Reaching Generation Z

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Toni* is a 16-year-old high school student. She succeeds in her honors and AP classes, and she is a starting player on the soccer team. She is attractive and popular. But despite her academic, athletic, and social successes, Toni is struggling. She is filled with anxiety beyond what she can handle. She feels pressure from family, friends, school, and—most of all—herself. Her life is over-programmed and over-controlled, and she feels like she has no freedom.

Her parents work long hours and never seem to be around or available for her. She feels distant from her family, her friends, and from life itself. Toni is depressed and has had thoughts of taking her own life. She has been cutting herself more and more to find some strange, temporary relief from her pain. Her life feels frantic, out of control, fragmented, and meaningless. She feels hopelessly alone and does not know where to turn.

Toni is just like so many of her generation: Generation Z. Individuals of Generation Z (those born between 1995–2005) are facing what many are calling a “mental health crisis,” having higher levels of anxiety and depression than any generation before them. Almost completely cut off from the wise counsel of an older generation, they experience uncertainty, instability, and broken family dynamics. They are victims of constant comparison with others and inundated with negative messages, pornography, and cyberbullying. They are considered post-Christian, skeptical, and fragmented—a generation that struggles with anxiety in epidemic proportions.

Some people bemoan the perplexing problems that characterize Generation Z, writing the generation off as unreachable; I could not disagree more. Because when Toni’s friend invited her to youth group, she came. After developing deep trust through a nurturing environment and close relationships with adults and peers in the youth group, Toni discovered that her emptiness came from her heart’s deep longing for Jesus. Just beginning her journey with Christ, she can already see that Jesus has changed her life forever. So when people ask me whether youth ministry is still needed today, my short answer is, “Yes! It is needed now more than ever.”

It is rumored that youth ministry was first invented in the 1930–40s to attract teenagers through entertaining games and activities in hopes of leading them to Christ. The truth is that youth ministry began in the heart of God. From the earliest pages of Scripture, we see the priority of reaching young people, nurturing them, and encouraging them to follow Christ. The Old Testament commands us to first love the Lord our God with all our hearts and then to impress these things on a younger generation (Deuteronomy 6:4–9). The Psalmist reflects this as he says, “even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your mighty acts to all who are to come” (Psalm 71:18, NIV). The Proverbs direct and inspire us to be intentional about passing the wisdom of an older generation to the young. Jesus commanded us to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Strategically it makes sense to make it a priority to reach the young: it is often young people who are the most open to the message of Christ and who then have their entire lives to live for Christ. Jesus modeled incarnational ministry by leaving the luxuries of heaven to come to earth to rescue us. So, we choose to enter into the world of younger people to reach them for Christ.

There is nothing quite like youth ministry in the culture around us. Where else can teenagers find a place where they can develop deep and strong, trusted relationships with older, wiser mentors who can speak into their lives? Where else can teenagers find a safe, protected, trust-filled environment where they can “test their wings,” try new things, and discover who God made them to be? Where else can teenagers contemplate the enduring questions of life in a place where they can ask questions, ponder real-life scenarios, and find biblical wisdom to guide them now and in their future? Where else can teenagers forge lasting friendships that will guide them and determine the quality and direction of their lives? Where can parents of teenagers find support and resources to help them with the challenging directive to disciple their own teenagers?

Teenagers have very few options in our current cultural context to experience these developmental assets as a part of their lives, and we are seeing the results of a generation of teenagers who are lost without hope and without Christ. Youth ministry plays a unique and critically important role in the church and in our culture by providing relationships that give direction, give hope, and—most importantly—give Jesus to this generation.

We cannot sit back and wait for them to come to us; we must follow Jesus’ directive and example to go, enter their lives, and give up our lives to reach them. This will require the church to be committed for the “long haul.” Cairn has been educating its students to be those faithfully committed, “long-haul” ministry workers for over 100 years, and it has been educating students specifically for vocational youth ministry for over 25 years.

“Youth ministry plays a unique and critically important role in the church and in our culture by providing relationships that give direction, give hope, and—most importantly—give Jesus to this generation.”

Since 2013, students who study youth ministry at Cairn have been earning degrees in youth and family ministry, learning to effectively minister to teenagers and their families. We recognize that the deepest and most lasting impact in a person’s life is often his/her parents, and the parents of Generation Z are facing challenges that parents have never been confronted with before: high levels of anxiety and depression, exposure to a constant barrage of messages from media, brokenness of family, and an
abundance of technology. Cairn graduates are equipped to maximize their impact on students by being a resource and encouragement to parents as they help parents live out God’s calling to be the number one influencer and discipler of their children.

Generation Z is viewed as fragmented, isolated, overexposed, anxious, and under-challenged, but God is working in the hearts of these teens. We will probably not reach them in mass, but rather one at a time. They will not be reached through the youth pastor alone, but through an entire church mobilized to reach them and their families. We will not reach them through programs, but rather by giving up our lives to enter their world just as Jesus entered ours. It will require commitment. It will not be without difficulty or sacrifice. But students like Toni are worth it.

Youth ministry is needed now more than ever. Will you pray that God will raise up an army of youth workers who are willing to give their lives to serve Christ and who are willing to be equipped to declare God’s power to another generation? Would you be willing to join us in praying for this generation? Email me at and I will personally email monthly prayer requests to you.

Dr. Matt McAlack is the director of the youth and family ministry program at Cairn University. He can be reached at