Generation in Crisis
Dr. Balvin B. Braham is currently a Field Secretary and Assistant to the President of the Inter-American Division. He carries responsibility for Evangelism and Leadership Development. He previously served as Youth Ministries Director of the West Jamaica Conference and West Indies Union Conference as well as Associate Youth Director of the InterAmerican Division.
We have already entered a new reality in relation to youth engagement with faith issues and their church. Ending high school is a major turning point for many, since it is the beginning of the end of what is considered “parental faith”. This is to worship and attend the services and activities of the church as they were groomed by their parents throughout the years. Additionally, as boomers and traditionalists in Christianity expect of them. The pervasive electronic communication or Social media and cyberspace have not been positive influences in the faith journey of some. Youth face untold temptations to resist existing social norms and status quos to find their own identities, make choices and be whom they want to be. Consequences of social action do not headline their agendas, if they do exist. Yet, many if not most of them, do make sober decisions about career and vocation choices. Church leaders must face the challenge of understanding today’s young people and engage them in the development of emotional connections and commitment to what is more than just service or temporal issues, but their eternal destiny, salvation at the Second Advent of Christ.
GENERATION Z AND Y
Generation “Z” are those born between 1995 and 2015 (ages 4-24) and Generation “Y” or Millennials are born between 1980 and 1994 (ages 25- 39). Many millennials and especially the latter group of Generation “Z” do not attend the same local church from Sabbath School to the worship service and the afternoon programs on Sabbaths, as often as their parents and grandparents do. Their outlook, beliefs and values diverge, and they display a lower level of religious affiliation. A growing number consider themselves religious Nones. “Clearly 36% of young millennials (those between the ages of 18 and 24) are religiously unaffiliated as are 34% of older millennials (ages 24-33). Fewer than six in ten millennials identify with any branch of Christianity compared with seven in ten or more of older generations” (Stark, 2016, p. 11).
Once they graduate from high school many of them are not at their local church. Where are they? Either in universities, somewhere out of their local community or at work. If they are still within the local community, they are busily engaged otherwise than being preoccupied with their homegrown religion. Of course, this is not the one hundred percent. Those who are no longer in church and even many of those who remain, consider the present practice of Christianity as hypocritical and have negative impressions and diminished expectations of church.
Recently, I engaged a group of professional millennials in discussion about their concept of faith and the church in which they grew up. Here are some of the responses: “The perception of the seniors in church is that our relationship with Christ boils down to just going to church. I am more accepting, and open minded of social issues and standards in society than the members of my church”; “I am independent. By that I mean I think for myself and am forward thinking. Our generation challenges the status quo. Our parents instilled fear in us while growing up, but I do not feel that we are going to be struck down by lightning if we do contrary to what we have been taught at home and church”; “While we are not true to the teachings of the church we actually do enjoy who we are. We do not want to be all in with religion. There are other options to contend with in life. We want to go to church on our terms”; “We do accept the bible as a good foundation for people, but when you grow up you have to make it applicable to yourself, on that basis, to each his own”.
The theory, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) was first introduced by sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton. They studied the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers, which led to the coinage of this theory. In his book The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher referenced the five principal tenets of this theory that explain the thought pattern of millennials who go to church:
1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.
When characterizing generations Z and Y, they are stereotyped by actions, attitudes and behaviors that do not conform to the traditions of boomers and traditionalists. However, there are numerous actions, attitudes and behaviors that are characteristic of these generations that must also be noted. A large number of them in the church are convinced that the message their church believes and proclaims is authentic. They continue to be influenced by their Christian upbringing. They are conscious of their relationship with God and others and are intentional in their responses to be relevant in a positive manner. They possess resources, ranging from skills, networks of relationships, ability to articulate clearly and profoundly and are interested in the various ministries and doctrines of the church. They are committed to using their time, influence, talents and resources to assist the church in fulfilling its mission. Generation Z and Y make the church rich and relevant and through the aid and guidance of the Holy Spirit enhance the future of the church.
CHALLENGES AND THOUGHT PATTERN OF THE YOUTH
An education and health charity, Central YMCA, 2016, surveyed 1,600 young people aged between 16 and 25. They asked them to assess the nature of the challenges they face today. The challenges they mentioned were: lack of employment opportunities, failure to succeed in the educational system, issues related to body image, family problems, substance abuse, pressures of materialism, lack of affordable housing, negative stereotyping, pressures of 24-hour social networking, crime, lack of positive values, reckless sexual behavior, developing and maintaining wholesome social relationships, living up to parents’ expectations – most notable, “go to church” and remaining faithful in a church that is traditionally too strict and too strong.
