In the midst of the global pandemic that’s shut down life as we know it, we’ve scrambled to adjust.
Our future will undoubtedly be shaped by this event, and those who work with Gen Z must consider the ways this pandemic may affect the youngest generation, and what we can do to continue to work with and reach them right now.
Teens, educators, and experts alike shared their opinions with me, and though we cannot predict what the future may look like, we can speculate what we’re already seeing emerge to help understand where we can provide comfort and challenge for years to come.
How is COVID-19 influencing Gen Z even now, and what can we do with that knowledge?
(If you missed it, Part 1 is here).
Doing Things Their Own Way
Gen Z often masks their many fears in humor, and their creativity has exploded while in quarantine. I receive a steady supply of memes and videos from my students, and while many of them are downright silly, a lot of them speak cleverly to deep issues that our students are encountering.
Telling, too, is how many of my students have used this time in self-isolation to try something new.
Free time has given them a chance to explore new passions. Some are forming groups where they present PowerPoints on different topics and teach each other. One of my students has started writing her own book, while others are trying their hand at poetry and journaling and art. A middle schooler I teach has been sketching every single day, trying to hone his skill.
One of my college students, Grace, FaceTimed me a few weeks ago and asked if she could try her hand at leading our high school small group. “I’ve always felt this draw towards youth ministry,” she told me. “Now, I have the chance to try it, because we’re all on video chat.”
Sure enough, Grace led our Bible study and knocked it out of the park—so much so that my high schoolers texted her afterwards, begging for her to teach them again.
Interestingly, a generation that’s always been so open about their mental health is suddenly relying on themselves to get through a crisis. Many are drawing on strength they didn’t even know they had, in order to get through this.
Many teenagers are empowered for the first time. Not only are they making their own choices now, but older generations desperately need their help to figure out technology that we’ve suddenly all been thrust into using.
For the first time, they’re valued as much as any adult.
While I’ve still counseled my fair share of kids who are struggling with worries, self-harm, and loss of loved ones this last month, I’ve seen undeniable courage and tenacity in teens, too.
This is our chance to call out the great things we’re seeing from Gen Z.
Too often, younger generations only hear an endless litany of complaints from older folks. Take the opportunity to share the good things you see them doing, and the creative ways you see this emerging generation handling their worries.
Don’t take for granted that young people know what you like about them: actually verbalize it, aloud, to them.
Influencing Future Goals
Those who’ve studied Gen Z know that they’re consumed with success and achievement—more so than previous generations.
As Julianna Shults, Program Manager for LCMS Youth Ministry, explains, “They’re achievement-oriented. Will they double down on that now, or will it ease? It’s possible that they’ll spend time with their families and figure out how to love their friends better, and we’ll see a softening as their identity of achievement as a priority. It will give them more balance.”
Of course, the opposite might be true, as well.
Faced with an inevitable recession, watching family members and friends lose jobs, Gen Z may pursue stable careers even more aggressively. “It could also make them more hungry for success, especially financial success,” Shults added. “We might see them press into even more cutthroat attitudes of needing to succeed.”
Perhaps we’ll see a resurgence of students heading into trade-oriented careers, with the perception that “all those industries are being listed as ‘essential’ right now,” points out Hannah Lang, Director of Children’s & Family Ministry at Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.
While it may be too early to imagine exactly what the corporate world will look like for Gen Z, it’s interesting to ask students to imagine how their future goals have changed, as a result of living through our coronavirus shutdown.
Some speculate that the habits of Gen Z may even shift, as students spend more time in homes and away from restaurants. As Eric Oswald, Director of Christian Education at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Aloha, Oregon, ponders, “I wonder if people will move to the country more and ‘homestead’ as we’ve all learned how to garden. I wonder if houses will be bigger and the tiny house movement will end. I wonder what will happen with restaurants after we all learn how to cook.”
Perhaps financial, academic, and career success won’t matter quite as much to a generation of students who are watching the adults around them struggle to keep their careers going.
Maybe born from this strange period, we’ll see an emphasis instead on friendships and relationships. Or, at least, a better balance than they might have trended towards, before this virus changed our world.
“Our Christian young people have observed or actively participated in the church serving their neighbor. I think these young people will have a great understanding of how we serve others at all times, let alone during a crisis,” Rev. Mark Kiessling says, as he ponders the future.
“I am curious how this generation, as a whole, will wrestle with this issue. With so many systems broken down, will they resort to ‘every person for themselves,’ or think more broadly and look for the care of their neighbor and the most vulnerable in our society? This generation may bring major change to many traditional structures and systems. Churches have a great opportunity to build trust with this generation by showing care for them and their communities.”
The act of verbalizing the importance of valuing faith and family, and talking through young people’s priorities, are both of immense importance. Helping individuals consider how their habits and goals will shape their lives is a crucial act with long-lasting benefits.
I recently sorted old papers and discovered my high school diary.
It was only in reading that diary that I realized a pivotal life change was born from the moment one of my teachers held me after class and told me she saw a real love for people in my soul. I’d written that conversation in my diary, and it changed the trajectory of my life from that moment forward.
We never know how the Holy Spirit might use a mere conversation to change someone’s life. So let’s continue to have those thoughtful discussions with each other, and see how God uses them.
The World—and Church—At Their Fingertips
Initially, I worried about how to continue the momentum of our ministries while in complete isolation from my students. Without teaching class daily, or meeting with students at lunchtime and after school, without programs and events and trips, what would my job even look like?
Within the first days of lockdown, as I sat down for my first online video meeting with my high school girls’ small group, I was stunned: a new girl joined our group.
A student had shared the link with her, and she hopped on with the rest of us and had a great chat. The next week, yet another new girl joined us. And both of them kept coming back, week after week.
Then, for the first time ever, I had a student sign up to attend a mission trip without even meeting me in person. Why? Because her friends shared my phone number with her, and we’ve been texting regularly for weeks. She eventually joined our small group, too, and I’ve virtually met her family through my computer screen.
The world is, quite literally, at the fingertips of Gen Z. And what I’ve discovered is that this generation freely shares triumphs and tragedies with each other, whether it’s a funny video or an impassioned plea about an issue they value.
Right now, the church has been forced online in a way like never before, and Gen Z is running into more faith content than they’ve ever seen in their lives.
Recent research, too, indicates that Gen Z has a fairly optimistic view of the church. That’s an encouraging confluence.
“I’ve never seen so much faith material before!” Shults told me as we chatted. “On Sunday morning, I have a million livestreams to watch. I’m energized at the thought that a lot of kids will share their live streams or videos with their friends.”
To a generation that may not be familiar with church, they’re getting to dip their toe in it now from the safety and comfort of their own bedroom.
“Up until now, if they wanted to experience worship, they had to breach the doors, which can be intimidating,” Shults shared. “There’s going to be a group of kids now who watched it and the Holy Spirit worked through that to give them comfort and hope. They’ve heard the Good News of Jesus. Maybe they will want to brave that physical community in the future? That’s the prayer—that God can end up using this in a really cool and different way.”
Rebecca Duport, Assistant Professor and Director of the Director of Christian Education Program of Christ College, Concordia University Irvine, thinks the church stands on the brink of positive change, as this pandemic has narrowed our focus on what really matters.
“We’ve been guilty of over programming ourselves,” she confesses. “I’ve seen churches get more creative, simpler in their approaches, and adapt. Yes, there are still some churches really struggling. To them, I remind them to go with your strengths. Call and contact your members, if you can’t pull off things like a big church.”
“This has forced the older generation to connect better with the current generation, our young people,” Duport adds, pointing out the obvious blessings even in the midst of difficulty. “I’m now speaking my sons’ language, learning from and with them.”
“With the ingenuity that this generation already shows, I look forward to their leaders creatively solve problems in society and work collectively. Christian young people have been given an opportunity to consider their vocations and how we serve our neighbors and also witness to Jesus,” says Rev. Kiessling. “In our churches, it was great to see how young people provided insight in help as churches and schools went on-line in so many ways. With Christ as their hope, they see how Christians can respond to this situation differently than much of the world. We see it through different eyes, the eyes of faith.
Attitude of Gratitude
I asked dozens of my students to share the single biggest way they’ve been impacted by living through COVID-19, and nearly all told me the same thing: they’ve become much more grateful.
As Julia, a high schooler, pointed out, our reactions differ and depend on how we’ve been personally challenged during this time. “A lot of the people I talk to haven’t been impacted like the doctors and health care workers are, or the people who have experienced the virus or had loved ones experience it,” she told me. “It all depends on what you have experienced.”
Fellow student Emma agrees. “People cope with things differently, and not every traumatic event will affect people in a way that builds a better outlook on life. We have to recognize these disparities so that those of us who do choose to build positively off of this trauma are maintaining the highest level of efficacy…not everyone will have the energies or maturity to turn it into a productive situation.”
However, Emma sees many positives out of this difficult time, saying, “I do think this will lead to a higher cultivation of kindness, acceptance, and hospitality within our generation.”
“I think I’ll enjoy time with my friends much more, coming out of this,” high schooler Isaiah shares. “People are so eager to get together—I’m looking forward to spending time with people I wouldn’t normally spend time with. People are more appreciative of the time that they have, and spending time with other groups, not being so exclusive.”
High school student Olivia optimistically thinks her generation might focus on a simpler way of life, telling me, “I think our generation will be the ones to appreciate what we have more, hopefully, because we now know what it is like to not be able to do simple tasks. We miss them.”
“I think we’ll be called ‘The Grateful Ones,’” echoed high schooler Jaden, who shared how this pandemic has made her think twice about others. “This has brought me closer to others and helped me think more about who I value in my life.”
