[Next Generation] Connecting passion with purpose: how to engage Gen Z

A burning question in most pastors’ minds today is: “How do we engage Gen Z?” Facing a decline in church attendance with this generation, churches desperately want to know how to reach and keep this generation for two reasons:

  1. We’re called to make disciples of all generations
  2. Without them, what future does the church have? 

Both reasons are valid.

In the 2023 State of the Bible report, research proves many pastors’ fears. Gen Z does not show great interest in the church. The percentage of Gen Z adults identifying with evangelical denominations has decreased from 22% in 2021 to 13% in 2023. Meanwhile, the percentage of those identifying with mainline denominations has risen from 13% in 2021 to 19% in 2023, according to the State of the Bible report. How, then, do we reach Gen Z and engage them?

Finding common ground

Research, including that in the State of the Bible, shows Gen Z is passionate about advocating for those who are oppressed, welcoming immigrants, and caring for those in prison. Gen Z grounds its passion on social justice issues.

There is a tension between a God-centered approach to social justice and a man-centered approach to social justice. The man-centered approach sees the government as a savior, bringing in a utopia through government policies. The God-centered approach sees Christ as Savior, bringing heaven to earth when He returns. At His return, Christ will restore all things and execute perfect justice. Until then, Christians express God’s love and justice by showing kindness and mercy to those less fortunate.

The Old Testament reveals God’s heart for social justice as Moses laid out the behavioral code for the Israelites. In Exodus 20-23 and Deuteronomy 15 and following, there is a tendency to include those who stand in danger of exclusion—like widows, immigrants, and orphans. And in the holiness code of Leviticus 17-26, there is a concern for the holy living of the people more than a concern for the rituals. In these two areas of behavior, God wants His people to be concerned about those in need and calls them to holiness in seeking justice in the community. This is common ground for the church and Gen Z.

Connecting passion and purpose

In his first sermon, Jesus quoted Isaiah 61 as He laid out His ministry goals: help the poor, brokenhearted, incarcerated, and mourning. Gen Z is passionate about these same things. The reason Gen Z leaves the church but says they love Jesus may be because they do not see the church advocating for the things Jesus did. This appears to be a lack of integrity, and Gen Z walks away.

Later in the New Testament, James states true religion is caring for orphans and widows. The church must be taking care of the vulnerable among them and in the community. Gen Z is passionate about advocating for the oppressed, welcoming immigrants, and caring for the imprisoned. What James expressed is about these same kinds of people.

Pastor, we must reframe our narrative from what we are against in this culture and look for the common ground of justice for the widow, orphan, oppressed, imprisoned, and immigrant. The church’s purpose regarding justice aligns with Gen Z’s passions. When the church connects passion and purpose, greater things can be done in and for the name of Jesus and His church.

But how do we make the connection? Here are three shifts that will help us connect passion with purpose so the church can reengage Gen Z. None of these are new or radical. However, it will be difficult, especially for the churches in decline or separated from the community.

1. Go and tell

The first shift is from “come and hear” to “go and tell.” Many churches have slipped into an inner-focused rather than an outward-focused ministry. Those on the edge of society and justice are not in our churches. They are in the streets of our communities and need the love and care Jesus came to provide. However, the church must go and show and tell.

2. Engage people where they are

The second shift is to engage people where they are more than where they ought to be. We want everyone to come to saving faith in Jesus. We all want our churches to grow and flourish long beyond our time. However, that is not where the people in your community are spiritually. They are committed to what they want to do. They are dedicated to serving themselves and their families. This shift is seeing the surrounding community through missionary lenses. We see people for who they are—lost and in need of Jesus.

3. Humble yourself

The third shift is related to the second. We must stop judging people for not being what we are. We can evaluate the differences. And we can delineate items of concern. Go no further. Evangelism’s entire basis is that there are people who are not connected to Jesus as we are and need Him. We reach out in love, not condemnation. Be gentle and kind if you get a Gen Z to attend worship. Instead of shushing them, consider assisting them with what they need.

Gen Z has passion. The church has purpose. There is common ground between these two if we look for it. Gen Z is already engaged in seeking justice and helping those in need. The church has biblical precedent to do the same. When we learn to love first, second, and third, we can engage our people, our community, and partner with Gen Z to reach the least of these.

This article by Aaron Summers, DMin, pastor of First Baptist Church in Crowley, Texas, was originally published at lifeway.com.

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