Older generations are pretty hard on Gen Z. It’s easy to dissect what we believe to be generational weaknesses, but I want to share a few observations I’ve made serving these young men in youth ministry. In my opinion, something amazing is happening. I don’t want you to miss it.
I just got back from a week of church camp, where I co-led a group of high school guys. Some of you may already be rolling your eyes and muttering, “Good for you. I’m glad your group were angels.” Sure, we had a good group, and it was a blessing to lead them at camp. But attentions wandered. Tempers flared. Shaving cream fights happened.
Here’s my take: Immaturity may be the first thing you spot in youth, but never discount what the Holy Spirit is doing under the surface. He’s on the move in this generation. That’s where I want to draw your focus. It’s incredible to see what happens when God gets ahold of these young men’s hearts.
During worship, a student in front of me was sitting, hunched over, crying. Immediately, a student next to him sat down and wrapped him in a tight hug. A student from my row knew the hurting kid and climbed over the chairs to join the embrace. Other students put their hands on the boy’s shoulders. The two kids hugging him didn’t let go for fifteen minutes.
In group time, one of the students was wrestling with a situation back home. He was sitting under a table, tucked in the shadows. One of the students crossed the room and got under the table with him. He sat beside him the rest of group time. He never said anything. He didn’t have to.
Another night, a student broke down, confessing a past sin. Within five seconds, the table in front of him was pulled out of the way, and everyone in the room huddled around him, speaking words of encouragement.
“Everyone in the room huddled around him, speaking words of encouragement.”
I don’t have any way to describe these moments other than an intuition for physical presence leveraged by the Spirit of God. Sometimes, I feel bad asking what feels like an awkward question: “Can I put my hand on your shoulder and pray for you right now?” They jump in.
If the youth leaders at my church growing up had fielded some of the questions I did this year at camp, they would have blushed. And I honestly think those students would have been rejected from the ministry. When I started leading a youth group last year, I told a friend, “If these guys can just hold on to this level of vulnerability and not be shamed into silence, they’ll grow so much.”
If we don’t engage with students’ questions, they’ll figure the church doesn’t have good answers. They’ll turn to their friends or, worse, the internet. Discernment is still needed to know whether to answer and how–in a group setting, privately, etc. I’m not diminishing that.
“If the youth leaders at my church growing up had fielded some of the questions I did this year at camp, they would have blushed.”
But let’s step back from the caveats for a moment. If a student hits you with a difficult question, was it out of brazenness or courage? Was it a bid for attention, or are they searching for truth? Are they trying to rile you up, or do they genuinely want to know the answer?
I’ve been in men’s groups where it took twenty- and thirty-somethings years of building trust to finally open up about sin’s grip on their lives. I was one of them. I can’t change the past, but I have wondered how my life and faith would be different if that level of vulnerability had been modeled to me when I was in high school.
To be frank, today’s students have what some of us still consider to be “adult” struggles. Not anymore. Today’s students are addicted to pornography younger and younger at a time when generative AI offers a tailored, infinite supply. They’re experiencing substance abuse and sex-soaked relationships lacking genuine intimacy. They’re struggling with life purpose and identity.
“I have wondered how my life and faith would be different if that level of vulnerability had been modeled to me when I was in high school.”
Gen Z doesn’t need gimmicks. They need the body of Christ to step up, love them when they fall, invite them into the mission of the church, and join them in taking a step toward Jesus. Let’s embrace the opportunity to point them to Him.