baptists. While there are reasons to be concerned about issues facing the next generation, and they should not be ignored, I want to spend a few minutes focused on characteristics of Gen Z (born 1995-2012) that I find encouraging and even exciting. Fort Smith BCM is experiencing an incredible movement of God accompanied by numerical growth. In talking to many leaders ministering to young people in and around Fort Smith who are experiencing the same sorts of things (some of whom are quoted below), here are some characteristics we have noticed in Gen Z since the end of the pandemic that the church should be excited about:
- Compassionate – In my 20+ years of ministry, I have spent a lot of time with different generations. From my perspective, I have never seen a generation genuinely care for the wellbeing of others the way young people today do. They want others to experience love and purpose. I constantly see them reaching out to others who are hurting, struggling, and lonely. Often people walk into churches hurting and seem to fly under the radar of the very people who can offer them love. This generation does a better job of preventing that than any I have seen. We can learn how to better resemble the compassion of Jesus by watching them.
- Welcoming – I remember in days past when a student had to work for acceptance into a student ministry or similar group. Many people were considered uncool or even outcasts. Unfortunately, even in churches there are cliques. With this generation, you must work hard to hide and not be accepted. In fact, a Christian adult will lose favor with the next generation if they do not work hard to create a hospitable environment. There will always be people with social impediments who do not feel comfortable in those settings, but we can learn how to be more like Jesus, who always showed compassion for sinners and outcasts, by watching this generation.
- Bold – Following Jesus often requires boldness. However, in many places across our country for most of our history if you claimed to be a follower of Jesus it did not cost you much socially. In the past, if you wanted to run for mayor, especially in the South, you attended church whether you were a true Christian or not because you wanted the social cachet that came with being in that social setting. In many spheres of influence across the country, Jesus is no longer in vogue. This might be the first generation in American history that it will cost them culturally as a group to follow Jesus. There is very little to gain in the societal sphere in a post-Christian reality (from the viewpoint of society). The next generation knows this and does not care. They love Jesus enough to count the cost and still follow him.
- Servant-hearted – At the BCM, our ministry is completely student-led. Almost every leader I have is a full-time student who is employed, leads in some capacity at their church, and works tirelessly to see us succeed on campus. Many people think the next generation is lazy. This is simply not true of them at large. Patrick Meador, currently the Family Minister at First Southern Baptist Church of Central City, said this after a worship service in December of 2021, “During worship today I noticed that 4/7 worship leaders on the stage were teenagers. Then I noticed that 2/3 of those in the sound booth were teenagers. Later, I learned that 2/3 of the kids’ church helpers were youth. We even have youth serve in nursery. This is only a small portion of our youth who step up week after week. One thing that I’m learning from GenZ is that they love to serve!! Give them an opportunity and they’ll own it. They teach me that ANYONE can serve. They rob me of many of my excuses.”
- Purpose Driven – They will serve, but we need to find ways of serving that interest them and/or help them know they are making a difference. Zach Rhodes, Student Pastor at First Baptist Church in Van Buren, said, “This generation of students is awesome because they want to do big things. They desire to be a part of what only God can do. They realize the world throws many things at them, but those things under deliver to who God is. They want eternal life and not to settle. I heard at a pastors’ conference last week that to reach the next generation, we should ‘enlist them and not entertain them.’ I agree with this because these students desire to join the eternal mission!”
- Authentic – Students want us to provide an environment where everyone feels comfortable being themselves. This can be messy because people are messy, but it provides an arena for people who radically love Jesus to openly express that in a way more appreciated and less judged than in previous generations if it is coming from a genuine place. Chad Race, the Collegiate and Young Adult Discipleship Minister at Grand Avenue Baptist Church in Fort Smith, said, “I am encouraged by this generation’s desire for authenticity. They desire for people to be authentic with them. Therefore, we have an incredible opportunity to simply be real when having conversations and speaking the truth of the Gospel into their lives, and they are willing to listen. From there we trust the Spirit to do a great work.”