Understanding this generation can feel like a daunting task. There is so much nuance to each of them and yet much similarity. After spending a lot of time on campuses here in Phoenix listening to them, here are five things we have learned that have helped us engage them well.
- They want to be known.
- They want the freedom to make their own decisions.
- They see our double standards.
- They want mentorship.
- They want to follow leaders who are honest about their mistakes.
They want to be known.
They want us to see them as individuals, not just a group. They are craving relationships with adults who will invest in them and show an interest in their lives. Many of them have had negative experiences with adults at home or school, so we must take the time to get to know them for who they are. Gender and sexuality issues seem to be more about the protest of norms and the desire to be seen as an individual than it does sexual activity and expression. They want you to see them for them. If you do this, they will share things with you they have not shared with anyone.
They want the freedom to make their own decisions.
They don’t want us to tell them what to do. They are tired of being micromanaged and controlled. Instead, they crave independence and the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. We need to trust them enough to let them try things independently. We help them avoid huge errors by giving them the gift of our wisdom. We can share with them what decisions we’ve made and how those have shaped our lives. They will take in our stories and consider them as they make decisions for their lives. If we try and force our way of thinking, we lose our influence.
They see our double standards.
They are quick to point out when we say one thing but do another. For example, in a chapel recently, I asked high school students what they did not understand about their parents. They met me with responses like, ” they tell me not to catch an attitude but catch one while they are telling me not to.” ” They try to talk code around me about things they think I don’t understand when I do.” We know they are doing similar things, but we are the leaders and, therefore, the ones who set the standard. If you can be a leader who is honest about your errors when you have them, they will trust you.
They want mentorship.
They don’t want us to tell them what to do; they also want us to mentor them and help them grow into the adults they aspire to be. This means spending time with them, listening to them, and providing guidance when needed. This is incarnational ministry. We have to move into their lives the same way Jesus moved into ours. This requires more time at a slower pace, and we won’t do this with many students at once. We will need to find committed leaders in our ministries who are willing to invest in young people’s lives over long periods.
They want leaders who are honest about their mistakes.
Students want leaders who are honest about their mistakes. They don’t want us to pretend like we have it all together. They appreciate it when we admit our failures and show that people who follow Jesus still make mistakes. We need to be honest with them and let them know that we fail. This reminds them ultimately to look to Jesus in us and not just us. We are following Him the same way they are. We have experience and formation in the faith that we can pass down to them as they face the issues of their day.
This generation is ready to be encouraged, mentored, and poured into, but will we use their language or try to force our way of seeing things on them? The clock is ticking.
Jordan Francis is a team member of Reframe Youth in Phoenix, Arizona