My friend Seth Peterson recently completed his Ph.D. on how to understand, equip, and reach Gen Zers. You can access his dissertation for free, but here are some highlights from his research, which is aimed to help youth workers, parents, teachers, and apologists.
SEAN MCDOWELL: According to the latest research, what characteristics best describe Gen Z?
SETH PETERSON, PH.D. The latest research says that Gen Z (those born between 1998 - 2010) is the most globally connected, multi-cultural, individualistic, social justice seeking generation we have ever seen. In my dissertation, I go into greater detail, but here are five key identifiers about who Gen Z is:
- Tech Savvy: Gen Z is known for being the first generation to grow up entirely in the digital age. Surrounded by technology from early on, navigating the online world and embracing emerging technologies is second nature to them.
- Entrepreneurial: Gen Z grew up during the recession and tend to be pragmatic in their approach to future life and career choices. The ease of online marketplaces amplifies desire to create opportunities that align with their own interests and skills.
- Quick Learners: Gen Z prefers visual content, such as images, videos, and memes. They are accustomed to quickly scanning and absorbing information. Platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok are popular due to their interactive nature.
- Individualistic: Gen Z places a strong emphasis on individuality and self-expression. They tend to value authenticity and are less likely to conform to traditional norms compared to previous generations.
- Diverse: Gen Z is known for being the most diverse generation yet. They are more inclusive and accepting of differences in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, and tend to vocalize this on social media platforms.
- Moral relativism: Moral relativism challenges absolute truth. Apologetics training helps young people understand the objective basis for moral values and truth, providing a solid foundation for their faith.
- Ethical Dilemmas: Gen Z often grapples with contemporary ethical concerns, such as LGBTQ+ rights, environmental stewardship, and social equality. Apologetics provides a framework for addressing complex issues in a religious context.
- Science and faith: Scientism claims that people cannot know something unless they prove it scientifically. Apologetics training helps individuals understand that faith and science can exist harmoniously.
MCDOWELL: What are the biggest obstacles teachers, youth ministers, and parents face in connecting with young people today?
PETERSON: The biggest obstacle is technological distraction. Whatever gets our attention, gets our time, and what gets our time, we ascribe worth to. Generation Z spends a lot of time on their phone, an average of over eight hours a day (Barna, 2023)! Ironically, this makes Gen Z the most connected generation technologically, but the most personally disconnected generation too. Gen Z crave authentic connection but struggle to obtain it. In my research, top baptizing student minsters were asked how they connect with Gen Z, and this is what the data from more than 100 years of collective student ministry experience revealed.
The obstacle of technological distraction is best overcome by personal engagement. While social media is a major contributor to the obstacles teachers, youth ministers, and parents face alike, there is no substitute for real authentic connection. Maybe this will be an encouragement to parents, teachers, and student pastors out there, you don’t have to be up on the latest slang, tik-tok dance, or trend to make an impact. Gen Z just needs to know you are there and that you care.
MCDOWELL: Is apologetics training important for this generation, and if so, why? What issues are they wrestling with?
PETERSON: Apologetics training is crucial because it equips individuals with the knowledge and skills to defend their faith. Gen Z lives in an age where there are a myriad of voices telling them what they should think, say, or do. A recent Barna (2022) study indicated, “Less than 4% of Generation Z have a Biblical worldview.”
As a result, three major issues Gen Z wrestle with include:
Gen Z needs a mature and rich worldview to biblically defend their beliefs (Barna, 2023). There is an urgency to help students see clearly with “Bible eyes.” It is our responsibility to personally train them in this truth and point them to Jesus. Ultimately, apologetics provides the answers necessary for Gen Z to develop a robust and informed faith.
MCDOWELL: What surprised you most in your research?
PETERSON: The impact of the Jesus revolution in the late sixties and early seventies. There are lots of similarities between that generation and this one culturally. I am praying and hoping that God would again bring a revival that sweeps our nation for His glory! Scripture reveals that God used teenagers to impact the world (Matt. 17:24 – 27; Luke 3:23). And most revivals throughout history started with you guessed it, youth (Senter, 2010)! While Gen Z has its own challenges, there is a great deal to be excited about for this generation and the impact they will have for the Kingdom! With over 2 billion people a part of Gen Z, a revival in this era could be a means of saving more people than both Great Awakenings, the Azusa revivals, and every Billy Graham crusade conversion combined (Pinetops Foundation, 2021).
MCDOWELL: What are the best practices that effective ministers do to engage this generation?
PETERSON: Effective ministry is precisely what my research explored. Six best practices were discovered in reaching Generation Z most effectively: gospel clarity, creating opportunities, intentional environment, personal invitation, diligent follow-up, and public celebration.
The thriving student ministry practices were effective means of overcoming obstacles, connecting with Gen Z, and increasing student baptisms. The participants had different ways of conducting these practices in their student ministries. While I go into depth about each one in my dissertation (Thriving: Best Student Ministry Practices for Reaching Generation Z Effectively), here is a snippet on the three most shared traits of thriving student ministries: (1) Gospel Clarity, (2) Personal invitation, (3) Diligent follow-up
Ultimately, each of the six best practices helped to reach students more effectively. And student ministries with all or most of the practices had not only more baptisms per capita, but greater impact in engaging Gen Z with the gospel.
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If you are looking for a book to offer practical strategies for reaching Gen Z, check out my book with J. Warner Wallace: