By Fr. George Elliott
One of the most humbling moments of my experience in ministry was in 2018 when I was forced to hand off our campus ministry’s social media to a student intern. The humbling part was not that I had to hand it off, but that she was so much better than me. Previously, my millennial campus minister and I had been running our social media. I thought to myself, “We know what we’re doing. My campus minister is a fun young woman, I started a Catholic media company – we’re the best team for this!” Due to financial constraints and shifting assignments, we had to let the campus minister go, and I no longer had the bandwidth for our social media. So, expecting the worst, I hired a student intern to take care of our social media. From the very first week she took over, our reach and engagement grew over 500%. Yes, 500% from the very first week.
This true story is a vignette for my experience ministering with Millennials and Gen Zers. While we all have the same fundamental needs and desires, the rapid changes in the world over the last 80 years have created unprecedented generational differences. Throughout the rest of this article, I’ll lay out some fundamental similarities, differences, and best practices for ministering to and with Millennials and Gen Zers.
First, it’s important to recognize that the similarities between all generations far outweigh the differences. We are all human beings, made in the image and likeness of God, and “Our hearts are restless until they rest in [God].”i As the Second Vatican Council teaches, “The dignity of man rests above all on the fact that he is called to communion with God. This invitation to converse with God is addressed to man as soon as he comes into being. For if man exists it is because God has created him through love, and through love continues to hold him in existence. He cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and entrusts himself to his creator.”ii
Therefore, when dealing with different generations, it is paramount to keep a crystal clear focus on where we want to go with them: communion with God. This never changes. Communion with God is achieved with Millennials and Gen Zers in the same perennial manner that the Church adopted from the very beginning: through the teachings of the Church, the life of charity, the Sacraments, and prayer.iii
Beyond their eternal destination, Millennials and Gen Zers have similar preoccupations and desires to other generations. In a survey of Gen Zers at 13-17 years old, 54% responded that “School and Exams” were a top worry, followed by “What Other People Think of Me” at 30%. When asked about their desires, 82% responded “Making My Family Proud of Me” and 64% said “Becoming Successful”.iv These are the stresses and desires of almost any modern American generation. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that when ministering to Millennials and Gen Z, we are ministering to human beings, and thanks be to God we have millennia of saints that we can turn to who have gone before us.
Keeping in mind that fundamental base of the commonality of all human beings, we can also talk about some of the unique similarities between Millennials and Gen Zers. Here is a list compiled from my research and experience in the parish and in campus ministry:
- Similarity #1: Millennials and Gen Zers seek authenticity
- Similarity #2: Millennials and Gen Zers are digital natives
- Similarity #3: Millennials and Gen Zers struggle with identity
- Similarity #4: Millennials and Gen Zers seek a sense of belonging firstv
- Similarity #5: Millennials and Gen Zers as a generation are multi-ethnicvi
Here are some differences between Millennials and Gen Zers to keep in mind while doing ministry:
- Difference #1: Gen Zers seek more security than Millennials
- Difference #2: Gen Zers are more sensitive to diversity and inclusion than Millennialsvii
- Difference #3: Gen Zers are more Post-Christian than Millennials
- Difference #4: Gen Zers oftentimes have never seen a healthy marriage up closeviii
- Difference #5: Gen Zers want to see faith in action
Keeping these similarities and differences in mind, here are some helpful best practices:
- Form the ministry around opportunities for dialogue
Since Gen Z has grown up in a world of 2 way social media interaction (similarity #2), they have come to expect dialogue. With decreasing attention spans and infinite opportunities to engage in interesting and immersive experiences on the web, interactivity is key. Interaction also allows authenticity to shine through. Off the cuff interaction shows what a person is really made of, and Gen Z craves that window into what is really inside their leaders (similarity #1). Small groups and interactive media presence are great ways to keep dialogue as a key part of the ministry. This will of course require a lot of leaders and man-power to keep up the dialogue, which leads right into #2.