Many young people in the church find it a challenge that the involvement of most church leaders with youth programs and activities is limited, yet they are the ones who plan, design and execute activities for them. “They just “give it to us” rather than engage and participate in meaningful ways with us” said one of the respondents. Many do not see the wholeness of the organization which must be considered within the context of having a ministry to influence and retain them with their diverse interests within the church. They experience a church that is judgmental and sees everything as just black and white. They are de-motivated because they are not allowed to face their challenges without duress. “Leaders, boomers and traditionalists are hard on us; we are not experiencing the love we desire” is another response. Expressing disgust with the church, one professional millennial said; “With our curious minds we are discomforted with the church because of the perceived concept that once you are a member of the church you have arrived. To do anything out of the realm of the traditional is like the world is coming to an end. The struggle with a church that is less than accommodating is the reality we face. We have to deal with the do’s and don’ts of church every day. We are tired, is there a better way?”.
Globally, church leaders are struggling to grapple with the reality of ministering to Generations Z and Y and how to involve them in the life and mission of the church. How quickly the church can become a self-organizing system that finds new methods to harness talents and utilize the strengths of these generations is a major challenge. Some methods that worked in the past to get attention, compliance and participation are now ineffective. Reality summons a new approach. How confounding, yet real, that many leaders, especially some of those who have decades of experience, must sit in the unfamiliar seat of “not knowing” and open themselves to radical new ideas of wisdom and willingness to learn through asking the right questions of generations Z and Y, listen to them and in the process, avoid contradictions. Margaret J. Wheatley said; “To be responsible inventors and discoverers, we need the courage to let go of the old world, to relinquish most of what we have cherished, to abandon our interpretations about what does and doesn’t work. We must learn to see the world anew. As Einstein is often quoted as saying: No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it” (page 7).
How do church leaders understand Matthew 5:18 (KJV) “For verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” Also, Matthew 24:35 (NIV) “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away”. The laws of God and biblical principles are foundational to our Christian faith. These are as unchanging as the Lord who said; “For I am the LORD, I change not; therefore, ye sons of Jacob are not consumed” (Malachi 3:6 KJV). To conceive or classify the certainties of the faith as negotiable is irreconcilable, un-biblical and misguided. What are these unchangeables? How do we engage the young people to understand them and develop an appreciation for them? The scripture shapes faith. How effective is church leadership in going beyond providing materials for the youth, which is significant, to the esteemed position of helping them to truly understand scripture. Not just to understand it, but to make applications about its role and function in shaping attitudes and commitment toward the present life, dealing with others and preparing for the life to come. When leaders and the youth arrive at such understanding, then everything else that we do and embrace within the body of believers should be subject to the principle or test of the “old world”.
Many consider the present attitudes of Generations “Z” and “Y” respecting traditional norms, values and practices of the church as chaotic. When you listen to some boomers and traditionalists, the phrase of the poet Yeats, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” (Wheatley, p.19) appears apt in describing the reality within the Church. It is collapsing they think and only a miracle can save it. Scripture does not support this view. Jesus said; “… upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18. Ellen White explains it this way; “Enfeebled and defective as it may appear, the church is the one object upon which God bestows in a special sense His supreme regard. It is the theatre of His grace, in which He delights to reveal His power to transform” (Acts of the Apostles p. 12).
According to Wheatley “A system is defined as chaotic when it becomes impossible to know what it will do next” (p.22). If chaos is a correct designation of the church involving the young people’s reaction to standards and norms and the way the leaders address such, then Wheatley’s next statement is germane, “Chaos summons self-organization. Not according to some idealized plan, but because the environment demands it. Many leaders find it difficult to let go of the old form and figure how best to organize in a new way” (p. 24). In this 21st century, the church struggles to find leaders that best respond to the needs and desires of the youth. The youth are looking for what Max De Pree, former CEO of Herman Miller calls “roving leadership”. This is the indispensable people in our lives who are there when we need them. Since the existing relationship between the young people and leadership, boomers and traditionalists within the church appears to be chaos, according to Wheatley, it is a new order that is not a bad status. It is a wake-up call, not fragmentation. It is time for leadership to take steps to create a new mode of operation because the existing is not functioning effectively. It is a call for change. The organization’s biblical principles contain sufficient information about its intended “shape”, what it needs to accomplish and how its members should be involved. When leadership and the youth work freely with those principles, to interpret them, learn from them and talk about them, then through many iterations, a pattern of spiritual and ethical behavior will emerge.
