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Longing for likes: How to capture the hearts of Gen Z with a greater love

The message appears on the big screen: “Please silence your electronic devices.” And amazingly the people obey. Moments before, they were texting, tweeting, and posting pictures on Instagram. But now they’re putting their phones in airplane mode. Ironically, the middle school girl, an iconic representative of the most tech-savvy, hyper-connected generation in history, is elbowing her dad: “Put it away. The show’s about to start.” When they go to the theater, even Generation Z, the iGeneration, stops to sit still. They’re transfixed by a story.

Tech-savvy, hyper-connected Generation Z

Generation Z is everywhere. According to Lifeway’s Facts and Trends, those born between 1996 and 2014, ages 4 to 22 at the time of writing, now make up 24.3 percent of the U.S. population. That’s more than millennials (22.1 percent), Gen X (19 percent), and baby boomers (22.9 percent). This largest segment of the population is longing to be affirmed, to be loved. The trouble is that they’re seeking love where it cannot be found.

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This largest segment of the population is longing to be affirmed, to be loved. The trouble is that they’re seeking love where it cannot be found.

Born at least a decade after the advent of the Macintosh, kids today have never known a world without the internet or cell phones. Pew Research reports that 92 percent of teens go online daily. And it’s no wonder. Technology training starts early these days. boasts that it has engaged 10 percent of all students in the world through its Hour of Code campaign. This means that a growing number of the middle school kids in church youth ministries are already skilled with Java; they’ve been learning to code since elementary school. Most kids have to go online each day to get their homework done. It doesn’t matter if she’s part of a homeschool co-op or attends a public school, the average Gen Z kid is familiar with applications like Google Classroom or Canvas. She uses them to take quizzes, submit and access assignments, and participate in class discussions.

Looking for acceptance online

Online is the place kids go to perform. And nowhere is that more true than in the world of social media. My grandfather’s generation sat at the breakfast table reading the morning newspaper. This generation gets up to check Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram. It’s a new reality that requires an evolving social skill set. Danah Boyd, sociotechnical researcher for Microsoft Research, Data, and Society writes about the complicated social lives of networked teens. She explains how teenagers form a social identity online by managing their friends’ impressions. Boyd writes:

While what they present may or may not resemble their offline identity, their primary audience consists of peers that they know primarily offline—people from school, church, work, sports teams, etc. Because of this . . . teens are inclined to present the side of themselves that they believe will be well received by these peers.

In other words, today’s teens, through their use of social media, are doing what kids have done for generations before them; they’re trying to fit in. The number of comments, likes, and follows a teenager has—like the clothes he wears or where he sits in the high school cafeteria—communicates something about his social standing. What’s different for Gen Z kids is that smartphones have made this social pressure portable. As a result, the work of managing friends’ impressions online can become a full-time job.

A generation longing for justice and love

Many Gen Z kids embrace managing their platform with a passion. You can see it in the perfectly angled selfie sticks that capture faces aglow in the sun. The likes and love from friends bring confidence and pleasure. But the joy isn’t all self-indulgent. Being so connected socially has had the added advantage of helping many Gen Z kids develop empathy, realism, and a sense of purpose. The growth of the online world has exposed them to more diverse friendships, connecting them with others from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and cultural experiences.

They are also more aware of suffering and the world’s brokenness. Most Gen Z kids have grown up since 9/11, and they lived through the Great Recession at the end of the last decade. As a result, they’ve experienced the realities of war and financial loss in ways that touch them personally—family members who are disabled veterans or parents who lost their jobs. In light of these diverse experiences, Gen Z kids are largely tuned into social concerns, such as climate change, sexual abuse, human trafficking, the refugee crisis, and racism. Hashtags like #metoo and #blacklivesmatter tell the story. Generation Z is “woke,” and they’re looking for an opportunity to make an impact.

But for every Gen Z kid online happily posting selfies or crusading for social justice, there’s another who has been a victim of cyber-bullying or who has grown disillusioned. “Likes” come to be superficial. And if voices of justice remain online and unheard in day-to-day life, they seem superficial too. Many young people just feel overwhelmed—unable to process their emotions in the face of a world of hurt. Rising self-harm and suicide trends testify to the fact that it’s just too much for many Gen Z kids to handle. The world is not the way it’s supposed to be. And for kids who are sensitive to this truth, every news cycle can be experienced as a new wave of grief.

