Very few people go through life with a burning desire to not be successful at anything. I’m sure that there are a few people for whom getting last place, failing out of college, or living in a van down by the river is the dream life, but it’s certainly not usually the case. The desire to be successful is normal, as is the reality that you also don’t have to be the most talented or best person in any given area. In and of itself, this desire is not bad. When this desire to achieve, this need for success becomes your identity, that’s when it becomes a problem.
A reason for concern is that this is exactly what seems to be happening in Gen Z as a whole. Recent Barna research found that, “While all adult generations say family is most important to their sense of self, Gen Z’s identity is most defined by personal achievement.”  When your identity hinges on how well you’re doing and what you’re achieving, you end up putting a lot more pressure on yourself, which isn’t healthy.
It shouldn’t really be that surprising then, that coupled with this strong personal achievement drive and its connection to identity, we’ve also seen a rise in anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. Grades and accolades can become so important that it overshadows faith and Christian community. In fact, this is very common in college especially. “I don’t have time for church because of all the homework I have to get done.” “I’m so exhausted from staying up late studying, and Sunday is my only chance to sleep in.” “I don’t have time for a small group in the campus ministry and a study group, so I pick the study group.”
But let’s get to the real diagnosis here: grades and academic achievement can easily become an idol. We fear, love, and trust in our grades and achievements above all things. It’s sin. And sin always and only leads to destruction and death. All idols demand sacrifice and the false idol of achievement will demand time, energy, health, relationships, and spiritual growth, to name a few. And idols are never satisfied. Not even after graduation.
If your identity is in your achievement and successes, you will continue to have to feed that idol in your career, in your relationships, and even your home life. Simply put, if we don’t put an end to this idol in students, it will significantly impact how they live as adults. So how can we help? Let’s talk about some practical actions that can be taken.
Practical Steps for Helping Student Navigate Achievement Expectations
If we’re truly dealing with idolatry, then “try harder”, “stop that”, or “just make sure you go to church sometimes” isn’t the solution. Confession, absolution, and repentance are. They are fruit of the Spirit in our lives as He changes us through His Word. Anything we do on this topic has to be centered in the Word of God and His forgiveness for us. To tell young people, “You have sought after achievements and success rather than God. You have trusted in yourself instead of Him. You’ve found your identity in yourself rather than in Christ.
But I have good news for you, you have a God who doesn’t base His acceptance of you on your resume. He bases it on Christ and because of Him you are forgiven: fully, freely and forever forgiven!” God’s Law casts down our idols, His Gospel forgives our sins and God’s Word also then rebuilds our lives on a foundation that lasts. As His Church, we participate in this ministry by speaking of youth identity and achievement in light of God’s Word:
Teach, model, and share about identity in Christ.
Who you are comes from Christ. You are His child, you are chosen, precious, loved, and forgiven. Your identity does not come from your achievements, but from Christ. If this becomes the hallmark of your youth ministry, that you are who God says you are, it will really give a great foundation for your future college students. But while they’re at college, be sure to remind them of their identity whenever you are in contact with them. Include identity focused verses like 1 Peter 2:9-10, 1 Corinthians 12:27, and 1 John 3:1-2 in your texts, letters, or messages to your students. When you send care packages, include letters from current youth group members or adult leaders that talk about their identity in Christ (like “we thank God for He has chosen you and brought you into His family here at our church”). Teach about how what you do flows from who you are, not the other way around. Utilize identity-focused studies and resources here on the YouthEsource like this Bible study on our identity from the I Am Statements of Jesus. (You can find that here.)
Praise process versus results.
Oftentimes when we talk to young people about a sporting event or something else they’re participating in, the first question is, “Did you win?” This only further feeds the outcome based, achievement driven mentality. The reality is, sometimes you can do everything right and your team doesn’t win, you don’t get the job, or you don’t get the A. Talking about process (did you study well, did you play hard, did you represent yourself with integrity, etc.) emphasizes faithfulness, vocation, hard work-ethic, and other good virtues that flow out of our identity in Christ rather than trying to replace it as our source of identity. When you see a student who made the dean’s list, praise their hard work and studying rather than just the end results.
Ask about health versus grades.
This comes pretty naturally to many, but as you check in on your college students, ask how they’re doing emotionally, spiritually, and physically instead of letting them leave the answer at “good” or “busy”. Even if they made the dean’s list, don’t assume that means they’re in a healthy spot now. Consider even using that as an opportunity to check in on them: “Hey, I saw you’re on the dean’s list! It seems like you’ve been working really hard on doing your best in your vocation as a student. We praise God for you! All that hard work can sometimes be pretty draining. How are you doing?” Remind them that you care more about them as a person and a child of God than you do their grades or school progress. Encourage them to take Sabbath rest in addition to worship on Sundays- they need to take time off too.
Provide a space for healthy relationships and discussion when they’re home.
Hosting a few gatherings over school breaks or in the summers to allow college students to reconnect with others and some adult leaders can be so beneficial. Allow them time to just talk with one another, to encourage one another, and maybe include a short devotion and discussion on identity in Christ or how to navigate your vocation as a student. Give time for them to process this huge life transition together rather than just giving them information in a book. Connect them with a local church or campus ministry when they’re at college so that they have a space for these kinds of discussions regularly, and most importantly to hear God’s Word and receive His gifts.
Demonstrate what “success” looks like in mentor relationships.
The Barna research also showed that Gen Z really looks up to adults who they see as successful in their career and in their finances. Identify some of those individuals who can serve as mentors for your college students, not to just help them get their finances or careers in order, but more importantly to speak about how they find their identity not in their financial success, but in Christ. These mentor voices can speak so loudly into your students’ lives and help them put their academic struggles into perspective.
The vast majority of college students really want to do well in classes and in their careers. But work with them in order to put that desire in the proper spot, as an outflow of their vocations in light of who they are in Christ. That they are not defined by their achievements or their failures, but as beloved children of God. That they would not think “I can’t afford to take time to go to church this weekend”, but “I can’t afford not to” because they know they need to receive God’s gifts in His house. That we would remind them of the promises of Jesus, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5) and that we would hep them to stay connected to the Vine.