two men laughing white sitting on chairs

As a 43-year-old, I’m living in a world that looks unfamiliar to me. 

For example, I’ve never seen so many businesses looking to hire workers before. Many businesses I frequent have “help wanted signs” next to “please be kind, we are understaffed” signs written in sharpie. 

But what’s most fascinating to me about this moment in cultural history, often referred to as “the Great Resignation,” is not the economics of it all. It’s the way people respond to these new realities. One response in particular is fascinating in its pervasiveness: “nobody wants to work anymore.”

You see, the jobs issue isn’t the pay rates. Or the working conditions. Or the fact that people already have jobs (currently we’re in a season of historically low unemployment). The problem is the young people, you see. Young adults are lazy. They are entitled. They don’t have any work ethic.

In the face of cultural changes, we often have a tendency to blame young people. It’s not new either.

We’ve been blaming young adults for not wanting to work for over 120 years:

"Nobody Wants to Work Anymore!" A brief history of capitalists complaining the nobody wants to work for starvation wages-- Even young adults!

Sadly, we do the same thing to young adults in the church.

The church in North America is shrinking and we blame the next generation, “nobody wants to go to church anymore.” We did it with Gen X. We did it with the Millennials. We’re doing it with Gen Z.

However, I don’t think blaming the next generation of young adults for not connecting with what connects to us is going to right the ship.

Currently, the Millennial generation is aging into their 40’s and they are rapidly leaving the “young adult” category (which is enough to inspire a new trend of referring to some of them as “elder millennials”). Gen Z is quickly picking up the mantle of “young adult” and, consequently, the blame for the shrinking church. 

But I don’t think it’s their fault. At least, I don’t think it’s worthwhile to fault them for it. Just like the millennial generation was accused of being the “participation trophy” generation, we place the responsibility on children, instead of the Baby Boomer parents who wanted to ensure their kids got trophies. We (the older generations) have a responsibility not just to pass on what we know, but to learn from the next generation as well.

In our book, Sustainable Young Adult Ministry: Making it Work, Making it Last, Mark Devries & I shared six mistakes that churches are making with young adults. At the time of writing, we were aiming at Millennials. But I’ve found that these mistakes still ring true today. Because the overarching mistake is simply the failure of an older generation to meet the next generation of church leaders where they are.

Want to learn more about these six mistakes? Purchase a copy of Sustainable Young Adult Ministry here!

The failure of the church to thrive through the generations is not simply about teaching correct doctrine, it’s about failing to be incarnational with young adults. Rather than join young adults in their ministry, we’d much rather invite them to join us in ours.

Gen Z young adults have faith stories. They have desires to see the mission of the church transform the world. They care about marginalized and underrepresented people and they deeply desire to see the church look like Jesus. But they don’t live that out in a way previous generations did.

Call it naiveté, call it disconnection, call it pride or selfishness, but the more an older generation fails to meet the younger generation on their turf, the more the church suffers. The good news is that there is plenty of opportunity and hope to succeed and God even gives some good instructions on how to start.

The Lord said to Moses, “This applies to the Levites: Men twenty-five years old or more shall come to take part in the work at the tent of meeting, but at the age of fifty, they must retire from their regular service and work no longer. They may assist their brothers in performing their duties at the tent of meeting, but they themselves must not do the work. This, then, is how you are to assign the responsibilities of the Levites.”

Numbers 8:23-26 (NIV)

I bet you didn’t know God instituted a mandatory retirement age at 50, did you? Interestingly, people are living pretty long lives at this point in the Old Testament and yet God makes 50 years-old the cutoff. I don’t think it’s because that’s when a person is too feeble to do the work, I think it’s because that’s the best time to offer help to the next leader in the church.

Take note, also, that the goal is not to make sure that the younger Levites learn how the older Levites do the work. Instead, the goal is for the 50-year-old, to assist the 25-year-old in the younger leader’s responsibilities. It’s about meeting the young adult in their work and assisting them.

I’ve heard many people decry the low religious values of young adults. But I don’t know many churches whose 50-year-olds are looking to the young adults to develop ministry direction and leadership in the church. 

Gen Z has new experiences and new characteristics that separate them from their Millennial predecessors. Rather than Facebook and 9/11, they’ve experienced TikTok and COVID-19. These experiences are shaping them differently and create different values. But Gen Z, like every generation before them, needs to be invested in rather than blamed. The greatest choice older generations can make is to invest in the work of the next set of young adults.

Get to know them.

Get to know their mission and their calling.

Get to know how you can assist your younger brothers and sisters in their work of leading the church.

Here’s a start of what a typical Gen Z young adult cares about:

  • Self-Care.  
    Gen Z knows more about trauma than previous generations and would love to avoid the negative impacts in their lives.
  • Collaboration and flexibility.  
    Gen Z doesn’t care about being in the office and working 9-5.
  • Diversity. 
    Gen Z makes choices about where they live and work (and where they will send their kids to school) based on the opportunities for diversity.
  • Authenticity & Ambiguity.  
    Gen Z is okay if you don’t have all the answers. They would rather wrestle together with a real person on issues than settle for trite responses.
  • Causes.  
    Gen Z is motivated by actions that will make a difference in the world.  Whether it’s climate change or the #MeToo movement or protesting on social issues, Gen Z is not simply there to talk, they literally want to change the world.

Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list.  But it does include a number of things that older generations might disregard because they’re not the values of their generation. In fact, so many have chosen that path already.

Leaders in the church today have a choice in how they relate to Gen Z and the values they hold. They can blame them for the problems they see. Or they can engage them and open the door to a new future within the next generation.