Some Christians get really excited about helping people know Jesus. I’m one of them.
In fact, I’m the National Campus Strategies Director for a ministry called Power to Change – Students. My job, in part, is to empower current university and college students in Canada to help their peers discover Jesus.
Last year Power to Change – Students hosted Alpha communities across Canada. Alpha is explicitly designed to introduce people to Jesus. Over 600 students participated, including about 150 who do not identify as Christians.
But in the end, only four students indicated they wanted to follow Christ.
Don’t get me wrong, I celebrate each person who turns to Jesus. Yet to see so few students make a formal response to him felt strange to me. Why had less than 1% of the Alpha attendees made a public decision to follow Christ?
What went wrong?
Maybe you also are someone who wants people to know Jesus. You’ve been praying for your friends. You’ve had conversations. Maybe you’ve even gone through Alpha with them.
Maybe you also sometimes wonder why your friends have not committed to Jesus.
I don’t have a complete answer. But one clue to this puzzle may lie in the way Generation Z engages in dating relationships.
In September I mentioned these results from running Alpha to some university students. One exclaimed, “Oh that’s no surprise. I have friends who have been dating for over a year and still won’t accept the title of boyfriend and girlfriend. That kind of thing is normal among my peers.”
I was astonished. She had drawn a link between two seemingly unrelated things: Gen Z dating habits and their willingness to identify with a particular religion.
Perhaps a lack of commitment to Christ stems from an inability to make commitments in other areas.
If so, the way your friends view their relationships with others is inextricably linked to the way they view their relationship with God.
This makes sense. After all, at its core, Christianity is a relationship with God.
Naturally I’m talking about trends, not individuals. You could be an incredibly committed young adult. But I think it’s still fair to ask: How might the dating trends of Generation Z shed light on your expectations in evangelism?
Research out of Western University notes that Gen Z dating culture is “fluid” and defined by “complex struggles for intimacy.” The term “dating” is often reserved for next-level, formal relationships, with high commitment.
Gen Z avoids the dating label. Instead, people will say something like, “It’s a thing,” until the relationship is further defined. This can take a while, easily a year or more.
It’s not that “dating” is being deliberately avoided, but using the term itself is often indefinitely postponed.
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The research asked students about why there is such a lack of commitment. One said, “I think it is a fear of commitment and a fear of it not working out and having to say, ‘We broke up.’”
Fear is holding many back from commitment.
Further, dating is inherently risky. It forces vulnerability.
There are real questions:
- If vulnerability inspires vulnerability, who will take the first step?
- What if the other person does not reciprocate?
- What if the other person leaks what I shared in private?
Yet without taking the risk to be vulnerable, intimacy will remain illusive.
So what difference does relational fearfulness make for someone’s spiritual affiliation?
One way to answer is to ask what it means for someone to give their life to Jesus. More specifically, what attitude must be present for someone to commit to Christ?
When we come to Jesus, we come confessing that he is two things: Saviour and Lord.
By confessing that Jesus is our Saviour, we acknowledge utter dependence upon him. We understand and agree with our need to be saved and know that only Jesus can save us.
By confessing that Jesus is our Lord, we acknowledge utter obedience to him. This means that we are not our own, but are servants of the One who knows us better than we know ourselves.
Here’s the thing: these confessions require deep vulnerability.
To make a public confession of Christ is scary. It’s a willingness to stand naked before God, rather than clinging to self-dependency. Not only that, it’s also a proclamation of this vulnerability to the world.
When we think of it this way, perhaps it is no surprise that a generation that struggles to develop intimate romantic relationships also struggles to make public commitments to Christ. Both are risky.
Are you frustrated that your friends aren’t responding to Jesus?
One terrible option is to get angry at your Gen Z friends and criticize them for their fear of commitment. Maybe some need a jolt, but shaming is not usually helpful.
Besides, you do not necessarily need to change anyone’s understanding of commitment before you tell them of the goodness of Jesus. The art of contextualization is making the gospel sensible in the language and culture of those you’re trying to reach.
Wondering about the what, how, and why of contextualization?
Perhaps the first thing to do is to recognize that Jesus loves people in Generation Z. He died for them. Further, God has given your generation special talents and insights that older generations need.
Let’s keep praying and taking steps to help people know the one who loves them.
Second, you need to recognize the reality that Gen Z is facing. Jesus is ready to meet your friends where they are at. Are you willing to do the same? This may mean moving slower.
In Gen Z terms, maybe your friends will need to be “a thing” with Jesus for a while before making a further commitment.
Third, you can model and encourage vulnerability. You can be open and share intimate parts of your life and speak of how Jesus has made a difference. By opening up, you encourage others to do the same. Vulnerability inspires vulnerability.
Many young adults are on a slower journey toward Jesus than might be expected of previous generations.
Comparing Gen Z dating patterns to patterns of spiritual commitment helps to explain why.
Other reasons might include the daily abundance of information, making Christianity just one option among competing worldviews. Or it could be that many are starting with lower biblical literacy, which simply takes time to develop.
One thing is clear. You have a calling to reach them with the gospel. When you share Christ with others in the power of the Holy Spirit, you can expect God to work and to draw people to himself.
Will it take more time? Maybe. Perhaps for many of your Gen Z friends, an evangelistic tool like Alpha is more of the starting point than a destination.
But I’m confident that Jesus is actually good news today. There is reason to stay hopeful and faithful in this generation.