“This is an opportunity for young people (and all people) to think through their priorities. They may not be making immediate, life-altering decisions, but an event like this can become a ‘lens’ through which they make decisions and understand life’s choices,” Rev. Kiessling wisely shares. “Some will find they were in a healthy place with good relationships and support. Others may have come to a new appreciation of relationships, family, and life itself.”
As I reflect on my own life, I realize how living through the terrorist attacks of 9/11 as a young teen made a mark on me, giving me a deep respect for those who ran into danger to help while others fled. Many of my friends became first responders and soldiers. No doubt it helped foster my own commitment to help others who hurt.
While that event was unpleasant and difficult to live through, it nevertheless yielded positive results in my life and in my generation.
This will, too.
So What Now?
No doubt our world—and our younger generation—will be both negatively and positively impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
We must start first with empathy.
“We have a group of high schoolers in our congregations who collectively missed out on a lot—proms, graduations, sport season, final concerts, and more. We know how not having closure on things can be disruptive to our social, mental, and spiritual health,” Rev. Kiessling shares.
“Be open and sensitive to the pain of this loss, and also about uncertainties for the future. Consider how hard many young people have been working on life goals (to them it’s 75% plus of their known life!) and now find out that school may look very different next, the entire sector of their dream job is gone, or mom and dad may no longer be able to assist financially.”
“These are big things for any of us to handle, and this may be the first major disappointment in a young person’s life. And this doesn’t even speak to the real fear or concern over the effects of the disease, especially if they knew someone with it.”
This time is also a valuable time of reflection—not only for Gen Z, but for those of us who minister to them.
“I think this is time, too, for churches to evaluate the programs that they’ve been running,” Rev. Kiessling says as he reflects on how this pandemic will shape the future of our faith communities. “Certainly we’ve been saying for a long time that youth ministry is all about relationships. I’m sure this pandemic showed this to be the case and emphasized that importance of that. This is a time for churches to possibly reset a lot of ‘activity’ and think about their goals and desired outcomes.”
Echoing the realization of many youth leaders and pastors across the world, we’ve seen a glimpse of just how valuable our youth can be, when it comes to helping us utilize new technologies in our ministries.
“No doubt, churches probably also learned a lot about the gift, and challenges, of moving ministry functions online. Young people could be a great voice to have in the conversation about how to use media in the future,” adds Rev. Kiessling.
Perhaps most importantly, we have the opportunity to continue to crack open the door of continued faith conversations with a generation who is already widely known as the least-churched generation in America in quite some time.
For our students who know Jesus already, this is a chance for us to equip them as modern missionaries.
“This pandemic may have opened opportunities to share their faith with friends. They may be hungry to go deeper and to receive encouragement that they can pass onto friends,” says Rev. Kiessling. “This is a great time to invest in them as they continue to share the Rock that is Jesus when uncertainty will exist in other parts of life.”
We Move Forward, In Hope
Through the writing of this article, I’ve been struck by the refreshing openness of the younger generation. They’re smarter and deeper than we even realize.
And as I’ve discovered, they don’t care what I’m wearing or what my home office looks like in Zoom video chats—all they care about is that I’m there, with them, even in the midst of chaos and confusion.
One of my students quoted Romans 8:28 to me early on in this crisis, and the words still ring true: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.”
The entire world, including all of Gen Z, has the opportunity to slow down and consider what matters most to them, instead of launching themselves unthinkingly into the future at a frantic pace.
“People will live in the moment more and be thankful for each event in their life,” college student Grace told me. A young nursing student, she’s even more dedicated to her chosen career after watching health care professionals battle COVID-19 the last few months. “I think this was needed to put my generation back in their place and show them the real meaning and purpose of our lives.”
It’s the challenge for each one of us: to take the time to reflect and recalibrate, to thank God for the blessings we have and to cling to Him in the moments when we don’t know what our future holds.
Hebrews 10:23 reminds us, “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful.”
As humanity seeks to recover from an unprecedented event of global proportions, let us learn these lessons well, and let us pray for every generation, with its unique challenges and offerings, as we walk into the future together.
Right now, it’s enough to just be. To admit that you don’t have all the answers, but to remind each other that we’re not alone. We’re together in this strange time, and we trust that the Holy Spirit will work powerfully through this moment and through His people just like He always has, and always will.
“The Holy Spirit continues to work in the lives of so many young people,” reflects Rev. Kiessling. “I have loved to watch them confess their faith in Christ, the One who will not be shaken. Christ is their foundation in a world that is changing rapidly and can so often distract one from their Creator.”
Someday, when this younger generation looks back, I pray that they won’t look back on the fear, but the fearlessness they saw on display around them.
On the hope and courage, the sacrifice from health care works and grocery store clerks. On moments when they made memories around their own dinner table and in their own backyard. On the faces they saw around them, whether through a screen or in their living room, who never left their side. On the Savior they cried out to, who remained their Rock and Salvation even in the midst of this uncertainty.
Despite this unprecedented event, they learned what really matters in life—and in eternity—and they’ll carry that with them into the future.
The world may have stopped, momentarily, but we kept moving forward, together, by the grace of God.