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Gen Z seek stability and connection    

17 March 2023

Older generations should seek to form meaningful relationships with teenagers and young adults, argues Rebecca Chapman

GENERATION Z — born between 1996 and 2012 — have faced enormous challenges because of the pandemic, not just socially and financially, but educationally, and with their mental health.

A survey of 1000 people aged 15 to 25, commissioned by the KFC Foundation and published last week, found that two-thirds of respondents had either been through or were currently experiencing serious trauma. Nearly one in ten had never had a discussion with someone who could help them, and those who did seek help took, on average, just over five months to ask for it, because they did not want to be a “burden”, feared being judged, or did not know where to turn.

It is all well and good for the Church to respond to this by calling for more youth workers, or by helping clergy to understand Gen Z better — to learn the “dialect of this new place”, to quote Pope Francis. But this alone will not be enough.

It is also the responsibility of those who are not clerics or trained children’s and youth workers to learn how to connect with Gen Z. In this area, much needs to be done: 70 per cent of churches say that their biggest challenge is finding volunteers for children’s and youth work, research carried out by the C of E last year suggests. But let’s be aware that the oldest of Gen Z are now in their late twenties; they are no longer in youth groups, but sit with us in services, or choose to be elsewhere entirely.

I am a millennial, but have settled into a new church where, instead of being a rarity, Gen Z make up the majority of worshippers. In trying to understand this generation better, the book Gen Z, Explained: The art of living in a digital age (The University of Chicago Press) (Books, 11 March 2022), has provided an Aladdin’s cave of insights.

It sets out some of the reasons that, with the occasional exception, members of Gen Z are often not to be found in church. It says that “an institution’s formal modes of communicating can seem off-putting, oppressive and too focused on hierarchy. They [Gen Z] perceive a mismatch between what the institution might say and what it actually does, and how. They feel disillusioned when large institutions fail to deliver on what they promise; inclusion, equality, and high ethical standards.”

For this generation, justice issues are seen as integrally aligned to the gospel, and those not in church are not looking for religion, but for relationship — for connection, for conversations.

They have grown up in a post-Christian world, and have never lived without the internet: they post online, share, comment, and have more of a voice than previous generations (even if they do not feel that this is the case). For Gen Z, leadership is about collaboration, influence, and being guided, not dictated to.

ONE way to offer collaboration is through intentional intergenerational discipleship and guidance — mentoring in a way that is less like facilitation and more like how family members interact with one another. As Tim Alford, director of the youth arm of the Elim Pentecostal Church, says: “Young people need spiritual parents more than spiritual programmes.”

Recruiting more volunteers to help to run programmes for Gen Z — whether groups for youth or for those in their twenties — is not enough (research carried out by Youth for Christ suggests that only two per cent say that youth clubs are a favourite place to spend time). What is needed is an ongoing commitment to relationships between the generations throughout the Church.

I have loved opportunities to walk alongside some amazing women in their twenties, as they settle into adult life and learn what they want that to look like. They are passionate, empathetic, and have grown up trying to navigate a connected, constantly changing, and uncertain world.

The American author Simon Sinek suggests that many young adults in Gen Z project a self-confidence that they do not feel. In a precarious job market, they navigate side-hustles on top of their day-jobs; their peers constantly present their apparently perfect lives and selves on social media, whatever the reality when the camera isn’t there.

Gen Z, Explained notes that, for this generation, “revealing a weakness is honest, authentic and appreciated”. In Faith Formation in a Secular Age (Baker Academic, 2017) (Features, 3 January 2020), Professor Andrew Root describes our current “age of authenticity”. Gen Z are looking for authenticity, honesty, and integrity in not only what we say, but what we do and how we say it.

In the first century, St Jerome wrote: “The scars of others should teach us caution.” But, unless we take time to show those scars, and speak about how we got them, how will the next generation learn from us? Their “instrumental view of education” might make in-depth theological commentaries more challenging for some, but it is not the only way to learn.

Statistics confirm that many of our churches will have few, if any, children, teenagers, or younger adults; and yet, growing up in a post-Christian world, they are often very curious about spirituality. They care deeply about family, and I know from personal experience that support from an engaged church family can provide the stability that those from a broken home, or a home with parental mental-health issues, need.

OLDER generations in churches should be asking how they can better share their lives with those from Gen Z. When did we last take out a godchild, grandchild, or the child of a good friend for a coffee (or a hot chocolate, if they are younger)? Such occasions provide opportunities to listen to them talk about their lives and faith, and to see whether they are curious about ours.

Gen Z often have a passion for activism, and long to undo the mistakes of previous generations. They want to make a difference to the world around them — and older generations can learn from them here. Intergenerational discipleship is a job not just for youth workers or the clergy: it’s a job for all of us.

Rebecca Chapman is a General Synod member for Southwark diocese.

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