“Dad, I’m not sure if I believe in Christianity. I want to know what is true, but I have a lot of questions.”
What would you say if one of your kids spoke these words to you? How would you respond if these words came from a young person you deeply care about? Well, as a nineteen-year-old college student, I spoke these words to my father, a well-known and influential apologist, not knowing how he would respond, especially since I was questioning the very message he has committed his life to proclaiming.
And yet I will never forget my father’s confident response: “Son, I am glad to see you exploring your faith seriously, because you can’t live on my convictions. You have to know for yourself what you think is true. If you genuinely seek truth, I am confident you will follow Jesus, because He is the truth. Only walk away from what you have learned growing up if you conclude it is false. And know that your mom and I will love you no matter what you believe.”
Not long ago, I decided to ask my dad how he was really feeling when I told him about my doubt years earlier, assuming he must have been deeply concerned at the time. I wanted to know what was actually going through his mind.
His response caught me off guard. He told me that he wasn’t worried about my faith journey because of the depth of our relationship. While he believes the evidence for Christianity is compelling, it was our relationship that gave him confidence I would stay in the faith. There were certainly no guarantees, of course (and my dad is endlessly optimistic by nature), but his response illustrates a point every caring adult today must take to heart: If we want to pass on our faith to young people, we need to develop deep and lasting relationships with them.
This has been true for every generation, but it is especially true for this new generation called the “selfie generation,” “iGen,” or “Generation Z” (those born between 2000-2015). There are a number of factors that uniquely characterize them. Yet one characteristic that keeps appearing in the data is loneliness. According to some experts, this generation may be on the verge of the greatest mental health crisis in decades.
A number of dynamics contribute to this, many of which are tied to technology. Yet at its heart, I am convinced the loneliness of this generation stems from the lack of healthy relationships. Many in this generation hurtbecause they lack the healthy relationships God has designed them to experience with both Himself and other people (Mark 12:28–33). Many are asking the questions, “Who am I?” “Where do I belong?” and “Does my life have any meaning?” without the relational anchor God has designed them to have.
If we want to minister to this generation of young people, and see them grow in the Lord, we must build meaningful relationships with them. There is no shortcut. J. Warner Wallace and I have an entire chapter on building relationships with Gen Zers in our recent book So The Next Generation Will Know. Here are four tips we have found helpful:
1. Be a good listener
. James 1:19 says to “be quick to hear, slow to speak.” As adults, we often get this backward—we are quick to speak and slow to hear. And yet for a distracted and impatient generation, listening can be one of our best ways to connect. Good listening says, “You are important to me. I want to understand you, so I can respond in a caring manner.” Ask genuine questions. Give eye contact. Show empathy. And try to genuinely understand before you speak.
2. Set Reasonable Boundaries
. Although it may seem surprising, Gen Zers actually want boundaries. According to one study in Britain, 69 percent of teens thought parental controls online were a good idea. In another study, 54 percent of US teens wished they were better able to limit the amount of time they were on their phones, and over 60 percent would like to spend more time socializing face to face than online.Reasonable boundaries communicate to this generation that we love them enough to protect them from harm.
3. Have a Conversation
. In 2018, the A&E channel ran a special show called Undercover High, in which seven young adults aged twenty-one to twenty-six went back to high school to get an inside perspective on students today. What alarmed the undercover students most was the disconnect between teens and adults. One of the undercover students said, “They [teens] are craving for adults to understand them and see them for who they are and the struggles they are facing.” The undercover students concluded that, most of all, young people today just want someone to talk to.
4. Share a Story
There is a reason why Jesus told so many stories: we love stories, relate to stories, and remember stories. They shape how we view the world. And they allow us to be known by a young person. Describe special memories about your upbringing, your work, and your hobbies. Be vulnerable and share both your successes and your failures. You don’t have to tell your entire life story to a young person but let him or her know you can relate by sharing relevant life experiences and struggles. This generation processes information quickly, but they are eager to entertain a personal story.
Building relationships with this young people is vital because it helps earn the trust to communicate Christian truth to them in a genuine fashion. Here is my simple prayer: that God will enable you and I to connect with this generation so we can help guide them to experience all that God has for their lives.
Sean McDowell, PhD, is a bestselling author, coauthor, or editor of more than 18 books, including Evidence That Demands a Verdict (with his father, Josh McDowell), and So the Next Generation Will Know (with J. Warner Wallace). He is also an associate professor of apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University and blogs regularly at sean_mcdowell.org. Sean speaks internationally on a variety of topics related to culture, students, and apologetics.
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