Born in the Screen Age, Gen Z are today’s 9- to 24-year-olds, the so-called “selfie generation”. They’ve also been dubbed the “open generation”. But what makes Gen Z unique? What are their anxieties and their ambitions, and how might we encourage these young people to find their unique part in God’s big story.

~ Kate McLelland, Team Lincoln

My Auckland based colleague Josh Irving and I recently led a workshop on reaching Gen Z. Together we presented the material below including some voices from students in tertiary education from both Auckland and Lincoln.

1. Growing up slowly

Today’s Gen Zer’s are taking longer to embrace adulthood in both the responsibilities and pleasures. This seems surprising in a world that appears to race the growing up process! Access to porn, sex education and trends all happening at seemingly younger and younger ages. I remember turning 15 and my birthday present was sitting my driver’s licence. Freedom, independence and my own sense of control… I couldn’t wait! Today obtaining a driver’s licence and other rights to adulthood are increasingly delayed as young people put off these milestones. With the overwhelming options available for careers and life choices it is thought that many young people want to ‘take a breath’. Whether a young person grows up slowly or quickly, there are unique opportunities to come alongside them as they transition to adulthood: to be part of their lives, to offer support with the numerous decisions they are making and to point them to Jesus.

Most of my friends are Christian and trying to know him more. It’s hard at times and I think it would be helpful to have more mentors in our lives. ~ Marion

Reflection: What opportunities are there to come alongside and mentor young people as they transition to adulthood, discipling them in following Jesus?


2. Virtually Connected

Gen Z grew up with cell phones, and by cell phones I mean smart phones. Facebook and Instagram were part of their adolescent years and with the invention of Google they never needed to flick through shelves of encyclopaedias to find out if whales sleep (they do!). Gen Z are incredibly virtually connected. Their social lives and connections with people thrive through the numerous apps at their fingertips. However, this has often been at the expense of in-person relationships, “I’m with you, but only virtually”. Smartphones are never out of sight and often accompany us wherever we are, even in the company of others. A Gen Zer commented to me recently how much she enjoyed talking with people older than her as they usually weren’t scrolling their phones as they chatted.

Despite the increasing online presence, Gen Z have a longing for in-person relationships.

It’s a self-perpetuating cycle where more screen time results in less in-person social interactions which results in more loneliness leading a person back to more screen time. There are opportunities to engage with young people through modelling hospitality and healthy diverse communities. Or as one Gen Z student, Daniel, said, “Experiencing the love of God through discussions, sharing of food and sharing our lives with one another”.

We might conclude that screen time and social media is all bad. However, this isn’t the full picture. Phones and the apps they contain bring connectivity and resources. It is near impossible to ignore the impact they have in our day to day lives as we use our phones in personal, work and study life.

Reflection: What opportunities are there for technology as a tool to reach others for Jesus? How can we encourage safe spaces for young people to learn being present in-person with one another?


3. Anxious & Insecure

The dark side of the impact of social media is of course the impact on young people’s mental health. This generation looks so happy on the surface. Posting smiling pictures with their friends on Snapchat and Instagram. But, dig deeper and all is not as it appears. Insecurity, anxiety and depression are increasingly on the rise, and it comes as no surprise that research points to social media and technology as a significant contributing factor.

… there are many people who are looking for their fulfilment in material things, such as an achievement, but once they get it, they feel empty because it didn’t meet their expectations, and this can lead to mental health problems. ~ Olivia

Reflection: The Bible prepares us to face loneliness, anxiety, depression and sadness in life. How might we equip Gen Z and each other from the hope in God’s
word and the big story they are part of?


4. Seeking authenticity

While it may seem that the increase of social media leads to a lack of connection, Gen Z long to be connected. Not at surface level but deeply and genuinely connected and in relationship with people. I heard recently a story of a youth pastor being told by a young person in their community, “oh you are just paid to be my friend”. There is an underlying scepticism and doubt of organisations and churches and their true intent in relationships with young people.

Gen Z long to be part of communities which are honest and vulnerable.

Reflection: How can we connect with others in genuine relationship?


5. Seeking impact

The “selfie” generation care deeply for the world around them. Whether poverty, mental health, racial injustice, sexual abuse or climate change. Their response is often an individual one of, “How can I bring my unique value to this situation?” as opposed to a collective response.

“I think one of the greatest causes of hope is the possibility of change and being either its catalyst or a partaker of it. Many people I know, myself included, desire to bring change in the communities we live and serve in for the betterment of life. I think this is because everyone is burdened by a need they see, and if it is in their power, seeks to address it and make living easier both for their neighbour and themselves. Many people seek to be a beacon of hope and have relevance to the world, being and doing good.” ~ Luyanda

Reflection: As Christians walking alongside young people, how can we model both theology and practice of justice together?

Gen Z aren’t inaccessible. They clearly see the brokenness of the world. They’re not afraid of hard questions about the meaning of life or the pursuit of justice. They’re looking for community. And all of those things are found in the hope of the gospel.