A LEADERSHIP APPROACH TO ADDRESS THE CHALLENGES OF THE YOUTH
Church leadership must embody the organization’s principles and guide the organization to experience the ideals it envisions. In other words, the leaders must genuinely practice what they preach because disabling consequences result from the opposite. Among such consequences, is that the youth respond to the church and its mission with less commitment than is expected. According to Mort Meyerson in an interview with Wheatley (1996), “It is not the leaders’ role to make people know exactly what to do and when to do it. Instead it is their role to ensure that there is strong and evolving clarity about who the organization is” (p.131). Church leaders need to help the youth live by values. They need to practice their understanding that it is shared concepts that invites participation and not policies and procedures, important as they are. Leaders that empower millennials through providing them opportunities to know the truth and by being transparent with them will be endeared to them. Youth need leaders and not bosses. Church leaders have the great privilege of presence and direct contact and access to the young people. This provides them a firsthand opportunity to listen to them and address their concerns as they arise. This proximity empowers them with relevant information regarding personal, family and organizational challenges that the youth face. Usually, because of the status and respectability of organizational leaders the youth show deference to them. This opens possibilities for leaders to actually make a difference in their thought processes.
Finlayson and Zacher (Krasner, 1983) posited, “decision making procedures are the prevailing practices for making and implementing collective choices” (p. 275). One of the areas that church leaders need to address as they face the challenges with the young people is how decisions are taken. Precondition, process, and outcome should be intentionally employed. Precondition addresses core relationships between the youth and the organization in order to create understanding and motivate them to develop positive affinity towards the church. Process deals with conversations that lead to the development of shared values through which participation occur. Outcome is the shared understanding and practice that actually emerge. Deutsch, Coleman, et al., (2006, p. 197) argue that for common understanding to be achieved, the parties of common interest need to engage together. In that case, there needs to be a diagnosis of the issue at hand and then the development of alternative possibilities to arrive at an agreed position. This includes four general phases’ “diagnose the issue, identify alternative solutions, evaluate and chose the mutually acceptable path and commit to the decision and implementation.
Obviously, there are numerous issues involving the youth that leaders must address in a Christ-like manner and a suggested approach has already been advanced. In the process, it may be helpful for leaders to avoid the temptation of spending much time arguing about their dress, their music, their deportment, their games, their movies, and their dates, and more effort on one to one mentoring and modeling situations. The youth are a part of God’s army and they must be mobilized. This statement of Ellen White is still relevant; “With such an army of workers as our youth, rightly trained, might furnish, how soon the work of a crucified, risen and soon coming Savior might be carried to the whole world” (Education, p. 271). Jesus’ leadership model in dealing with His disciples is relevant; Mark 3:13-15 (ESV) “and He went up on the mountain and called to Him those whom He desired, and they came to Him. And He appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with Him and He might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons”). Verses 16 – 19 identified the names of the persons He called to abide with Him. Verse 19 says; “and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him”. Interestingly, while all the disciples of Jesus struggled with their personal issues, only Judas actually left the team. He had opportunity for repentance, however, he chose suicide. The others remained with their personal struggles and contributed to fulfilling the mission. Jesus invited them, had conversations with them, trained them, involved them and gave them hope. Today, those disciples await their eternal inheritance in the kingdom of God. There are three specific things that church leaders may consider doing as thy seek relevance with Generation Z and Y:
1 INVITE THE YOUTH
Invite the young people that are members or are associated with the church: that is to say, intentionally engage with them in heart, mind and body or with empathy, interest and energy. Go after them as God did with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and invest in their growth. Be present with them by exuding calm and control. This makes them want to be there and ultimately become accommodating. By inviting them, leaders give attention to the young people. The invitation is about building relationship with the youth. Intentional strategies: to eat meals together with them, do fun things with them, spend time doing things with them that they are interested in, get to know their stories, build a community with them.
Story telling is not one directional, it is all inclusive. Infect them with passion. Inspire and help them to find mentors. Enhance their sense of knowing that they are members of a global movement, something that’s radical and life changing, a part of something bigger. Remove the barriers that isolate. Traditions and ceremonies do have their place. However, as long as they are not salvation issues, they are only considered sacred by one generation yet irreconcilable and irrelevant to the youth. Do not allow these barriers to maintain their sting. Rigidity that is irrelevant to the gospel is not a wise course of action for nurturing young people in the faith. By invitation, leaders search for the youth, find them, address their issues and therein is fertile ground to retain and help them grow in Christ. Invite them and equip them.
