Nearly 70 percent of students walk away from their previously held faith during their college years. This number is high, and it’s alarming for parents and faith leaders alike.
Recent Pinkston research indicates that over 50 percent of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship college students list loneliness or isolation as one of their greatest challenges. About half of those students said their mental and emotional health had suffered over the course of the pandemic. Only one in four pointed to church involvement as a positive experience in helping them stay grounded. This lack of community has left a generation feeling lost, and it’s no surprise that they still want to find hope and peace.
Today’s students–known as Gen Z or Zoomers–were born between 1999 and 2015 and are the first to enter college in a post-Christian world. Their formative years were shaped by mass shootings, tensions around inequality, economic challenges, shifting definitions of identity, and now a pandemic. Ultimately, Gen Z is searching for identity, purpose, and ways to make an impact. They are desperate for foundational truths in the midst of seeming chaos.
Young people did not end up here in a vacuum, and it’s not too late for older generations to contribute to their success. What can we do then to ensure that a lonely generation finds community? How can we support them in a way that lays a firm faith foundation while also providing them with the tools needed for their unique contexts?
When it comes to understanding Gen Z, our work begins by first laying aside common assumptions to make way for empathy and compassion, building a bridge for Gen Z to cross as they continue to search for an authentic faith that provides hope and peace.
Overcoming the Great Divide
“Our culture is shifting, and we are not going back,” says Lisa Liou, a regional director with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship who has been working in student ministry for more than 20 years and who is also the mother of Zoomers. “Young people do not want to reinvest in something that has no future.”
What may look like apathy to some older generations is more likely a difference of priorities. Liou and others who work closely with college students assert that rather than trying to win culture over, work with Gen Z should focus on belonging. Liou has noticed that where her Gen X peers sought justice for the marginalized, her Gen Z kids want to live in the margins with the marginalized, far away from the majority groups they distrust.
Young people are keenly aware that the previous path to success was only accessible to certain people, and they are committed to seeing justice delivered through diversity, equity, and inclusion. Success for Gen Z is tied to the empowerment of others who might not have the same opportunities.
The spirit of their motivation applies to faith spaces as well. Gen Z hasn’t given up on church; instead, they want to belong in authentic, transparent, and inclusive spaces. This is a generation asking important questions and holding the church accountable for its failure to live out unconditional love and grace.
Listening and learning with empathy is the best way forward if we want to support Gen Z as they transition to adulthood. As we avoid passing on prescriptive paths and didactic lessons, we might see that their perspective closely mirrors the work of Jesus.
Beauty and Justice
Reaching Gen Z requires accepting that they are leading us in a new direction.
Gen Z grows increasingly justice- and action-oriented. The most important issues for college students involved in InterVarsity’s campus ministries are racial justice, climate change, and adoption and foster care. Their concerns are rooted in a desire to see these broken systems fixed. Embracing their passion is embracing a future that centers the gospel.
“Gen Z are beautiful students,” says Kadrian Hinton, associate producer and project manager at InterVarsity. “They show real empathy. They care deeply about justice and making sure everyone has space in community. They fight systems that challenge the dignity of people. This is the essence of the heart of Jesus—a God who cares for us, fights for us, and creates beautiful things.”
Reframing our perspective on how Gen Z interacts with the world reveals that they are actually doing the hard work of living out a faith that looks more like Jesus–one that prioritizes the community, follows marginalized and oppressed voices, and speaks truth to power.
Bridging the Gap
While it is difficult to know the best way to lead an entire generation to the answers they are seeking, over 70 percent of InterVarsity students said belonging to a campus ministry was the most helpful way to cultivate their faith. For more than 80 years, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship has been engaging and encouraging university students with these ministries. With 1,100 chapters on 770 campuses ranging from Ivy Leagues to community colleges, InterVarsity continues to be an accessible outlet for students to explore their faith.
“InterVarsity's basic foundations of prayer, Bible study, and evangelism are essential for this coming generation,” says Liou. “But I believe the way we are being called to pursue those basic foundations must be with a renewed humility and dependence on God. To the extent that these are empowered by God as gifts for ministry, they bring great hope and joy.”
Though culture within and outside the church is continually changing, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship knows that the desire for authentic, trustworthy connections is universal and not generation-specific. InterVarsity is rising to the challenge of sharing Jesus on college campuses and seeing Gen Z students transformed and then sent out as world changers. For more information about engaging with Gen Z effectively, visit their website.