Our understanding of global missions can be both horizontal and vertical.
The horizontal dimension understands the world by geographic, ethnic, and sociocultural boundaries. The vertical dimension views the world according to the different generations.
In this context, the traditional understanding of world missions is too horizontally-oriented.
Understanding new generations is an essential part of a true mission mind in this rapidly changing world. Today, Generation Z is the youngest generation. The older members of this group have already finished their formal education and are working in different sectors of society.
But who are the Gen Zers? What are they like? And, most importantly, how can they be reached with the gospel?
Who are they?
Defining societal groups in terms of birth year is helpful to trace the distinctive characteristics of different generations. Although the standard by which to separate generations has never been neatly laid out according to empirical research in general, the cases in the United States are more clearly defined and verified than others.
In the 2014 Religious Landscape Study by Pew Research Center, the US divides generations into the Greatest Generation (born before 1928), the Silent Generation (born 1928-1945), Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964), Generation X (born 1965-1980), and the Older and Younger Millennials (born 1981-1996).
The Millennials1 are also called Gen Y. Gen Z is the generation succeeding Gen Y, born approximately between 1995 and 2010.2 According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), since 2019 Gen Zers now comprise over 30% of the world’s population, with their number reaching over 2 billion.
More than half of the world’s population is either Millennials or Gen Zers, far surpassing the proportions of Gen X and Baby Boomers which are less than 20% each. This means the new generations are the majority generations in the world.
Gen Zers are becoming a new workforce in society. In many countries, they are involved in making important decisions in their workplaces and their homes. In South Korea, they account for 21.7% of all consumers, and with Millennials combined, 43.9% of all consumers.3
In the US, it was projected that Gen Z alone will account for 40% of all consumers.4 Moreover, in social media, Gen Z has been mentioned increasingly in recent years. An analysis of big data showed a 40% increase in the comments on Gen Z in South Korea in the fourth quarter of 2017.5
Also, Gen Zers have a preference for multi-sensual media over traditional media. For example, in South Korea, the ratio of Video on Demand (VOD) users is highest among Gen Zers.6
The social participation and influence of Gen Zers keep growing around the world. It is observed that Gen Z is going to be the next crop of leaders in the workforce sooner than many think.7
Gen Z is probably the last generation of the world. 8 After them, it will be impossible to categorize a generation that has homogeneous characteristics, due to the rapid sociocultural changes that contribute to the heterogenization of societal groups.
What are they like?
Generations Y and Z have both similarities and differences. They have many common characteristics as there is no big age gap between them. But as they were raised by parents of different generations and times, they also have significant differences in their cultural characteristics and way of life.
Gen Zers’ early exposure to modern technology shaped their distinctive worldview and lifestyle. Most grew up with smartphones and social media, so they are far more technologically savvy and generally more capable of multi-tasking than previous generations.
In a joint survey by IBM Institute for Business Value and the National Retail Federation, 66 percent of the Gen Z respondents said that they often used two or more devices simultaneously. 9
Gen Zers were born during the same period as some of their favorite brands—Google (1998), iTunes (2003), Twitter (2006), Uber (2009), Instagram (2010)—and grew up as digital natives.10
On the other hand, Gen Zers tend to be very self-directed, with more independence than Millennials but more dependence than the generations before, thus capable of being both independent and cooperative.
This is partly because Gen Z was raised, by and large, by Gen X who learned not to become helicopter parents according to James Emery White.11 Many Gen Zers grew up in families where both parents worked and had less time than the previous generations to take care of their children, making them less protective than the parents of Millennials.
Another important factor related to the characteristics of Gen Z is their experience of nationwide financial crises during their childhood and adolescence. In Korea, most families of Gen Z suffered from two severe financial crises: firstly, the Asian financial crisis that started in 1997; and secondly, the Great Recession that started in 2007.
And the impact of the latter was especially global. This experience is probably one reason why many Gen Zers are so anxious and depressed. They are also growing up at a faster pace than the previous generations. Gen Z’s coping mechanisms have led to their strong sense of independence and entrepreneurial spirit. 12
Values and a related authentic commitment are important to Gen Zers. They like to work for and with people and organizations that share their same values. Both environmental care and ethical commitment are central to many of these values. Thus, to be heard by Gen Zers, we have to demonstrate commitment to such values.
How can they be reached with the gospel?
Gen Z is the first post-Christian generation, having been raised in a post-Christian context, especially in many of the Western countries. They do not seem to be growing more religiously observant as they get older, and so the overall pattern (at least in the US) is that the younger the generation, the more post-Christian it is. 13 Then how can we approach Gen Zers with the gospel?
In reaching this post-Christian generation, a worldview exegesis is necessary. One key characteristic of the Gen Z worldview is scientism: believing that people cannot know something adequately unless they prove it scientifically.
Scientism is not even argued for, but assumed among Gen Zers. 14 Their scientistic orientation does not deny the supernatural, which leads to the possibility of integrating science and the supernatural as an apologetic opening to Gen Z, according to White. 15
Gen Z needs a mature and rich worldview that explains the reasons for faith, why they believe what they believe. The plausibility structure of Gen Zers is characterized by their commitment to diversity and openness for multiple interpretations.
