What does discipleship look like for millennials and Generation Z today? Do young adults even know what discipleship is? How do our churches understand and practice disciple-making so that it is applicable to young people today?
P erhaps you are pondering these questions. Or maybe they are not too far from your consistory’s table. After all, how can your 200-year-old church, still using the hymnal from the ’80s, engage with millennials or Gen Z on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or even TikTok? But the important question is this: What does the church need to do to understand young adults so that the body of Christ might better love, serve, and empower the next generations for the glory of the kingdom?
It’s likely that you, along with many other faith communities, were surprised to learn that the hardest people to engage with digitally are the very people that spend most of their waking hours online—the “digital natives,” as they’re often called. Perhaps that’s because you missed a key cultural understanding of the way in which millennials and especially Gen Z present themselves digitally. Millennials push for vulnerability and honesty on digital platforms; Gen Z folks seek to express self worth by the content they create. For example, anxiety pushes them to express themselves in bold and refreshing ways, often anxiety-producing ways, yet they do it.
Technology has redefined what relationships look like, and deep, meaningful relationships are at an all-time low. At the core of the heart for millennials and Gen Z is the search for deep, meaningful relationships, which means that the desire for discipleship is indeed there. The church must not be daunted by cultural differences, technology, or anything else, but see these avenues as opportunities to express eager willingness, to practice learning in new ways, and to build relationships with younger adults.
You may be wondering, What does understanding the digital culture of Gen Z and millenials have to do with discipleship? Well, if being a disciple is described as “being like Jesus and doing the things Jesus does”—such as building an intimate relationship with someone to be admired, trusted, and imitated—the church may be one step closer to reaching young adults. By this very definition of a disciple, we emphasize a relational aspect of discipleship that is often missed in translation to young people. Millennials seek a trustworthy person or a cause to follow, and Gen Z folks long for an open and safe place to be themselves. Let’s start there, with the recognition that older adults both become disciples and make disciples of young people when they can navigate that younger context truthfully and humbly.
As always, our discipleship practices should be modeled after Jesus, who himself had 12 disciples, and yet the waves of transformation they led are part of our history today. That’s a story any generation can be inspired by. Why? It all started with personal invitation, clear vision, and deep love. To get to a place where those three things are possible means that understanding young people’s digital cultural context is not excluded from the disciple-making process, especially because that relational aspect is so important. That understanding piece might be step one as your church seeks to disciple young people.
What comes next? What are other discipleship tools the church can add to its toolbox for inviting and engaging young people in a loving faith community? Let’s walk through some of the key disciple-strengthening things Jesus did.
Jesus listened to his people. Are you listening to the hearts of your young people?
Jesus asked many questions, not because he didn’t know the answer but because the posture with which he listened had a powerful effect on those he asked. They felt heard, loved, seen, unjudged, and unhurried. Jesus asked, not because it was part of his agenda, on his schedule or otherwise, but because he was doing the work of making disciples. Think of the way Jesus listened to the woman at the well (John 4) or asked the blind beggar calling out to him if he wanted to get well (John 5:5-9).
Perhaps for other generations, trying to understand Gen Z and millennials feels impossible, but I cannot stress enough the courage and humility it takes to ask a young person what it is they desire from their community. The art of listening is an essential tool that many of us fail to include in our discipleship toolkit. We would rather plan events for young people than practice asking them what they observe and find lacking in the ways the church gathers.
Patiently inquiring into the lives of young people takes time, but it’s worth it. When the church actively listens to young people, the body of believers also practices the crucial act of meeting people where they are—emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Can you meet with a young person at a coffee shop? While hiking? Through video chat? Older adults lose the right to speak into the lives of young people when they fail to recognize and meet their to-be-disciples where they are at. By listening, space is created for young people to talk and share honestly.
Download a free listening guide
A step-by-step listening guide for church leaders who want to connect with millennials and Gen Z.
Jesus spoke and lived truthfully. How are you maintaining disciplined attention?
The United States is in the midst of an election, and the stakes feel higher this year. In this time of deep political division, Christians are wrestling with what it means to be faithful. Truly, it is a hard time to be a Christian in America, but then again, it was a hard time for Jesus, too. Jesus spoke boldly and truthfully against structures and principalities of injustice. Jesus was never apathetic to the sufferings of those around him, and he modeled for us the theological framework for talking across differences, for combating polarization, and for seeing who the true enemy is (Ephesians 6:11-12).
Young people want to know how the church is showing up in their lives and in the world. Perhaps showing up as the church looks like being trained in de-escalation tactics as some church leaders are doing in preparation to help voters at the booth. Or maybe it’s participating in peaceful protests to denounce injustice wherever you see it. Our Lord expressed rage, grace, and compassion in the face of injustice, and in doing so, he granted us the fearlessness to be freedom fighters in the days ahead. There is a holy generational calling on our lives, and as disciples, we must learn to allow Scripture to center us deeply. As anxiety about our world continues to rise in young adults, making sure teachings are rooted in biblical truth is essential for discipling young people, now more than ever (2 Timothy 1:7).
Parents at home, maybe you have the tradition of sitting at the breakfast or dinner table with your family. Taking time to walk through a Lectio Divina or Scripture reading exercise may be a simple and practical way to begin or end the day in a discipleship practice. We model and we practice discipling one another together. Communal faith practices might be exactly what we need now as we continue to navigate a pandemic and possibly a new political order.
Jesus prayed for and with his disciples. Are you praying with your young people?
Paul said, “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17), and prayer is in fact an essential discipleship tool for our toolkit today. Prayer centers us in the will of God. We sit in the tension of praying with both surrender and persistence. We surrender our fears and insecurities about the future to God, and we persistently ask him to take them away, knowing and trusting fully that his will will be done (Luke 22:42).
We have a legacy of church folk, prayer warriors, and waymakers; from them, we learn how to activate radical love for our young people and the suffering world they see so clearly. We teach ourselves and one another to not only recite the Lord’s prayer but to truly believe in its promises. When we are exhausted, when our young people ask, Who is our foundation?, we respond prayerfully, “He who restores my soul” (Psalm 23:3).
Remember the young people at home with you, or the young people who will be showing up again around the holidays, lovingly crowding the dining table? Or maybe it’s the young people in your church with sporadic attendance. Pray for and with them regularly. Perhaps practice sending them prayer cards. Ask your teenagers if they would be interested in a prayer walk around their school. Prayer is inherently active—unceasing—and is one of the most powerful discipleship tools in our toolkit.
We listen, embrace Scripture, and pray with our young people. That is the way of disciples and disciple-makers.
We know that young people are part of the witness of the church, and as challenging as it is to reach them right now, they are part of the kingdom work. So the church needs to remain steadfast in its mission to make disciples. The reality is that the methods the church uses to engage young people will continue to change. Soon, Facebook and TikTok may no longer be relevant in understanding the next generations. But discipling young people is important, vital work. If the church listens to its young people, immerses them with biblical teaching, and prays together, I believe we will be well on our way.
Ruth Langkamp serves the Reformed Church in America as discipleship and next generation specialist. You can connect with Ruth at firstname.lastname@example.org.