Meet Generation Z, James Emery White. Grand Rapids: Baker 2017.
Summary: The book profiles the generation born since 1993, describing them as the first “post-Christian” generation, and what the church in the US must do to reach this generation.
I was a boomer. During my years in ministry I’ve watched books come and go about ministering with boomers, X-ers, millenials (my son’s generation), and now generation “Z” (those born after 1993). It’s tempting to get a bit jaded with this succession of “generation” books, but the contentions of this book, which I’ve seen on the ground, persuade me that its message is worth heeding.
Fundamentally, White argues that what distinguishes this generation is that it is the first truly “post-Christian” generation in the U.S. He notes the research that the fastest growing religious affiliation in this age group is “none.” This is a group that is marked by the Recession of 2008 with an entrepreneurial spirit. They are wi-fi-enabled, multiracial, and sexually fluid. They have been “under-parented” (compared to the helicopter parenting of millenials) and robbed of childhood, growing old younger. Pornography has a pervasive presence in their lives and is wreaking havoc. (I will vouch for this. When I meet young men, I assume that pornography is an issue in their lives and am surprised when it isn’t.) And the church has lost its voice by and large, caught up in the politics and culture wars of a past generation. He likens this to a verse from the calamitous twelfth century speaking of “when Christ and his saints slept.”
White devotes the second half of this book to how a church awakened might engage and reach the rising generation. He argues that the church must recover a sense of its own identity as a distinctive counter-culture, one, holy, catholic, apostolic, and shaped by its mission to call a deeply fallen world back to God. The answer is neither withdrawal or efforts to grasp political influence, but “to pioneer new ways to bind ourselves to Scripture, to our traditions, and to each other…. ” In short, his call is for the church to recover what it means to be Christ-like.
What does this call for in our efforts to engage generation Z. It means recovering a voice of evangelism and a prophetic voice that does not veer into heresy. It means translating the gospel without transforming it. It means re-thinking our communication for a generation with eight second attention spans, who think in terms of texts and tweets. It means using the awe and wonder of both art and science in our apologetic. And fundamentally, it means developing a church that says, “it’s about them” — hiring staff from this generation, reaching its men, welcoming their children, developing an invitational culture, and providing for the discipleship of those who follow Christ.
The book concludes with three messages given at the author’s church that model the kind of communication he believes is necessary. One is on gay marriage, one on the spiritual world, and one appealing to science in an argument of why believe in God. The style is both engaging and direct, and unapologetic about Christian beliefs on any of the questions engaged, but also in touch with prevailing concerns.
What’s fascinating to me is that I think White is simply commending the work that the church, if it is to remain vital, must do in every generation, while applying that very specifically to the context of this particular generation. Yet if White is right, it is also the case that this may also be a singular moment. He writes at the beginning of the book of Christopher Dawson, and the six ages of the church, where the church rose to the challenges of transition to a new epoch. He considers us at another one of these moments. White articulates how he is seeking to lead his own church to rise to this moment, which he considers one of both great peril if we miss it, and great opportunity if we will seize it.
So what will it be?
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.