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Engaging Gen Z

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Imagine sitting in your favorite coffee shop, enjoying your grande triple-shot vanilla latte, when you overhear this conversation from the next table:

“Have you seen his new creps?”

“They’re so hard!”

“He’s got mad steez.”

“Yeah, my edges are snatched!”

“But what a hypebeast—where’d he even get the guap for those?”

If that sounded like some new language, it is. And if you understood it—congratulations—you speak Gen Z!

Ready or not, this generation—along with their values—will soon shape our communities, our churches, and our world. Gen Z (born between 1995–2010) is not only a new, radically different generation—it’s a new culture.

We know any effective effort to engage a people group with the gospel requires taking on a learning posture toward their culture—understanding their language and studying what they value. This is critical with Gen Z if we hope to develop strong, godly leaders to be the future Church, who continue taking all of Jesus to all the world.

SO, WHAT ARE GEN Z’s CULTURAL VALUES?

Brace yourself. “Faith” is not on the list.

While previous generations had some faith foundation (this includes millennials, despite their overall disengagement from the Church), many within Gen Z are blank slates when it comes to faith and spirituality. They have not been exposed to the Anglo-Christian principles that influenced previous generations. Because of our post-Christian culture and secular society’s strong influence, they are likely to begin their spiritual journeys as atheists.

Gen Z’s lack of a framework for faith presents a challenge to our thinking in how to develop them into future leaders. These young people won’t necessarily fully reject faith, but they will rarely embrace the whole gospel—or be “all in”—when first accepting Christianity. This means their journey to Christ may be one of small victories versus “come to Jesus” salvation moments.

This reality requires that we change how we tell the faith story. For example, when Gen Zers do identify with a biblical worldview, it is more with a perspective of faith in exile. These young people more naturally resonate with stories about God’s people in exile—Daniel’s experience, the Jews in Babylon and Egypt, etc. This includes identifying God’s attributes displayed in these stories, such as His faithfulness and provision.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Gen Zers care a great deal about social justice, especially for those on the fringe—those “in exile.” This gives the Church an opportunity to stand with them in causes also important to Jesus and helping to navigate truth. What a powerful call for us to stand side-by-side with this generation in spaces they already occupy!

Reimagining Development: Four Shifts

The Church can play a significant role in developing Gen Zers into healthy, Christ-following leaders. Yet when we talk about developing people—a key strategy to fulfill the Great Commission (see cmalliance.org/ministries/missions)—we must choose to be intentional in challenging leadership defaults or traditional practices that may be ineffective in reaching this generation.

Gen Z’s unique culture requires contextualizing our engagement, which includes identifying four shifts in our development approach to ensure these young people experience true, godly transformation. These shifts, all on a spectrum, will help to equip influencers as well as young Gen Z leaders to more effectively serve those in their spheres of influence.

We do know that one-on-one discipleship will be more key than ever in walking this generation through the process of becoming more like Jesus. So before diving into these four shifts, it’s good to be reminded that all of us must engage in our own development. After all, we can only truly pass on what we know, the transformation we experience, and the tools/skills we acquire. The pursuit, or lack of pursuit, of our own development will significantly influence the depth and integrity from which we engage in the development of others.

Shift #1: FROM Developing Skill TO Developing Skill and Story

In this shift we are aiming for developmental holism: understanding that all parts of the person and their development are interconnected. One part cannot be understood apart from referencing the whole of a person’s story and experience.

This is a shift away from a traditional people-development principle—focusing purely on transferring information and passing on skills to an emerging leader. The reality is that at some point the Gen Zers we invest in will run into scenarios their learned skills alone will not have adequately prepared them to handle. Past wounds, overcompensations, overdone strengths, or spiritual issues that are all rooted in a person’s story and will affect how they lead.

Holistic development requires time, energy, and intentionality. It is a shift in posture that moves away from viewing leadership development purely as a qualification-based skills transaction to the development of the whole person—addressing and resolving the experiences in their story that contribute to their leadership strengths as well as gaps.

We discuss about not being distracted by performance but instead focus on their relationship/friendship/love with Jesus—and trust that when they do that, God will compel them to love others well.

–Tou Lee Thao,
Envision Bangkok site leader

Shift # 2: FROM “I don’t have time for this” TO seeing the legacy of those coming behind us

We must see our role as faith-filled servants and stewards of legacy. God calls us to serve through the empowerment of His Spirit and in partnership with others in community—to develop leaders who will not only walk alongside us but also carry leadership beyond us.

This posture shift—stewarding the legacies we’ve been entrusted with—allows room for us to receive fresh perspective from the young people we serve.