Generation Z’s passion for affirmation, acceptance, and justice reveals something that’s true about every generation. We’re all made for more. Both the joys we experience in this life as well as our unfulfilled desires reveal deep longing for the consummation of God’s kingdom. C.S. Lewis wrote about it decades ago in Mere Christianity:

Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

Gen Z is longing for covenant love and kingdom justice that transcends their daily experience. They’re looking for commitment that’s more lasting than a social network can offer. They’re looking for a place where the work of justice is done and not merely talked about. How do we help this generation see that there is a Love that’s better than life (Ps. 63:3)? How do we help them see that true justice will one day roll across the world like ocean waves (Amos 5:24)? How can the church help Gen Z see that what they are longing for really exists?

Capture their hearts by living the story

It’s tempting to think that the only way to reach a hyper-connected generation is by making our youth ministry environments look more like a theater—more wired, gamified, and image-rich. Some might say, “If we want the kids to put away their phones and tune in, we should take them to the movies.” There’s an element of truth in this, of course. Youth pastors should be mindful about using effective communication methods. If you want the announcements to be heard, it’s helpful these days to post them on Instagram with a slick banner or photo. And video clip sermon intros can be more engaging for the YouTube generation.

But if our goal is to make disciples of the next generation, we’ve got to do more than capture their eyes; we must capture their hearts. Doing so will involve more than grabbing their attention then lecturing them about biblical truth—more than merely preaching the propositions and principals of Christian theology with engaging images. Gen Z needs to see a church that has been captured by Jesus’ more compelling story. And we can show them how Star Wars and Marvel have nothing on Jesus:

Jesus’s story shows kids that their worth is not tied to comments or likes. They are valued as image bearers of the Creator King. If we truly believe this as a community, then we’ll honor the younger generation by inviting them to participate in the life of our community as equals. This begins with the children. Give them jobs to do at church outside of youth and children’s ministry events. Let the children pass out bulletins. Invite a middle schooler to sit beside a seasoned saint in the nursery holding babies. Invite young men to help set up chairs before meetings begin.

Jesus isn’t unaware of the world’s brokenness or our own. The Bible invites us to engage with a world that’s more contemporary than we sometimes care to admit. Invite Gen Z teenagers to open their Bibles to narratives from the Judges and Kings. Help them see that political egomaniacs, religious pluralism, and the kind of sexual confusion they encounter in their friend groups doesn’t take God by surprise. They see it all on social media. Don’t be afraid to show it to them in the Word. And don’t be afraid to confess your personal and corporate sins as well. Gen Z kids need to see a church that is actively repenting from racial discrimination, maltreatment of immigrants, and a lack of concern for the poor.

Jesus shows us a redemptive love that transcends superficial experiences. Gen Z kids need to hear the story of a brown-skinned Middle Eastern man who bears the wrath our misplaced love and social injustice deserves. This man, our Jesus, stood starkly against a superficial culture. A bold church that loves and knows him, will stand out today as well. It will be socially awkward at times. Calling out cultural sins, talking about hell from the pulpit, and practicing church discipline are nearly always socially awkward. But that’s exactly the kind of transcendent community Gen Z kids need to see.

Finally, Jesus promises a life that fulfills this generation’s deepest longings. Jesus promises us that true love can be found; one day, justice will be done. Gen Z kids need a maturing church that actively pursues these kingdom realities. Empowered by the Spirit, we must increasingly reflect the kind of multi-cultural, justice-loving community we’ll encounter when the kingdom comes (Rev. 7:9). So, invite the next generation to walk beside you as you do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8). Bring the teens along for a housing renovation project. Invite them to serve with you at a homeless shelter or crisis pregnancy center. And encourage college students to take advantage of opportunities to go on mission overseas or apply for a justice internship with a group like Love Thy Neighborhood.

This hyper-connected, hyper-concerned generation in on a quest for transcendent love. With bold love and kind invitations, let’s show them their value and invite them into a better story. Let’s help them put down their devices and find deeper satisfaction in Jesus.

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