Recent reports of declining religious engagement paint a sad picture about the future of the church in the United States. But from my perspective leading InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, I’ve seen how younger Christians may offer us a road map for hope, particularly for those of us from earlier generations.
In some ways, it’s almost remarkable that Gen Z students still have a desire to grow spiritually at all. During a pivotal stage of life, which most of us remember as a season of optimism and opportunity, they are grappling with an ongoing pandemic, political divisions, racial injustices, and campus openings and closures.
In a time when practical discipleship may be the least of their worries, it would be easy to let the complexities and pressures of life crowd out the spiritual. But these recent crises have had a spiritually clarifying effect on them. This generation has a spiritual hunger and a desire to grow into disciples prepared to engage a turbulent world.
Here are five ways I’ve seen Gen Z college students modeling a deeper, more resilient faith that older generations can learn from.
1. Spiritually resilient people know how to wait
God is showing Gen Z how to wait in a culture that hates to wait for anything. It might come as a surprise that this generation of Christians—all of whom grew up with instantaneous access to the internet—has the capacity for patience. But I have watched them embrace what author and pastor Ben Patterson says in his book Waiting: Finding Hope When God Seems Silent: “At least as important as the things we wait for is the work God wants to do in us as we wait.”
Where many in older generations have responded to delayed gratification with self-soothing, Gen Z Christians have prayed that God would sharpen their holy dissatisfaction instead. Hundreds of students joined last year’s “Freeish: A Virtual Juneteenth Gathering” sponsored by InterVarsity’s Black Campus Ministry amid renewed awareness of centuries of racial injustice. They used the Juneteenth holiday—which recognizes the delay between the end of the Civil War and the emancipation of enslaved people in Texas—as a gateway to experience the tension between the now/not yet of the kingdom of God.
They pressed into the tension of “Freeish” so that they could hunger and thirst for righteousness more keenly. They accepted responsibility to be pastors to sinful people and prophets to sinful systems. They understood that waiting with faith is an act of resistance to evil. While resisting the situations and injustices that might grind them, they flooded to BCM’s most recent national online conference, the title of which expressed their resolve and resilience: “Still Here.”
2. Spiritually resilient people are of good cheer
Throughout the past few years, I have been challenged and moved by the ways that Gen Z Christians move seamlessly from “How long, O Lord?” to “Hallelujah!” in worship. Perhaps this is shaped by their study of the Psalms and Revelation, both of which move from lament to praise in a breath.
They have much to lament. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship recently surveyed Christian Gen Z students from 127 campuses. The results made clear that Gen Z sees the world in all its brokenness. The range of issues they care about defy simple political categorization yet reflect a deep awareness of our deepest cultural divides. Gen Z Christians care most, according to our survey, about the issues of racial injustice, climate change, and adoption and foster care. Reducing abortion, ensuring religious freedom, and reforming the criminal justice system round up the top issues they identified.
Gen Z Christians reject the ways some older Christians can be seduced by cynicism and partisanship as they engage these issues, as well as the way that others have turned to self-indulgence or denial. They are looking for a Scripture-defined faith that will help them engage and address the world’s problems.
I remember the overwhelming student response to a medley of “We Shall Overcome,” “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”, and “Because He Lives” during one of our national online events. They reject despair. Their resilience is grounded in more than self-care, in more than naïve optimism in inevitable social progress. Instead, it’s grounded in God’s character and in Christ’s resurrection.
Spiritually resilient people can assess reality, even if it’s harsh, and weigh it against the reality of God’s presence and provision, continuing to live with hope and joy. In John 16, Jesus was clear about the difficult reality ahead when he spoke to his disciples before his arrest. He was also clear about his victory. “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (v. 33). The King James Version expresses it, “Be of good cheer.”
3. Spiritually resilient people hunger for the right thing
Even with such a broad interest in current issues, the discipleship resource these students wanted most was to learn how to study Scripture. This surprised me. Books on hermeneutics do not top the Christian bestseller list. Worship songs on the beauty of Scripture are not in heavy rotation according to CCLI. Graduation gifts for high school seniors tend to be filled with inspirational quotes and practical how-tos. But Gen Z Christians want to learn how to study Scripture. More than guidance on relationships, vocation, or sex, Gen Z Christians long to understand the Bible.
They are tired of therapeutic moral deism, with its shallow affirmations of their worth and its lifeless invitations to try harder. They aren’t looking for an inspirational but out-of-context Bible verse on Instagram. They want to hear God speak through his Word.
We see this hunger in InterVarsity’s ministry. Our core ministry on campus is a small-group Bible study that invites students to rigorously study God’s Word in community. They don’t gather to watch a video sermon or to answer questions in a workbook. They meet because they want to hear God speak directly into their lives through the Scriptures.
Gen Z Christians are resilient because they want to hear directly from God through his Word.
4. Spiritually resilient people put down deep spiritual roots in Christian community
During the earlier parts of the pandemic, life shut down. Gen Z Christians reported they struggled with loneliness (58%). Nearly 47 percent said their mental health had been negatively impacted by the pandemic. They wrestled with the isolation, in part, because they overwhelmingly affirmed that belonging to a campus Christian fellowship was the most important factor in growing their faith. They understand the importance of Christian community.
As the new school year begins, students are returning to campus fellowships enthusiastically. They want to worship, to study Scripture, and to pray together after a long season of isolation. This is the largest group of new students to step foot on campus for the first time, and as in-person ministry events are happening for the first time in 18 months, campus ministers are seeing surges of students attending.
At the University of Alabama in Huntsville, for instance, campus minister Amanda Koch has been planting a ministry for the past couple of years. At their first on-campus event of the year, she expected only around twenty students to attend but was surprised when over 70 showed up.
Similarly, Neal Overbay, campus staff minister at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign, reported more students participated in their first campus-wide meeting this year than in pre-pandemic years.
Students know they need community. Those of us who have become too comfortable with passive participation in streamed church services should listen to the wisdom expressed by Gen Z.
5. The church’s spiritual resistance is tested together
We’re at a point in the pandemic where there is a lot of fatigue and a lot of mixed emotions. We all want life to return to normal, but many of us dread the thought of another school year, another fall, another winter of navigating the precautions. Or perhaps as we settle back into our routines, we realize how much has changed and hurt during the year-and-half of the pandemic.
Amid the fatigue, we must encourage each other to practice the disciplines of joy and hope and to not give in to self-pity or cynicism. This is the kind of strength that Scripture says we’re to aspire to and that is promised to us if we abide in Christ.
Traditionally, we think of discipleship as generationally top down—one generation passing what it’s learned to a younger generation. But discipleship can also be bottom up. Older generations, in humility, can take note of what younger people are learning and receive it, allowing it to reveal gaps in their own discipleship.
No generation is exempt from needing to grow in resilience. As we’re tested together, both now and in the future, we can praise God for the ways that the Spirit is filling gaps in our maturity, no matter which generation is the teacher.
Tom Lin is the president and CEO of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA.