I’m not entirely sure which generation I am, having been born in 1995. I’m either a millennial (Generation Y) or an iGeneration (Generation Z) depending on who you ask. Either way, those who are teenagers and university students now are all considered part of this ‘iGen’. For many students, their time at university or in college shapes them greatly. My time at university did for me. I suspect most of us know people who were converted while at university, but I imagine some also know those who turned away from their parents’ faith while away at university. Traditionally, both the teenage years and the new-found freedom of student life were the perfect opportunities for young people to find or redefine themselves or simply to indulge in excessive alcohol and sex. However, studies are showing that iGen are likely to drink less and take fewer drugs. Instead, iGen is marked by hook-up culture, delayed romantic relationships, heavy social media use and higher rates of loneliness, depression and suicide. Despite all this, iGen are often willing to consider the claims and beliefs of Christianity, as they encounter first-hand, and question such issues as loneliness, suffering, satisfaction and identity.
So how can we help them do that? Here’s what I’ve learnt, and I pray these reflections will help us as we seek to reach members of iGen with the good news of Jesus.
Show them Christian community
Firstly, one of the most powerful ways we can reach iGens with the gospel is to show them Christian community. By Christian community, I simply mean the love we have for God and one another. The love that has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit now that we have been justified by faith alone and have peace with God (Romans 5:5).
Some iGens, especially science students, will ask academic questions about apologetic issues. There is a place for academic arguments, as the apostle Paul shows us. Despite this, the paradigm on display throughout the life of Jesus is the importance of love; love for God and love for one another. Jesus told his disciples that they must love one another and by that love, everyone would know that they were his disciples (John 13:35). Sometimes academic questions from individuals are genuine barriers to faith for them. Occasionally, they’re superficial questions trying to catch Christians out. Often they are covering deeper, personal questions to do with suffering, loneliness, satisfaction or identity. Christian community can be so appealing to these people because it reflects the trinitarian love of God in which there is unity, community, security and satisfaction.
Some iGens are lonely because they are homesick at university, some because they genuinely have no-one. Even more feel alone because, despite being surrounded by friends, they lack real intimacy. Social media has left many from this generation ill-equipped to form meaningful, face-to-face relationships. Their social media is full of other people’s perfect online lives, and it doesn’t match up with their experiences. The result of this is that they often hide their own feelings while sharing a fabricated life online.
I think many iGens do feel loved, but perhaps sense that the love they receive is a selfish love. They are loved only because the lover wants something in return. True Christian community is so special because it demonstrates the intimacy of Christ as we are all united to him and welcomed into a relationship with him. Christian community also reflects Christ’s selfless love, a love with which the world is unfamiliar.
In practice, let us do all we can to welcome iGens into our Christian communities. Put on events for students and teenagers and invite them to church. When they come, take it a step further, invite them to be our friends. Obviously, this is easiest for those who are younger themselves; they can do this with coursemates, housemates and teammates. However, brothers and sisters, don’t leave this work to ministry professionals, students and teenagers. Titus 2 emphasises the importance of all generations. Whatever your age, you can speak to iGens. Invite them into your home and share with them what God has given you, both spiritually and materially. As a student, I was influenced and shaped as much, if not more, by families and older people than fellow students.
Don’t assume students who come into your church are Christians, even if they tell you about going to church growing up or at home. Some of them may have no true and living faith of their own. Invite them into your Christian community, get to know them, love them and show them the gospel they may not know for themselves.
Show them Christ
Secondly, show them Christ. I’ve so often heard the gospel presented poorly in sermons, evangelistic talks and conversations. I’ve been guilty of it myself. The person listening is told that they are a sinner, that they are headed for punishment in hell, but that if they believe in Jesus and what he did on the cross, they can have eternal life. All of that is true, but it isn’t the whole truth. Jesus isn’t just a get-out-of-hell-free card. Jesus isn’t a means to an end, Jesus is the means and the end.
When we talk to iGens, or anyone who isn’t a Christian, don’t just tell them their sin is bad, they are going to hell and that belief in Jesus means avoiding punishment. For iGens, sin is often pleasurable, so we need to show them Christ, who is better by far (Philippians 1:23). Why is sin so bad? Because it separates us from Christ. Why is the punishment of hell so bad? Because it leaves us separated from Christ for eternity. Why is faith in Christ so good? Because it unites us to him, our sin is wiped away, we are declared righteous and enter into a relationship with God. Why is eternal life so good? Because it is eternity spent glorifying and enjoying God, welcomed into his life and love through Christ.
Let us then welcome iGens into our lives and our churches, showing them Christian community and showing them Christ praying that God will give them true and living faith that will continue to grow throughout their lives.