Non-discipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil.
—Dallas Willard, The Great Omission
What do you know about generation Z? Whether you are an officer, a youth leader or a parent, chances are, you know someone from this generation—those born between 1996 and 2015, from pre-teens to newly graduated from university. They are the next generation of disciples.
What comes to mind when you hear the word “disciple”? Are you a disciple? How do you know? If you don’t know what a disciple is, how will they?
As a member of generation Z, I am writing this article for two audiences: first, others of my generation who want to follow Jesus but find themselves encumbered by not-so-easily identifiable obstacles to transformation in Christ. Second, I am writing to those of you who love or know someone belonging to this generation.
Let’s look at the landscape, the characteristics, the “ethos” of generation Z. Dr. Jean Twenge, an American psychologist who studies generational differences, describes this generation in clear detail in her book iGen (the term she uses). Generation Z is more inclusive—undoubtedly a good thing—but this also means they are growing up in a world where nothing is absolute or certain. Everything is fluid, including gender, sexuality, religious expression, and so on. Very little “objective truth” exists.
Generation Z is hyper-connected. They were born with the internet already in place and can likely not remember a time without social media. It is estimated that 96 percent of generation Z owns a smartphone. They spend an average of seven hours a day on a screen, with texting, web browsing, social media and video games.
Along with this—and exacerbated by COVID-19—generation Z spends far less time with people face to face. Members of gen Z make friends online and rarely meet them in person. They go to the movies less, the mall less and they start dating later. They are the most insulated and isolated generation in history, with almost one in four young people aged 15-24 reporting in 2021 that they always or often feel lonely. Gen Z is more anxious, stressed and depressed than the millennial generation. According to a Canadian government health survey conducted in 2019, nearly one in five youth aged 15 to 17 reported that their mental health was “fair” or “poor.”
Generation Z prioritizes safety in new and intensifying ways. Twenge writes, “In a world perceived as uncertain and unsafe, gen Z is living life in search of safe spaces. Physical safety, emotional safety and even nutritional safety matter more to this safety-first generation that is more risk-averse than previous generations. For emotional safety, gen Z seek out ‘safe spaces,’ request ‘trigger word’ warnings, and action against micro-aggressions (unintentional harmful comments).”
Twenge makes it clear that none of these are inherently “bad” or “good” changes from previous generations, but they are unique. No generation in history has had to contend with the amount of information and connectedness that generation Z does. They are exposed to a vast range of divisive, polarizing and sometimes blatantly false rhetoric at a staggering rate every single day.
How does this affect the discipleship journey? How do we equip ourselves and others in the face of these challenges?
Let’s return to our initial question. What is a disciple? In The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’ Essential Teachings on Discipleship, Christian scholar and philosopher Dallas Willard writes: “If you preach a gospel that has only to do with the forgiveness of sins … you will be stuck in a position where you have faith over here and obedience and abundance over there, and no way to get from here to there because the necessary bridge is discipleship. If there is anything we should know by now, it is that a gospel of justification alone does not generate disciples. Discipleship is a life of learning from Jesus Christ how to live in the kingdom of God now, as he himself did.”
“Disciple” is the English word for the Greek mathetes, which is often translated as “learner” or “student.” In the New Testament, a disciple was someone who sought to learn from their rabbi, with the goal of becoming like him. This was accomplished by following the rabbi around, listening to his teaching and soaking up his behaviour, so they could mimic him. It did not occur over coffee with another disciple; it occurred in the presence of the rabbi.
With the context of generation Z in mind, what specific obstacles impede our discipleship, both individually and in community? As I researched this article, I realized that it would take far too long to list all the most effective discipling tools I’ve encountered in my life, so I have decided to focus on one discipline that can begin to unravel the obstacles facing my generation.
If you were raised in the church or if you have only spent a few days in the presence of Christians, you likely know that prayer is considered an essential way to commune with God. We share prayer requests and praise reports in small groups; someone opens in prayer and someone closes in prayer. Maybe you have a list of people to bring before God, maybe you journal your prayers. These are all good, important pieces. But imagine if your relationship with your spouse, your parents or your friends only consisted of you speaking at them—and then walking away. We have neglected the practice of listening prayer in our cultural context. This is especially prominent for members of gen Z, who turn to our phones in any moment of silence or solitude, scrolling through Instagram or TikTok. Before we know it, minutes—even hours!— have elapsed, and we are on to the next task.
Willard writes, “What brings about our transformation into Christlikeness is our direct, personal interaction with Christ through the Spirit.” We cannot and will not experience spiritual growth if our prayer lives only involve talking at Christ. How will we be “transformed by the renewing of our minds” (see Romans 12:2) if we fill our thoughts with other people’s vacations, cute kids, workout routines, new clothes, social justice movements, bad and good news—anything and everything social media sends our way? How can we be deeply formed in the image of Christ if our mental diet mostly consists of worldly things? I propose we slowly and intentionally change that diet first thing in the morning. What would it feel like to set our phones aside for 30 minutes each morning, pray a Psalm, sit quietly and listen? Ask, “God, what do you have to say to me this morning?” Begin with 10 minutes (it will feel long!) and see how your hunger for his voice grows. I am sure it will.
A Life of Learning
How do we become students of the one true rabbi, Christ the risen King? In the landscape described above, it is a radical undertaking. A good student wants more than information; they want to understand and inhabit the teacher’s ways. This looks quite different than the student who already knows it all. The ambitious learner is enraptured by the teacher, pausing only to ask for more knowledge or for clarification. The transformative effects of this should include an increasing measure of the fruits of the Spirit.
Thomas Merton, an American Trappist monk, theologian and activist, wrote in Contemplative Prayer: “Every man who delights in a multitude of words, even though he says admirable things, is empty within. If you love truth, be a lover of silence. Silence like the sunlight will illuminate you in God and will deliver you from the phantoms of ignorance. Silence will unite you to God himself.” We need to spend time in God’s presence.
As Willard writes, “The single most obvious trait of those who profess Christ and do not grow in Christlikeness is their refusal to take the reasonable and time-tested measures for spiritual growth.” It’s a challenge for all of us to consider as we seek to disciple the next generation and be transformed ourselves.
Rebekah McNeilly is the social media and resource co-ordinator for women’s ministries in the Canada and Bermuda Territory.
Photo: Daniel de la Hoz/iStock via Getty Images Plus