As such, telling Gen Z the truth of the uniqueness of Christ requires much sensitivity that distinguishes between ontological norms and epistemological considerations.
Genuine relationship matters in a worldview evangelism. Engaging Gen Zers in conversation about Christ takes authentic relationship-building based on trust and empathy, because this generation hungers for real relationships.
Gen Zers need to learn the biblical worldview by practicing it, modeling after someone who loves it. Gen Z is also highly visually-oriented and informed; they consume knowledge about the world through YouTube, Netflix, and other media they find visually gripping.
Therefore, evangelism will require new means and styles of communication as well as fresh contents, considering Gen Z’s style of digital learning based on multi-sensory experientialism. 16
In order to maximize their learning, we need to catch the nuances of Gen Z learners and design an appropriate and effective experience for them. Gen Zers need to be situated in the middle of the learning process, as a participant and not just remain as an observer.
Finally, the environmental setting is important. The learning space needs to be quiet, clean, organized, and comfortable. 17 Gen Zers should be able to enjoy the freedom of moving around, eating and drinking, while listening.
We need to make conscious efforts to be culturally relevant in reaching Gen Z with the gospel. To this end, we need to remember three concrete points.
First, we need to invest our time and energy to know Gen Z better. We must play the ethnographer to know them firsthand by practicing participant observation and ethnographic interviews. We need dispassionate descriptions before passing any judgment, with a sense of balance between insider and outsider views.
Second, we need to invite Gen Zers to our fellowship groups and teams to benefit from their competency and expertise. We must appreciate their questions and suggestions. Sometimes we should have sessions of reverse mentoring, gleaning their wisdom and insight.
Furthermore, it will be strategic to deliberately hire Gen Zers, to be part of our staff team. They have a lot of potential to be competent colleagues and leaders in the future.
Third, we need to critically contextualize our programs, messages, and environments to make them relevant to the Gen Zers within our reach. We must create an atmosphere of comfort, friendliness, and warmth adapted to their preferences.
We need to communicate what we believe to be eternal and important biblical messages to address the ‘existential questions’ left unanswered in their hearts.
‘When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some. I do everything to spread the Good News and share in its blessings’ (1 Cor 9:23–24, NLT).
Steve Sang-Cheol Moon is a Korean missiologist serving as Founder and CEO of Charis Institute for Intercultural Studies. He also teaches intercultural studies at Grace Mission University and a few other universities and seminaries in different parts of the world. He is a graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School with a PhD in Intercultural Studies (1998).
This article originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of the Lausanne Global Analysis and is published here with permission. To receive this free bimonthly publication from the Lausanne Movement, subscribe online at www.lausanne.org/analysis.
1. Editor’s note: See article by Steve Steddom and Thomas Harvey, entitled ‘The Millenials’, in November 2014 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis, https://www.lausanne.org/content/lga/2014-11/the-millennials
2. There are varying definitions of Generation Z in terms of their birth year. Some, such as the report by Barna Group, define the starting year as 1999, while others, including James Emery White, define it as starting around 1995 and ending around 2010. Please refer to Barna Group & Impact 360 Institute, Gen Z: The culture, beliefs and motivations shaping the next generation (2018), 10 and James Emery White, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and reaching the new post-Christian World (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017), 38. The fluidity in definition is understandable considering the different historical contexts of different countries. We can also determine when this generation’s birth year will end only after we have observed how people born more recently are characteristically different. In this article, Gen Z is defined as those born between 1995 and 2010.
3. Samjong KPMG, Samjong Insight Vol. 66 (2019), 3, https://home.kpmg/content/dam/kpmg/kr/pdf/2019/kr-insight66-lifestyle-trends-20190430.pdf
4. Mark Beal, Decoding Gen Z: 101 Lessons Generation Z will teach corporate America, marketers & media (New Jersey: Mark Beal Media, LLC, 2018), 2.
5. Geunjoo Lee & Sungkong Park, ‘Social big data ro bon Z sedae’, Card Business Brief (BC Card Digital Research Institute, 2018).
6. Jihyung Shin, ‘Millenial sedae wa z sedae media iyong’, KISDI STAT Report Vol 19, No. 03 (15. 02. 2019).
7. Richard Dool, How Generation Z wants to be led (America: Richard Dool, 2019), 141.
8. James Emery White, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and reaching the new post-Christian World (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017), 38-39.
9. IBM Institute for Business Value & National Retail Federation. Uilmuihan z sedae (2017).
10. Beal, Decoding Gen Z, 1.
11. White, Meet Generation Z, 51.
12. Ibid., 40.
13. Pew Research Center, ‘2014 Religious Landscape Study’; Barna Group & Impact 360 Institute, Gen Z; White, Meet Generation Z, 49.
14. Barna Group & Impact 360 Institute, Gen Z, 100.
15. White, Meet Generation Z, 143.
16. Ibid., 118-119, 126.
17. Ibid., 46-49.