Scripture commands believers to "give thanks in all situations, for this is God's will" (1Thess. 5:18). Whenever I read books or hear experts discuss the next generation, I often encounter doom and gloom scenarios rather than giving thanks. A low view of the rising generation will bring more relational harm than good. When adults hold back praise, youth will likely seek affirmation among peers who lack a biblical worldview.
My countenance breaks for adults who believe tough love will create tender hearts in our children. I am lamenting on behalf of youth and young adults who feel relationally displaced by adults who transfer unresolved hurts to the next generation.
A Gospel-Centered Perspective
We were living in perilous times before COVID-19 be- came a global pandemic. Societal peril began in the cosmic garden (Gen. 3). Satan, in the form of a serpent, convinced the first family to distrust God. Their defiance against God's truth ushered in familial pain from the first day until now. Satan accosts families by making adults think less of our precious gifts (Ps. 127:3).
Our sin distorts God's vision for humanity, causing us to rely on counterfeit forms of redemption to heal and help us survive. By God's grace, the death, burial and resurrection of Christ gives us access to true community with God and one another by faith (Eph. 2:8-10).
COVID-19, Gen Z and Me
I would not be surprised if social scientists label our current epoch as "The COVID-19 Era." Our holistic lives have been radically changed to combat the spread of this deadly disease, forcing many adults to spend hours occupying the same space with children.
My three sons are classified "Gen Z" since they were born between 1999 and 2015. Jean Twenge, however, pre- fers the "iGen" label, using the birth years 1995 to 2012. Twenge believes the primary identity marker for today's teenagers is their irrevocable connection to the Internet. Frankly, the labels are not as important as how adults view and develop youth in this age demographic.
As a father, pastor-theologian and student of culture, I enjoy evaluating resources that enhance my ability to better engage a complex world. I have relied on well-researched reports by several sociological think tanks to inform my missiological engagement.
David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, believes to- day's culture is a "digital Babylon" since technology tends to keep our minds overly stimulated with information. He states, "Digital Babylon highlights both the outsized impact of always-connected technology and notable similarities between Judean exiles in Babylon in the sixth century BCE (sic) and people of faith today."
Kinnaman offers this comparison:
Faith at the center Faith at the margins
Slower-paced Accelerated, frenetic
Central Control Open-source
Idol: False piety Idol: fitting in/not missing out
Kinnaman goes on to say, "When Daniel, Ezekiel and other Hebrew elites were taken forcibly to Babylon, their view of the world was utterly changed. In order to remain faithful to their calling as the people of God, they had to adjust to a new reality. They had to reimagine what it meant to practice Judaism in a world where the temple — the epicenter of their religious practice — no longer existed."
When I read Kinnaman's words in 2018, they did not resonate with me because Christians had immediate access to perceived "epicenters of religious practice." In other words, many adult Christians made the epicenter the building rather than the people of God. We became satisfied with one or two hours of surface-level connections once or twice a week.
Some of us chided youth who relied on social media to form continuous connections with friends. Now we can celebrate and learn from them. I am praising my three wonderful "screenagers," I mean teenagers, who have not missed a relational beat. Because of our middle-class status, I observe them doing homework and playing video games with friends amid societal seclusion. Of course, my laudations would possibly change to deep lament if we lacked access to the Internet.
I did not realize, for instance, how much my family kept our faces fixed on respective screens for different purposes.
I could no longer relish the fact that I spent little time on social media since Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat are arguably viable venues for gospel advancement. So, instead of complaining about my sons' usage, I studied resources to help them become "digital missionaries."
I casually explained to my sons that "more than half of 13- to 18-year-olds in a recent national study admit they use a screen four or more hours a day; one quarter admits eight or more hours, making smartphone, tablet, or other screen use their top daily activity." They laughed, saying, "That's so boomer," referring to the habitudes of a bygone era. I was like, "I'm Gen X." My eldest retorted, "Technology is meant to be used, dad. It's hypocritical to call teenagers bad for using products adults made." He's right. Our children did not manufacture these devices. Adults did.
Adults, therefore, should avoid demonizing youth who have become addicted to technology. Rather, adults should disciple youth into proper use of technology. Everyone is likely battling various forms of technological addiction. Solomon's wisdom could help each of us. He states, "If you find honey, eat only what you need; otherwise, you'll get sick from it and vomit. Seldom set foot in your neighbor's house; otherwise, he'll get sick of you and hate you" (Prov. 25:16-17).
Which is to say, exercise moderation with the use of good things. Technology and social interaction are good, but they lose their sweetness through overuse.
Positively, youth use social media to "create networked communities where they actively take part in self-expression and identity formation," explains Danah Boyd. When we teach our kids how to share the gospel in a relational way within their "networked publics," we plant gospel seeds "here, near and far" (Acts 1:8). All we need do is pray for and show them how to fish for souls without weirding their global friends out.
Research shows that Gen Z is arguably more socially aware of global community needs. In fact, "two in five teens interact with people who are different from them compared to just one-quarter of Boomers." Gen Zers, by and large, do not have xenophobic appetites like many of their forebears since they are constantly crossing national borders via the internet. Hence the reason why Christian adults must champion the things they do well before highlighting areas that need improvement. Our teens have the potential to pursue every people, nation and tribe by opening their social media accounts.
COVID-19 cannot hinder the Great Commission. Gen Z can become a salt and light generation when they use technology theologically. I suggest downloading a copy of The Baptist Faith & Message to begin your discipleship journey with these wonderful youth. Thank God for Generation Z!
Resource: For a helpful read on corporate marketing strategies that promote technical addiction, see Adam Alter, Irresistible: The Rising Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping us Hooked (New York: Oenguin Books, 2017).
Curtis Woods is associate executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention.