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3 Ways I see Gen Z Living Out their Faith

Live it Up!

Live it Up pulls together content and stories about intentionally living lives that are enriched by Scripture and inspired to action. Our prayer is that we would grow to understand the purpose we’re given in God’s Word and subsequently live out our lives on purpose.

In this edition of Live it Up, Pete Avery, a campus minister in Colorado, shares his thoughts on Gen Z and how he sees the next generation of believers living out Scripture on their campus and in their lives. In doing so, he keys us all into what can be learned from these young believers. 

“One generation will declare your works to the next / and will proclaim your mighty acts.” – Psalm 145:4.

The Most Anxious Generation

Consider the history that Gen Z has lived through. Current college-aged students were born right around or in the wake of 9/11. Then, when they were small children, the financial recession brought instability and anxiety into the lives of their parents. Many lost their homes to foreclosure. They watch as the nation undergoes perhaps the most rapid shift in popular moral values in history. Then a global pandemic strikes, causing the most serious global disease outbreak since the 1918 Flu epidemic. Did they ever have a “normal” peaceful time?

When they are too young to understand what the world is really like, they are handed a screen in their pockets that can show them anything they could imagine seeing, and allows them to share with others anything they could want to say. The fact that increased social media use is correlated with increased anxiety means nothing to a 12 year-old with undeveloped self-control. How can a preteen hope to go to bat against a technological giant employing the sharpest minds in our world, who literally design products to hook our minds in and reshape us to need them more and more?

Generation Z didn’t create the world that they now inhabit. Those of us who went before them made the choices that have shaped the world we have today. They have spent their entire lives soaking in a culture that has told them they can be whoever and whatever they want to be, do whatever they set their minds to, and have their voices heard by even the celebrities and politicians who are just a DM away. That Gen Z is the most anxious generation in recorded history is no surprise to me at all. It simply makes sense.

Begin with Curiosity

Working with college students today, I want to begin with curiosity. What makes these students feel that the world is so unsafe, so unpredictable, that serious concern about our world and our future is in many ways the only rational response? And why, as a result, is it so crucial that followers of Jesus live out their faith in ways that those around them can see?

James Emery White has argued that Generation Z is the first “truly post-Christian generation.” The rise of the “nones,” or those who claim no religious affiliation, has happened so quickly that Gen Z is the first generation facing the absence of so much that could often be assumed in prior generations. Common values, common language, beliefs about what is good and what is beautiful, and what is ugly and wrong – all these things have shifted, and perhaps too quickly for most of us to fully absorb. On top of that, the gap between the assumptions about life that Gen Z believers and non-Christians hold has become so wide, so quickly, that it’s hard to overstate.

It’s in this cultural moment that believers in college are looking at the world and at those around them, and they are seeing that it matters deeply how they live their public lives. While cultural pressure encourages people to present a perfect, curated image of their lives, young believers want real, authentic faith that actually changes who they are and how they live. They know that hypocrisy of professing Christians is one of the biggest obstacles to faith in Jesus among their peers. They’re out to change not the way Christianity is perceived, but the way Christianity is lived, full stop.

3 Ways I See Gen Z Living Out their Faith

In light of all this, here are a few ways I see Gen Z living out their faith, and why I think they’re pushing the Church in the right direction.

  1. They want the church to become much more welcoming to newcomers and non-Christians. They tend to see the church as rejecting much of what science has demonstrated about the world, and 37% of churchgoing Gen Z teenagers say they are not persuaded their church is tolerant towards those with different beliefs. This leads them to conclude it’s not a safe place to bring a friend who doesn’t share their Christian convictions already. Our student leaders have been challenging our campus ministry to adjust our language, our practices, our assumptions, and our content—not to water down the gospel or change our beliefs in any way, but to allow those with different views to enter into our spaces and conversations without immediately needing to change their beliefs to feel welcome. 
  2. They want the church to become a safer place to express doubts, questions, and deeper emotional challenges. More than half of Gen Z church-attending Christians say that church involvement is either “not at all important” or “not too important.” Part of the reason they cite – again these are statistics of church-attending Gen Z teens – is that many (27%) feel that church is not a safe place to express doubts, and that people at church are hypocritical (37%). At the same time, the vast majority (82%) say that the “church is a place to find answers and live a meaningful life.” They see the value in church, when it’s done well. They’re just feeling the need to express any questions and doubts elsewhere. On campus at Colorado State, we are reforming our structures and practices to encourage discussion and help people experience that their peers have the same doubts and questions they are experiencing. After all, we would love our involved students to be having these conversations with others who love Jesus, rather than simply searching for answers online or just stuffing their doubts and hoping they never resurface. 
  3. They want to be a part of seeing the church do much more to address the real, tangible issues of injustice and pain in our communities. “We sit here in our nice buildings, singing happy songs, while there are people a few blocks away who don’t even have lunch to feed their kids today.” “Women are being trafficked in the sex industry right here in our own city, and we could be doing something about it. Why do we say we care about the image of God but never talk about this?” I hear things like this pretty often from college students. They have a fire in their bones for justice, to “let justice flow like water, and righteousness, like an unfailing stream” (Amos 5:8). To them, this is not political; it is not disconnected from their faith at all. 

All of these things, for believing college students today, are part of what it means to live out the Scriptures, to be “doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22). Sure, they know the world is watching them, and that their non-Christian friends are observing how they live, but they’re used to that. They’re not pursuing these things to get attention, or as some bait and switch evangelism strategy. They’re pursuing them because they believe they are part of what it means to follow Jesus, and they see holes in the way the church has lived out the Kingdom of Heaven in the present age. 

They’re not content to let things be the way they are, and they’re out to see things change. This is part of the joy of working with these young believers today – when they are sold that God longs for something to be different, they are on board with him in that. The question for me is, am I?