My great-grandfather was a stonemason who laid brick on the upper east side of Manhattan. Buildings you see there were built by Irish laborers like him who often started working at age 17, got married around the same time, and had a big family.
Work and family were the focus. The times started young. Life was, in a sense, simpler back then, even if in some ways it was much harder. And, the times shaped my great-grandfather’s generation.
Today, we have the newest generation. They are often called Gen Z, though some call them by other names. This generation, born from 1997 and forward, is now entering adulthood.
They stepped into a very divided world politically. Barack Obama was elected as president—and Donald Trump followed him. (That there’s a pretty shocking contrast between the two is an understatement.)
I should add that it is hard to have a cross-generational conversation and not feel the angst that younger evangelicals are often feeling about older evangelical support of the current administration. It doesn’t mean that they have abandoned all that the older generations cherish, but it does mean that they are uncomfortable and wonder how things got to be the way they are.
There are many contributing factors that give Gen Z the unsettledness they have about our world beyond political divisions. Social media plays a big role—more than any other generation. It’s a different world, and parents of Gen Z are grappling with many issues they didn’t have to face when they were younger.
The New York Times had an article entitled “A Dark Consensus about Screens and Kids Begins to Emerge in Silicon Valley.” It described parents in the tech industry who are moving away from allowing their children to engage in social media. This is partly because of what they are learning about how social media plays a role in rewiring their brains.
We ought to pay attention when those who create these things regret creating them and move away from their use. According to Athena Chavarria, former executive assistant of Facebook who is now leading Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropic work, “I am convinced the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc with our children.”
Mark Anderson, former editor of Wired, compared kids’ addiction to screens to that of crack cocaine. He has a list of strict rules for his own children regarding phones.
The hidden danger
In Christians in the Age of Outrage, I wrote about the plumbing of Rome.
If you go to Rome, you can see the aqueducts from 2000 years ago. You will learn that they used lead pipes. Lead was malleable. You could use it to bend around things. Back then, however, they didn’t know that lead could kill you.
This is why most of Gen Z lives in homes without lead paint. We learned that lead can kill you.
And this is why parents who understand technology are careful with how their children use it. It can kill you.
“A study published just last year showed a concerning increase (over 70 percent) in psychological distress (e.g., mood disorders like anxiety and depression and suicide risk) between Millennials and Generation Z,” a group of Wheaton College Clinical Psychology program’s doctoral candidates observed. They add, “Research suggests that the rise of social media, increase in electronic communication, and less children getting enough sleep are all likely part of the problem.”
Social media is amazing, but it’s also complex and can be challenging. It’s shaping Generation Z in new ways.
Identity has become a key watch word in emerging generations as well. Sexual identity is a large part of it. In the span of just a few short years, we have seen the revolution of same-sex marriage, which is certainly related to some of the political divisiveness noted above. Today, we are discussing sexual identity and transgenderism like never before.
Your teenagers are immersed in conversations about this. They are having questions about identity, sexual identity, personal identity, generational identity, and more.
These are questions and discussions my great-grandfather would have never considered, but we will (and must) discuss in our Christian communities today.
How Do We Work Together?
Keep in mind that this short series is about how we work together—how the generations in your church or ministry can and will work together.
Leadership expert Stephen Covey said that to be understood, we first need to understand. In a church or a mission agency, we might come from different emphases. And, for example, older generations might want to push for a greater focus on personal conversion.
At the same time, and even in the some room, others (perhaps younger) might express concerns that without caring for people’s needs, the gospel often goes unheard or unseen.
As I presented this as a seminar, I was in a room of several hundred missions leaders from all generations. What I told them is worth repeating here: We can work together best as we listen and learn from one another well.
Ed Stetzer is executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, serves as a dean at Wheaton College, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group. The Exchange Team contributed to this article.