The biggest battle in leadership is balancing the urgent with the strategic: moving from reactive to proactive leadership. A potential challenge is that we begin to see the people on our team—and those we’re developing—as there to help us tackle urgent tasks. When our teammates are not as effective as we’d like them to be—or they do things differently—we tend to view the differing views of the “rookies” on the team to be a hindrance. Hearing them out can take more time than we are willing to invest. But time invested in developing people is never wasted.

Leaders who are stewards of the legacies to which they’ve been entrusted embrace the “what if . . .” and are open to creative, new ideas that young, “inexperienced” teammates can bring.
Stewarding the legacy of the next generation also relieves us from the temptation to believe “everything is on my shoulders” and leaves the results in God’s hands. Our role is to raise up leaders who are joined with Him.

Shift #3: FROM “you have something to learn from me” TO “we have things to learn from each other”

This shift is about creating an environment that cultivates growth through teachability.

Do you believe God can speak to a child? Do you believe God can and will use anything to accomplish His will?

If so, why do we approach our leadership and our teams with the posture that those with the most experience or seniority know best? The truth is, everyone around the table brings varied—and valuable—experiences, giftings, insights, and unique ways they hear from God. He desires to use them all for the benefit of the group.

Giving a voice to Gen Zers—then truly empowering and validating their voice—builds an environment of mutual discipleship. This creates an effective, more powerful team and cultivates healthy development. Otherwise, we quench the Spirit moving in each individual contributor.

The moment a leader slips into a “you have something to learn from me” mindset, he or she creates a restrictive environment that inhibits growth. By contrast, an environment that cultivates a “we all have something to learn from each other” spirit draws out hidden, underdeveloped, and true gifting from each person.

This mindset also allows for every individual in your sphere of influence to impact your development. Again, the pursuit of our own development, or the lack of it, will impact the quality and integrity of our ability to develop others. An environment that displays, models, and embraces teachability is where people-development thrives.

Discipleship requires me putting aside my own personal cultural preference and empowering the disciple to lead.

–Nathan Conklin,
Envision Taiwan site associate

Shift #4: FROM programmatic transaction TO life-on-life discipleship

Life-on-life development—through healthy relationships and connected community—is the catalyst for powerful transformation. This type of development is not transactional; it is relational. It involves engagement, openness, vulnerability, and letting our guard down.

Is there trust? Credibility? Integrity? If the relationship is not healthy, there will be not be true growth. Discipleship that is fully lived out in the real world must be fully cultivated in the real world. This shift is away from a purely programmatic approach to development to one rooted in relationship and community, embracing all aspects of life and navigating these complexities together.

Back to the Coffee Shop

So, still wondering about that conversation at the beginning of this article? Did you get the translation?

“Have you seen his new shoes?”

“They’re so cool!”

“He’s always so stylish.”

“Yeah, I can’t believe how good he always looks.”

“But he just likes them because they’re popular—where’d he even get the money for those?”

Better grab your Gen Z-to-English dictionary and get ready to hear their stories, invite their fresh perspective, give them a voice, and do life with them.

It’s time to engage this generation, enter their world, speak their language, and understand what they value. Let’s walk alongside Gen Zers and empower them to take all of Jesus to all the world as they lead the Church with us.

Gen Z Snapshots

Born between 1995–2010 (ages 8–22), Gen Z faces a very different world from their predecessors. Here are some distinguishing characteristics:

  • Born and raised in a post-9/11 world: Gen Z is being raised in a culture of fear and insecurity, which can lead to a pessimistic view of the future. However, many have a strong sense of wanting to make a difference in the world—and they think they can. “Influencer” is a job title to which many of Gen Z aspire.
  • A world saturated by digital technology and mediated by mobile devices: Gen Z has always had the internet—they are used to finding what they need in an instant, having lots of options, being connected, and sharing life in a very public way. More than half of teens engage with screen media 4-plus hours per day.
  • Global perspective: Teens across the world have more in common with each other than they do with their own parents, leading to the emergence of a global youth culture that values global citizenship over national citizenship.
  • Highly diverse: Half of Gen Z is nonwhite. They are the most religiously, racially, and sexually diverse generation in American history. They have a natural understanding and acceptance of diversity in all its forms, which leads Gen Z to expect diversity in the institutions they interact with.
  • Radically inclusive: Gen Z highly values inclusivity and diversity, which drives morality and social justice–based actions. They value inclusivity so much that strong personal opinions are sometimes seen as offensive—so they will work to avoid being seen as close-minded or to offend or marginalize those around them.

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