EMQ » October–December 2022 » Volume 58 Issue 4
Catalyzing Gen Z
When we thoughtfully engage younger generations in a whole story gospel, we can accept them where they are while also helping them grow into who God created them to be. At the same time, recognizing the strengths they bring into Christian community and missions prepares us to respond to where God is next leading his people.
By René Breuel and Sarah Breuel with Mary Tindall
When we moved from Brazil to Italy twelve years ago, the newer generations were very much in our hearts. We planted a church in Rome, called Hopera, next to Europe’s largest university, with 150,000 students, and served students under the umbrella of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES). And by God’s grace, we’ve been delighted to see many embrace Christ, grow in their faith, and develop a heart for God’s redemptive mission. Generation Z (Gen Z) is full of potential, despite (and because of) the unique challenges it faces.
Rooted in Jesus, Supported by Community
Because Gen Z grew up with social media, they’ve seen firsthand how young people can mobilize to turn grassroots causes into global movements. However, as digital natives, they often have less embodied relationships. They were born into an environment of constant connectivity and pressure to impress others. While Gen Z desires to connect to something bigger, they often ask, “Who am I compared to my peers?”
By sharing the gospel, we can shift that question to: Who does God say we are? Christianity offers grace, acceptance and hope through a true story that gives us purpose. Deep rootedness in Jesus grounds us amid the pressure of comparison. Knowing who we are as God’s sons and daughters anchors our identity and gives us the real answers we long for.
Christianity also gives Gen Z a deeper sense of community and the chance to be part of embodied relationships, across generations, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Indeed, this is a beautiful mirror of incarnation, a theology that is unique to Christianity. Instead of a God shouting at humanity from the outside of his creation, we see a God who came to Earth and became man.
The notion of Jesus taking a body is significant for a generation that grew up online. He became flesh, had real relationships, and marked his covenant with bread and wine. The life of Jesus illustrates the importance of personhood, presence, real relationships, and authentic connections – tangible fruits experienced in daily life.
Telling a Whole Story Gospel
Yet before young people can enter a relationship with God, many are wrestling with the question: Is Christianity moral? With this generation, our apologetics have shifted from analyzing truth claims to grappling with what the Bible says about sexuality and gender. These difficult conversations pose the biggest challenge to Gen Z’s embracing the gospel.
In approaching these conversations, we should focus on the larger story in God’s creation –seeing gender and sexuality through the lens of his intention and purpose. Deep within our hearts, it is a matter of trust. Can I trust this God? What is his character? Is this someone that I want to have a relationship with?
We must also show the Christian sexual ethic being lived out in community, particularly in communities that give equal space to those who are single and married. The church must honor people who live out singleness well throughout their lives, or who are flourishing equally in biblical marriages. And the church must show younger generations that both married and single believers are treasured, have a voice, and are not stigmatized.
Jesus lived by embodying true love, not merely expressing theological arguments. He dined with sinners. Prostitutes and tax collectors were attracted to him. Yet he never compromised in his beliefs. We should emulate his character in our ministry to and alongside Gen Z.
Two key parts of the gospel to share with this generation are its bookends: the doctrines of creation and new creation. We must tell a whole story gospel that goes beyond sin and redemption in Christ. Going back to creation gives us a sense of purpose, which ripples into our work and culture, and ultimately our redemption into the new creation. While these doctrines have received less emphasis in evangelical preaching, they are crucial for young people today.
Mobilizing Gen Z forMissions
The theme of a new creation also impacts young people’s desire to be involved in God’s global mission. We believe that a root cause of the so-called “Great Resignation” within the modern workforce is that people are asking deeper questions: What difference is my job making? What is the purpose I’m longing for? In this generation, these questions are coming to the surface. On top of this, Gen Z may be less motivated than other generations by lucrative, high-powered careers. Instead, they’re often interested in jobs that are flexible, suit their passions and support their quality of life. They’re saying, “I want my life to count.”
Missions is the best way of inviting them to make their life count – to participate in God’s kingdom and play a unique role in the grand story he is writing in this world. That may be working full time in cross-cultural missions or being an ambassador of Christ in their workplace. Gen Z is deeply driven by purpose and the chance to be part of something bigger.
Yet we feel a difficult tension. This generation longs for purpose – but growing up in digital spaces has created expectations for immediate gratification. Yet the deeper meaning that Gen Z longs for is something that you pour yourself into. In missions, our work takes perseverance, suffering, and God’s grace. Making a lasting difference takes time and God’s involvement.
Here, the pursuit of purpose becomes a pathway to discipleship. If you’re seeking purpose, you’re truly looking for rootedness. Only the depth of Scripture can impart the rootedness of God’s character. A generation accustomed to consuming content online must become self-feeders in the Word. We want young people to not only hear from pastors or worship leaders, but have fresh, authentic encounters and history with God in their personal lives. It’s critical that they learn to have that time with Jesus, interacting directly with Scripture. We can only build stamina and perseverance in our faith by hearing for ourselves what God is speaking to our hearts.
Given this, we must broaden the focus of discipleship, from theological knowledge and understanding to spiritual formation. Many young believers come from broken families, while others bring their own baggage, just as we all do. We need to invest in developing emotional maturity and establishing strong relationships, which requires us to move beyond Bible knowledge into relational discipleship.
