3 counter-cultural approaches to pastoring Gen Z
Our hope narratives were written in the ’90s. They need to be re-crafted.
For those of us in pastoral ministry, I think we share a collective sense of responsibility to prepare Generation Z for a new world. We don’t know everything about how this new world will operate. We just know it will be different and complex. This moment in history is marked by a mixture of cross-current, wild and unpredictable cultural events converging. Like streams into a river.
AI. Crypto. Gender identity. Social upheaval. Political division. Racial tension. Financial stress. I think we get why younger generations don’t necessarily wake up each morning with optimism surging through their veins. And yet, history shows us that moments of dynamic human progress and innovation often happen in the midst of chaos and challenge.
This is why the story we tell about hope and resilience needs to look different. We need a new narrative, a new set of markers to help us chart a course for new generations to find faith in challenging times.
We must prepare them not for a world that has come and gone, but for the world they are inheriting.
I’ve been around church my entire life. Before I was a senior pastor, I was raised as a pastor’s kid. In my church upbringing, we were good at talking about favor and goodness and breakthrough, but our culture has a very uncomfortable relationship with the shadows of life.
Here’s a narrative that is not working for Gen Z: Put your hope in God and your life will be blessed in a way that looks like a postcard-perfect life, a Hallmark version of life. The script goes something like this — if I could just remove every problem around me, my job, my family, my health, my emotions, then I would be happy.
But then, mud gets thrown on our beautiful postcard life; we don’t know what to do with it.
So, how do we pastor and lead Gen Z through uncertainty, anxiety and upheaval?
Consider these three practices:
1. Debunk outcome-based hope
Outcome-based hope is the fantasy of a life without troubles. We need to decouple hope from the outcome. Let’s sketch a new and biblical picture of hope — a hope made for moments when circumstances don’t improve. A hope so incandescent it can illuminate the darkest nights.
Faith doesn’t guarantee the short-term outcome, but it makes space in the narrative of our lives for God to do surprising and wonderful things beyond what we can even understand in the moment.
This new narrative of hope shows up when cancer attacks, divorce divides or the stress of the daily grind feels like too much. Hope lives in trauma, adversity and valleys of discouragement.
Let’s teach new generations that it is not about having hope for things. It is about who we have hope in.
2. The link between challenge and growth
How we handle the challenges of life will define us more than anything else. Why? Because pain grows us. Hardship and hope together can do something for us that a problem-free life never could. It is the imperfections of life, not the absence of them, that when harnessed provide the resistance and friction needed to supercharge our growth and propel us forward.
Some of my worst moments were what pushed me toward empathy, kindness, humility and a reliance on the grace of God. Whatever I thought my mistakes would steal from me, they have given me much more in return.
But with hope, our storyline always curves toward a redemptive purpose.
3. Teach them the ‘bicycle’
Let’s show younger generations that life is more like a bicycle. Think of it this way: Every time you get on a bicycle and ride, both wheels are in motion. The connection is this: instead of there being seasons where there is only good in our lives and other seasons where there is only bad, we tend to have a mixture of both. We travel on both wheels at all times.
Even on the most dramatically good days, we have hardships. And on the worst of days, there is some good. There is the wheel of human experience that involves hurt, pain and hardship. But there is also the divine wheel that involves hope, peace and joy. Any journey involves both wheels constantly in motion.
We need to teach Gen Z not to delay their sense of joy and optimism until the problems in their lives vanish. Stay on the bicycle!
From my 20 years of pastoring, I have discovered something remarkable to help new generations understand the world they are currently in. That is, not only should we have room for hardship — but hope can take our hardest moments and turn them into something that brings about our greatest growth. I define this as a “good catastrophe,” a concept I address further in my latest book, Good Catastrophe: The Tide Turning Power of Hope, to bring encouragement and hope to the next generation in a new and real way.
Benjamin Windle is an author, pastor and Millennial/Gen Z Specialist. As a pastor for over 20 years, he’s walked with many people through the dark shadows and valleys of the human experience. He has dedicated his life to helping people overcome life’s challenges by growing deeper in their faith and reaching higher in life. Benjamin is a new-generation content creator for some of the most respected Christian brands in the world. He is married to his high school sweetheart, Cindi, and they have three sons. Benjamin is the author of Good Catastrophe: The Tide Turning Power of Hope. For more information, visit benjaminwindle.com.