2 EQUIP THE YOUTH
Equipping is a systematic process through which individuals are taught and this may be done by instruction and practical activities that result in improved adherence to values. Leaders must teach the youth by providing them knowledge and skills and help them to develop positive, wholesome attitudes. The supernatural dimension is critical in the equipping process. This is where the leaders of the church perform their spiritual roles by providing them guidance in the study of the Word, and other inspirational reading through varying forms. Prayer is an essential aspect of this dimension and innovative methods should be employed in executing this. Embrace every opportunity to share the gospel with them and guide them in imparting to their friends, acquaintances and others.
Young people are the best tools or strategies for reaching other young people. They naturally know more young people than leaders do, and they know each other’s’ language. There are many social skills that they may be taught as well, which will empower them to become more relatable. Methods that have worked but which may be improved upon as new ones are developed and utilized are: camps, small group efforts, bible study teams, prayer sessions, spiritual counselling, faith journaling, spiritual retreats, workshops on faith building, and youth conferences.
The training should be short term, task oriented and targeted on achieving a change of attitude, skills and behavior in specific areas. It is important to choose wisely the method of training, as the retention rate from seminars and lectures is about five percent, as compared to seventy-five percent through practice by doing and ninety percent by teaching others.
3 INVOLVE THE YOUTH
God has a special mission for each one. He gifted us with abilities, personality, and certain qualities that will help accomplish His plan. God calls His people to all kinds of vocations. Leaders need to help the youth to look for ways to fulfill His unique purpose for their lives. It does not matter how spiritual the parents of these generations are, or the elders, pastors or leaders of their Church. People are only saved by a personal relationship with Christ. When Jesus gave the disciples the Great Commission, He was in essence giving them a mission. Leaders must help the young people to feel valued, use their skills and to feel accepted while serving others. They must be helped to feel that there is something for them at church to enjoy and to do. Involve them. Create ministries and or projects and deploy them. Offer them recognition and highlight their successes. Talk about them and what they are doing. It is a growth process. The youth want to be recognized for their involvement. Do not disappoint them and do not discriminate. Yes, there are exceptions. A few prefer to remain incognito, and they should be given that benefit, as well. However, be in touch with them and offer affirmation.
Generation Z and Y do have genuine needs. In fact, it is not easy to be young today. When youth lose their sense of belonging in church, leaders become concerned and the organization at large loses a sense of its wholeness. However, when they feel that sense of belonging, they remain committed to the faith and mission of the church, and this is comforting. Their independent thinking and desire to challenge the status quo are unnerving and distance is created between them and leaders of the church. While in most instances they behave as though unmindful of this distance, some actually do care and desire improved relations. The leadership of the church does have a responsibility to seek common ground because the church’s mission is the salvation of all.
The challenges that young people face with church standards and their actual conduct, summon church leaders to act, as it cannot be business as usual. This is an enormous undertaking for leaders, but the task is not impossible. There are numerous possible options and approaches as they engage with the young people. The church is the Lord’s and He continues to be in charge. He provides vision and wisdom to those whom He appoints in positions of leadership. Leaders and young people who find the path, remember that it is not just about being in church, it is about, as Ellen White puts it, “the joys of service in this life and the higher joys of wider service in the life to come.” For generation Z and Y, boomers and all others, the destination is not the church, it is the Kingdom of God. Together, let’s make it!
1. Deutsch, M., Coleman, P. T., & Marcus, E. C. (2006). The handbook of conflict resolution theory and practice (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
2. De Pree, Max, (1989). Herman Miller CEO, 41-42.
3. Dreher, R. (2017). The Benedict Option: A strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. Penguin Random House LLC. Hudson Street. New York, USA.
4. Krasner, S. D. (Ed.). (1983). International regimes. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
5. Meyerson, Mort, Fast Company Everything I knew about Leadership is Wrong.
6. Stark, David (2016). Reaching millennials: proven methods for engaging a younger generation. Bethany House Publishers, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
7. The top 10 challenges facing young people today. Retrieved from the internet at: https://www.allaboutschoolleavers.co.uk/ news/article/318/the-top-10-challengesfacing-young-peopl-today
8. Wheatley, Margaret J. (1999). Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. San Francisco; USA.
9. Central YMCA (2016). The biggest challenges facing young people in the UK. Retrieved from the Internet at; https://www. ymca.co.uk/youth-opportunity/news%20 central-ymca-world-of-good-report
By Dr. Balvin B. Braham