The Gift of Longevity
In the same vein of discipleship, we must convey the importance of longevity in missions. Short-term missions are valuable in igniting and mobilizing people. But to have a bigger influence, we must stay in a place for years, potentially decades. We need to help people see not only the personal formation they’ll get from a missions experiences, but also the impact of what they’re giving others.
Longevity is a gift that people from the Global South can give. For us to serve cross-culturally, we must overcome greater barriers, including fundraising challenges, since we come from less prosperous countries. For us, missions has to be very intentional, because we must persevere to overcome many obstacles. This means we send highly committed people who give themselves to missions for a long time.
When we decided to serve in Italy, we wanted to develop long-term roots. At the time, our first-born son was two months old. We gave him the name Pietro, which is Peter in Italian. This was our statement that Italy is the place we were giving ourselves to until God says otherwise. We named our second son Mateo (Matthew in Italian). Giving our boys an Italian identity has cemented our long-term mindset.
Because we knew this would be our home, our approach was to be as contextual as we could. We wanted to form deep local relationships and learn the language so that our primary community would be among the Italians we wanted to serve. To intentionally develop that, we were careful not to spend too much time among other cross-cultural missionaries. We send our children to our local schools, formed our closest friendships with the local community here, and started a church in which we speak the local language.
We’ve noticed that often, the younger people are when they come to the mission field, the better they’re able to connect, form roots and flourish as missionaries. We see the value of people coming when they are young and single, or newly married.
As mission agency leaders consider how to mobilize the next generation, we should not apologize for the cost of missions, including the time commitment. Openness and transparency are key. We can expose young people to both long-term and short-term missionaries and say, “We understand you’re not ready to commit the next 20 years of your life, but we want to be upfront with you about what it takes to really give yourself to a city, a nation or a calling.”
We often assume that people will commit short-term and “wait and see,” hoping that they will stay longer. Imagine if we shifted to inviting them to a lifelong mission – leaving the door open for God to change the path, but assuming that he would call them to serve long-term.
God Is Raising up the Global South
Alongside the emergence of Gen Z, we must also recognize that missions is no longer “from the West to the rest.” God is raising up people across Latin America including Brazil, in Kenya, China, Korea, and many more nations. Today, we see a global sending church. When a young American or Canadian goes out as a missionary, they will not only encounter missionaries from Europe; they will also work alongside missionaries from South America, Africa, Asia, and from the Pacific Islands. North American agencies need to equip and train young people for this.
In addition, many diaspora communities from the Global South live in Europe and North America. We need to help them become resources for the body of Christ in the countries where they live, rather than being siloed into communities that only speak their language. As part of this focus, we could teach courses on missional living, crossing cultural barriers and working in a multinational team.
Mission agencies can also welcome diaspora communities into missions by forming multinational teams that have the courage to appoint leaders from the Global South. Sometimes we sense an unspoken assumption that while teams will include diaspora members, leadership will stay within American or Western hands. Yet there are gifted and trusted people from the Global South who can flourish when their resources for leadership are recognized.
The Lausanne Movement and IFES – known as InterVarsity in the US and Canada – have intentionally identified people from the global church and placed them in leadership positions. In the Lausanne Movement, we often quote a statement from African leader Femi Adeleye: “The global South belongs not only at the table. The Global South also wants to be in the kitchen cooking the meal.” As we intentionally partner together, other voices and ways of thinking will reshape our paradigms and policies.
Gen Z is Attracted to Multicultural Engagement
Multicultural churches and missions teams are attractive to Gen Z. This is part of the greater story God is writing – that every nation is coming together, being part of the gospel in our cultures. Like a diamond, there are many facets. We see the character of God in different cultures and expressions of worship, theological thinking and scripture reading. We get that fullness and richness only when the global Church comes together.
Because the new generation is more connected than ever before, they understand the global church more tangibly. Young people are very engaged in diversity, equity, and inclusion. They are very attracted to congregations that are multicultural and multigenerational, and those that give voice to both men and women.
We believe God is sowing seeds for a global movement of revival in this generation. When revival broke out 120 years ago in Wales, it touched Korea. If revival breaks out anywhere in this generation, with the way that we are connected, it will be wildfire everywhere. With this dream in our hearts, we long to see revival among, and led by, the younger generations.
René and Sarah Breuel are originally from Brazil, and they have lived in Rome since 2010. They founded Hopera, a church that seeks to contribute to Rome’s spiritual, social, and cultural flourishing. They both hold MDiv degrees from Regent College. René (email@example.com) is the author of The Paradox of Happiness. His sermons reach an Italian online audience through YouTube and the platform Hopera.tv. Sarah (firstname.lastname@example.org) works with the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES) as the evangelism training coordinator for the European region and the director of Revive Europe. She also serves on the Lausanne Movement’s international board of directors. They have two sons, Pietro and Matteo.
Mary Tindall (email@example.com) is a freelance writer and editor.
EMQ, Volume 58, Issue 2. Copyright © 2022 by Missio Nexus. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from Missio Nexus. Email: EMQ@MissioNexus.org.