I stepped into the pulpit of Dimnent Chapel at Hope College and looked out at a sea of young faces. It was the beginning of the school year, and these students looked very much like those from previous years: bright, curious, with a hint of suspicion in their eyes.
Yet a few subtle clues told me I was preaching to a different kind of crowd than the millennials I was used to. I invited them to open their Bibles, and instead of pulling out books nearly every person in the room touched an app on their iPhones. I made an oblique Seinfeld allusion, hoping to register a laugh or two, but I was met with polite, blank stares. In previous years at least a few students had seen reruns of the show. But this is the Netflix generation, I reminded myself. As I moved into the heart of my message, I was surprised to find that even basic biblical references evoked few looks of recognition. I realized then and there that assumptions I had been relying on for years would need to go out the window.
Two years since that chapel service, I’ve had more practice preaching to Generation Z. After much trial and error, I’ve discovered four strategies that help me connect with them from the pulpit.
1. I Get Inside My Sermon
Even more than millennials before them, this generation tends to be suspicious of organized programs and well-trod church paths—anything that seems to lack authenticity. This demands two things from my preaching: vulnerability and creativity.
Good preaching is more like singing than lecturing. Young adults want to know that your message comes deep from within and isn’t a paint-by-numbers homily. That’s why I do my best to get inside my sermons. I try to feel the words in my heart as I speak them because students know manufactured enthusiasm when they see it. True passion comes from within.
In preaching to Gen Z, I’ve realized that presence is usually more important than polish. I allow myself to be mock-able. When I slip in my delivery, I lean into the skid and laugh at myself. That’s hard to do if I’m overly rehearsed.
As a college pastor, I work in a context that—understandably—takes itself very seriously. Students carry enough books in their backpacks to topple a small shelf, and their internal burdens are heavier. Gen Z lives under the weight of a meritocracy culture of shares and likes, grades and rankings. I want my sermons to lighten the load and give people permission to laugh. But I don’t want to trivialize the burdens they carry, so I have to be able to turn on a dime and talk about ultimate questions. The only way I can do that honestly is by remaining flexible and experiencing my sermons while I give them.
2. I Offer a Sense of History and Place
One of my favorite characters from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Ringsis an Ent named Treebeard. The Ents are custodians and protectors of the forests. They have long memories, and their vocation of stewardship is tied to a sense of place, a deep love for their natural surroundings. Their unique understanding of responsibility is tied closely to where they’ve been and where they are.
Most members of Gen Z I meet have little sense of history or place. In the digital age, when even groceries and fast food can be pre-ordered and delivered, fewer places exist that nurture a sense of communal identity. Globalization gives us many gifts, but it can also strip away our sense of place—the recognition that our location has a history where God has long been at work.
I find it helpful to imbed in my sermons clues to the spiritual history of my listeners’ place. I offer stories of people who have gone before them, like Edward Daniel Dimnent, Hope’s fifth president, who had a vision to build a chapel five times the size of the student body because he believed one day it would be filled. (Today, the chapel regularly fills to capacity.) I tell students to note the solid brass door handle they pull to come into our chapel. The right handle is shinny and smooth because generations of students, faculty, and sta. have pulled that handle to enter the chapel.
To preach like an Ent is to be a wise elder at the campfire, telling family stories in three dimensions: past, present, and future. Each passage of Scripture comes to us from the past, but the Word is also living, bearing on our present and inspiring us to live with faith toward a hopeful future. With this context, Gen Zers can find their place in the history of God’s people.
3. I Treat People Like Insiders
Gen Zers are the most connected generation ever, but they are also the loneliest. Jean Twenge, in her book iGen, claims that this generation is on the verge of the most severe mental health crisis in decades. “Overall, more and more college students are struggling with mental health issues—not just those who seek help at counseling centers but among representative samples completing anonymous surveys.” She documents that 46 percent more 15-to-19-year-olds committed suicide in 2015 than in 2007. In a Psychology Today article titled “The Mental Health Crisis is upon the Internet Generation,” Glenn Geher writes, “More and more students each year report having issues of anxiety or depression (along with other problems). Our counseling center on campus, like such centers around the nation, is absolutely saturated all the time.” The counseling center on Hope’s campus recently reported a similar situation.
This makes it important to address students as insiders rather than as strange, unknowable “others.” Nearly every student I know wants to be wanted, included, and invited into something meaningful. For this reason, I don’t buy into the idea that I need to scrub my message clean of all theological and churchy language. That only makes my sermon feel shallow and artificial, and students can tell when we lower the bar to pander to them. Instead, I talk like a Christian. True, sometimes I need to translate terms I use, but by keeping the language of faith in my sermons, I help students learn the Christian story, in which they can find their place.
Some preachers worry that Christian lingo creates barriers for young people who aren’t familiar with the church. And too much of it can do just that. But Gen Z is used to learning new terms when they engage with stories. This is the generation that learned about “districts,” “tributes,” and “Panem” in The Hunger Games and “T’Challa,” “Wakanda,” and “Vibranium” from Black Panther. I don’t worry about tossing “incarnation” or “atonement” into my sermons on occasion, as long as I explain what I’m talking about. I would rather students think I’m expecting much of them because I see them as insiders than belittling them because I see them as outsiders.
4. I Preach for Gen Z, Not at Them
No one wants to feel like a project, and Gen Z is not a problem to be solved. One of the best gifts we can offer Gen Zers is to talk less about them and more about God. Despite what we hear so often, the great temptation to worldliness for young adults doesn’t come from drugs or sex or screens. It comes from the subtle suggestion whispered in every corner of their lives that they can go about living without giving any thought to God at all.
From boomers to Gen Xers to millennials, we have seen a long trend of young people moving from identifying as “religious” to “spiritual,” but according to Twenge this is the first generation in American history that is uninterested in being religious or spiritual. One way we can show up for Gen Z is by offering winsome, consequential, and God-centric preaching.
According to the American Psychological Association’s report Stress in America: Generation Z, members of this generation are more likely than adults overall to be stressed about issues in the news, yet that doesn’t mean the news cycle should define the terms of our worship. I don’t let CNN or late night talk show hosts set the table for what is relevant. Rather, I advocate for the church by offering young adults a beautiful vision of God and his kingdom.
I am not saying political or cultural issues shouldn’t be discussed in worship. As a preacher, one of my jobs is to introduce Gen Z to the real world and train them to live in it. But since God directs history and holds all things together, he must remain the subject of my sermons.
Recently, I preached during Advent on the prologue of John 1:14: “The Word became flesh.” I explained that the Incarnation teaches us that God takes our bodies seriously. A week later, a student told me she had been struggling with an eating disorder because she hated her body. She said, “Just hearing that God cared about my body was something I had never thought of before. It’s been healing.” By keeping God as the subject and object of my sermons, I have been amazed at how relevant they have been to the daily lives and questions of students.
From Generation to Generation
Recently, after preaching to a roomful of Gen Zers about God’s gift of grace, a woman in her 60s came up to me. “What you preached was exactly what I needed to hear,” she said. “I have always been afraid of falling short as a Christian, but you reminded me that I don’t have to pretend to be a perfect Christian to worship God.”
This got me thinking. Maybe learning to preach to Gen Z is making me a better preacher to everyone. Preaching the Word honestly and creatively—in a way that invites people in, helps them find their place in the story, and focuses first and foremost on God—calls forth my best effort for everyone.
Trygve Johnson is the Hinga-Boersma Dean of the Chapel at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.