Every generation of Christian students has its fair share of obstacles that get in the way of spiritual growth. Whether decreasing attention spans, the changing political landscape, the secularization of the western world, or the internet—with each obstacle, the church has done a good job of overcoming many of these challenges. But the church catches up only to discover that it has fallen behind as the next generation emerges.

Generation Z (also known as the digitals or iGen) has quickly become the generation most influenced by our fast-paced, highly connected, digital world. In fact, many researchers would suggest that our digital world has so captivated our children that things like media, the internet, and even gaming have the greatest influence on our children—more than parents and more than the church. But I don’t know if I agree. I think the digital world is doing more than just influencing our kids. I believe it is raising them.

Think about it for a moment. Growing up most of us listened to the radio, watched TV, went to a movie. Even in the early stages of the internet, it served as a tool for another form of communication and some information. In all of those interactions, we were 3rd party bystanders. We were only watching the story unfold—and we could turn it off and tune it out Now our children are being invited into the story and to be a part of it. The digital world has become interactive. It has crafted an entirely new world that our kids are a part of—and it is always on—and they are always engaged.

And as is the norm, a new generation brings new obstacles. Now to be fair, it is really early—almost too early—to make any definitive statements about this generation is a little premature. But here are a few, very significant trends starting to emerge. If we start to take notice now, the church can ahead of the game and not only overcome these obstacles but be ready to make a much greater impact in the lives of our students.

Voices. More advertisers, more celebrities, and more access equal more voices vying for their attention and allegiance.

Growing up there are few moments that stand out as life-changing, but early I remember one particular Christmas that seemed to change everything for me. My parents bought my bother and I televisions for our rooms. Now, these were not just any TV’s. These were 6 inch, black and white, tune in type tvs. Most of the time, I had to squint through the fuzz to get a clear picture. But it opened my world and introduced me to life after 10 pm. It may not seem like much (mostly because it wasn’t) but for me and my early high school world, it was a game changer.

Now imagine how big the world is for our students? They live in a world that is literally never off. They have access to almost anything, anywhere. It was a few years ago that just a few more channels to watch while falling asleep at night changed everything. Today a few channels as exploded into an on-demand digital world. All of which are competing relentlessly for students’ attention. Something has to give. Students have to choose what to filter out. And far too often it is God. 

Before mass communication, parents and pastors could filter out the unnecessary voices with relative ease. But not only are we living in a highly digitized world, the landscape of that world is changing so fast that by the time adults figure out what voices students are listening to, it is too late. There is a new app, new additions to digital language, creating entirely new ways students get and share information.

Normalizing of immorality

Affirmation is acceptance. For this new generation of students to be affirmed or to be loved by another person on any level means to accept their behavior. How a person feels far outweighs any sort of biblical instruction or wise counsel. In other words, morality is determined by feelings rather than facts. For example, consider sexual identity. Most adults consider issues of transgender, homosexuality, and pre-marital sex to be important issues that need to be addressed and corrected. For Generation X and older Millennials, this is a black and white issue. They continue to affirm the absolute nature of moral truth. However, the general trend among GenZ is not only acceptance or tolerance of varying sexual identities, but total acceptance. Where five or ten years ago, it would have been an anomaly to have a transgender student in a class, today it is completely normal. Some researchers have even gone so far as to suggest that students are beginning to see it as abnormal if one does not have questions about gender or sexual identity.

If you as a pastor, parent, or youth leader have ever experienced pushback from students when discussing certain moral principles derived from the Bible, this normalizing affect culture is having on our students is precisely the reason. Even among Christian students. They are often trying to figure out how to love like Jesus but within the context of an incredible immoral culture who does not believe certain behaviors are immoral.

Welcome to the world of the nones.

Your students are now part of the first generation being raised in a post-Christian culture. It seems like each day there are new studies and new books coming out from experts working to wrap their minds around this new and upcoming generation. There is still plenty of ground to cover and details to work out as this new generation of digitalis begins to grow up and move into the workforce. So naturally, there is some disagreement. But there is, however, one area where all the research seems to be in agreement. This is the generation of nones. In other words, no religious affiliation. They may see themselves as spiritual, but would rather not identify with any sort of specific religion.

Now regarding generational research in this country, that category has always carried with it a percentage worth noting even if only minor. Until now. Today, more than 20% of people identify with no religious affiliation. It is now the largest religious category. Even larger than Roman Catholic or Protestant. In Europe, that number is nearly double. There was a time when church attendance and involvement was considered normal. Those days are in the past.

These are big obstacles. And we should consider them with a sober mind. Our children are growing up in a world few of us imagined. Here we are. But what if this was equally an opportunity. The church can no longer seek to be relevant. If all the church offers is exactly what the world offers, then there is nothing at all to offer. I look at these obstacles, and I see an opportunity to be truly countercultural and truly offer students the life that Jesus calls us to. The gospel goes against all conventional wisdom, it appears foolish, and it is offensive. But the gospel is also more life-giving than anything culture could provide. Embrace the challenge and go take over the world with Jesus.

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