“Kids these days!”
It’s an expression many of us have either said or thought. They seem so different from the way we were at their age. And usually, it’s not in a good way. (Although if we’re honest, we probably need to question the reliability of our memory of our teenage lives.)
As we collaborate to pass our faith from generation to generation, it’s important to recognize the differences between generations without exaggerating them. Our core needs are all the same, regardless of age: love, grace, meaning, joy, hope, etc.
At the same time, it’s undeniable that the culture we live in as teenagers has a life-long impact on our adult years. If you understand someone as a teenager, you will, in many ways, always understand them. With this in mind, here are some central shifts in the worldview of today’s kids, also known as Gen Z.
Safety: The New American Dream
Teenagers today have never experienced a world without school shootings, terrorism or social media. Older generations grew up with fire drills, bomb drills and other safety drills, but they were fairly routine without frequent news reports of students needing to actually follow those protocols to stay alive. Many students today live with the realization that their school could be the next one to experience a very real threat.
Additionally, these kids were raised in families where they were always supervised and had fewer freedoms than previous generations of kids. For example, you’ve likely heard about parents being visited by DCF because they allowed their elementary-school-aged children to walk down the street to the playground without adult supervision.
Safety is the new American Dream – physically and emotionally. This is why colleges are increasingly facing the request to offer “trigger warnings” before discussing topics that might trigger someone else’s emotional pain.
Instead of casting a superior glance at Gen Z for being emotionally fragile, ministers would be wise to assume the posture of a shepherd. Care for them when they struggle and disciple them into maturity by helping them discover that personal failure is often the fertilizer of faith. Ultimately, our security is not in this world, but in Christ. This leads us to live with faith and hope rather than fear and despair in an unsafe world.
Tolerance: The New Golden Rule
Our culture’s expression of tolerance encourages everyone to “speak your truth” and says “you do you.” This view of tolerance encourages people to overlook their differences in order to affirm one another’s value. Muslims and Christians and atheists are all equally free to speak their minds. In many ways, this is good and biblical.
In reality, however, tolerance assumes disagreement – otherwise there’s nothing to tolerate. Red Sox fans and Yankee fans need to tolerate one another because there’s a very real difference between them, and well-meaning friends who say, “It’s just a game, get over it,” clearly don’t understand. Tolerance runs deeper than the logically true statement, “It’s just a game.” It speaks to the emotional weight of different commitments and looks to bring people together who are emotionally, relationally and physically different from each other.
When I speak about tolerance with kids these days, I explain to them, “Tolerance means respect despite disagreement.”
It isn’t about merely putting up with people who are different from you, but genuinely respecting them despite your disagreements. You still think the other person is wrong, and you’re both still trying to persuade each other – but in a circle of respect.
Fellow pastors and leaders: we need to be models of a Christian tolerance that loves our enemies and turns the other cheek. If we continue to demean those who are different from us (politically, religiously, ethnically, etc.) then Gen Z will continue to hear and see a bad definition of tolerance. If students see Christian leaders showing respect to minorities, homosexuals and those who may be easily labeled as “enemies of the faith,” then we will be obeying Jesus’ command while setting a godly example for the next generation.
Threatening Others’ Safety Cancels Your Right to Tolerance
This is the key that many adults fail to recognize: if you threaten someone’s safety, then you will be “cancelled,” and your right to be tolerated revoked. This is why so many Christians read the statement above (“Muslims and Christians and Atheists are all equally free to speak their minds”) and disagreed. I agree that Christians face increasing scrutiny and skepticism in our culture today – but we need to acknowledge the ways we’ve done this to ourselves by failing to love our enemies. We have believed that speaking the truth without love is honoring to God – but it’s not.
So if you want to reach kids these days, you need to love them with the truth. Listen, encourage and shepherd them. Recognize the ways their world is genuinely different from the world you grew up in, while remembering that their hearts are the same as yours. Don’t treat them like immature children, but as people you are nurturing and guiding in the faith.
The Gospel is our only hope. It is truly good news of great joy for all people. Help them to see how the Gospel fuels the way we love our brothers and sisters and the way we love our enemies. Encourage them with the reality that we are fully secure in Christ because nothing can separate us from the love of Jesus Christ. When we walk in the light of the cross, we can handle worldly rejection and failure because we know we’ve been fully accepted by the grace of Jesus Christ.
(note: this article was originally posted on the BCNE blog with the title, “Kids These Days.”)