Author Tim Barnett
Published on 01/08/2024
Christian Living

How to Relate to the Next Generation

We were all created to be in relationship with God and with each other. In this excerpt from Tim Barnett’s Stand to Reason University course “Reaching the Next Generation,” Tim shares five strategies you can use to have a positive relationship with Gen Z.


In “Reaching the Next Generation,” we’ve sought to understand the next generation and ask, who is Gen Z? In this class, we’re going to ask a different question. How do we better relate to Gen Z? Let’s begin by looking a little more closely at why young people are disengaging from the church.

Now, there are really two extremes that we want to avoid when responding to the exodus of young people from the church. First, there’s what I’ll call alarmism. This is the idea that there’s only one problem facing the church. We mustn’t be concerned with anything else. The sky is falling. Second, there’s what I’ll call optimism. Whereas alarmism says that there’s only one problem facing the church, optimism says that this really isn’t a problem facing the church. Don’t worry about it. It’ll work itself out. Everything’s okay. Both of these views are mistaken. This is a very serious issue, but it’s not the only issue.

Now, just as there are two extremes that we want to avoid, there are also two barriers to belief. There are intellectual barriers, and then there are relational barriers, and both of these are equally important. In fact, both of them need to be addressed.

There are intellectual barriers. Sit down with a student and ask what barriers they have to Christianity, and you’ll hear things like this: “I learned about evolution when I went to college.” “It no longer fits into what I understand of the universe.” “Because I grew up and realized it was a story like Santa and the Easter Bunny.” “Some stuff is too far-fetched for me to believe.” “Too many questions that can’t be answered.” “I’m a scientist now, and I don’t believe in miracles.” “I realized that religion is in complete contradiction with the rational and scientific world and to continue to subscribe to a religion would be hypocritical.” By the way, these are actual responses. We can put these in the category of intellectual barriers, but there are also relational barriers.

It turns out that the number one statistical factor for why a child would embrace the faith of his or her family is a good relationship with dad. Please don’t underestimate the power of relationships. And I’m saying this as an apologist who thinks we have good answers for those intellectual barriers.

Because there are two barriers, we need two responses, and those responses are truth and relationship—reasonable explanations to challenges and authentic relationships with people.

This generation is lonely. This loneliness stems from broken relationships. Read what sociologist Jean Twenge says about Gen Z or what she calls iGen‘ers: “iGen‘ers look happy online, making goofy faces on Snapchat and smiling in their pictures on Instagram. But dig deeper, and the reality is not so comforting. iGen is on the verge of the most severe mental health crisis for young people in decades.”

We were all created to be in relationship. Think about the two great commandments to love God and to love others. These are commands to be in relationship with God and with others. When we fail to follow these commands, we cut ourselves off from something vital to our spiritual and relational health. Think about this. Our students are asking big questions about their identity, their meaning, and their belonging, but the answers to these questions are tied to our relationship to God. My identity is an image bearer of God. My meaning is to know and glorify God. My belonging is rooted in being a child of God.

Sadly, many are trying to find their identity, their meaning, and their belonging apart from God, untied to the anchor, and the consequences are disastrous. This leaves a relational hole that cannot be filled by anything else. As a result, Gen Zers are looking for relational counterfeits. Some of these include consumerism. They’re chasing after the latest stuff to be satisfied—the latest iPhone or new clothes. You get the idea. Consumerism creates a counterfeit relationship. How about busyness? They fill their lives with constant distractions to avoid feeling alone or to help avoid emotional hurt. Another relational counterfeit is pornography. Many young men, and even young women, attempt to fill a relational need through pornography. It offers pleasure without the risks that come along with being rejected in a relationship, but it’s a counterfeit. It’s a distortion of real sexual relationship that’s been designed by our Creator. Social media is another relational counterfeit. Many have replaced embodied relationships with online relationships, but we we’re designed to be in embodied, face-to-face relationships, not over Messenger or Snapchat. Video games are another relational counterfeit. Video games promise things like community and identity and control. Many go to video games to escape reality or defined relationship.

There are many different counterfeits that are out there vying for the hearts of Gen Z. Most of these, with the exception of pornography, are not necessarily bad in and of themselves. For example, video games aren’t evil, but they can serve to be used to fill a hole that they aren’t supposed to fill.

Now that we’ve looked at these counterfeit relationships, I want to offer five strategies to help you have a positive relationship with Gen Z. First, share your story. Stories are powerful ways to connect to someone. You may not feel like you can relate to Gen Z, but you have a story that they need to hear. So, share your ups and your downs, and when you do, you become real and authentic to them, a flesh and blood person that they can connect to. So, first connect through story.

Second, try to enter into their world. How do we do that? Well, if they like playing video games, why not sit down with them and play together? Do they like to go shopping? Well, take them to the mall. Do they like to go for walks? Ask if you can join them on a walk sometime. There are lots of ways to enter into their world, but you have to go to them. Don’t wait for them to come to you.

Third, be a good listener. Broadly speaking, we like to talk. You know, we’re the adults—we like to give advice. However, there can be a time that we can learn a lot from just listening to them. There is a time to speak, but there’s a time to listen. So, sit down with a Gen Zer and have it as your goal to listen.

Fourth, find a Gen Zer to mentor. Who are you mentoring right now? We should all have one or two people that we’re discipling. After all, disciples make disciples. When you’re mentoring, you’re able to speak into their lives, because they trust you.

Fifth, have a conversation. This is where it all begins. It begins with, “Let’s talk each night.” My wife usually will put our two younger girls to bed, and I usually sit with my oldest, Juliana, and we just talk for about an hour. She tells me all about her day, and as she does, we are building our relationship together.

Relationships are so important, but they take work. This is a key piece to reaching the next generation, but it’s not the only piece. We also need to equip the next generation, and that’s where we’re going to turn next in STR University’s “Reaching the Next Generation.”