- Form their peers to hold leadership positions
Organizations like FOCUS, St. Paul’s Outreach, and NET have hit the nail on the head with Gen Z. The Copernican shift that has to happen is that we don’t think of ministry to Gen Z but ministry with Gen Z. Placing peers as the front line of leadership overcomes many of the unique challenges of this generation. Gen Z is naturally authentic (similarity #1), and they are digital natives (similarity #2). Also, placing a Gen Zer as a leader makes other Gen Zers feel like they belong (similarity #4 and #5). They will naturally speak in a way that is sensitive to diversity and inclusion (difference #2), and they will move people to live out their faith in concrete actions because that is what they desire as well (difference #5). The absolute linchpin to this practice is that you form the peer leaders. They are still young, so despite being very talented, they still need guidance. Also, many Gen Zers seek security, so they will want to know that they are well equipped and supported by their leadership (difference #1). By doing so, you also prepare the Church for success for generations to come because the pipeline of future leaders will be full of well-formed young people on fire for the faith.
- Answer the questions they are really asking
Since infancy, Gen Z has been able to have their questions answered immediately and anywhere through the touch of a button. If they are learning, they expect it to be in response to a question they have. Therefore, constantly seeking through your peer leaders what questions their peers are asking will keep your content relevant. Since Gen Z is post-Christian, they are likely not asking the questions you asked at their age, but they are real questions that they are struggling with, and we have the responsibility to answer them (difference #3).
- Preach identity
God defines who we are. The Christian identity is formed by our relationship with our Creator and Savior. Gen Z desires to hear and be convinced of this truth. While they love their family, oftentimes their family does not provide a stable foundation for their identity (similarity #3 and difference #4). When convinced of their identity in the love of the Trinity, Gen Zers become alive in the faith and grow to be some of your greatest coworkers in the vineyard.
- Don’t neglect multi-generational bonds
Gen Z is well aware that there are different generations, and having grown up with a sensitivity to diversity they expect to see them (difference #2). Not only do they expect to see them, they want to have real relationships with them. Often the natural mentorship structure within families is broken for Gen Zers, therefore they appreciate mentorship that provides them with wisdom and guidance (difference #4). This is particularly the case with mentors in healthy and holy marriages. Gen Zers will oftentimes hear the teachings of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and say, “That’s beautiful, and I want it!” But, they feel intimidated by the concept because they have never seen it lived out (difference #4). Mentors that can share wisdom and allow Gen Zers to see into their life and family are of great value to this generation.
- Get active
Gen Z considers a community’s social and charitable involvement to be a sign of its authenticity (similarity #1 and difference #5). Hosting service projects is a great way to invite new Gen Zers into a relationship with the ministry and show to the newcomers and the regulars that you practice what you preach.
- Be respectful, but teach the truth
An easy way to lose a lot of Gen Zers is to speak in a way that is offensive to diversity or inclusiveness (difference #2). However, they have come to the Catholic Church and expect us to teach authentically what the Catholic Church teaches (similarity #1). This requires walking the line of truth in charity. Speaking in a condemnatory way is unacceptable, but backing down on the Church’s teaching of what is morally right or wrong doesn’t bring them closer to God and will been seen as a lack of authenticity. Thanks be to God, the Church’s teachings are truth in charity, so our job is to make sure that all of our leaders understand clearly and fully the teachings of the Church in regard to those topics and are equipped to pass that teaching on.
Were there any of the similarities, differences, or best practices that struck you while reading the article?
Do you have any experiences or stories in which you learned one of the similarities, differences, or best practices? Share the story with the group.
What are the next steps to integrate the best practices in the article into the ministry in which you serve?
Fr. George Elliott has a passion for evangelization through all licit means. A priest of the Diocese of Tyler, TX, co-founder of Catholic CAST Media (www.catholiccastmedia.com), and author of Discernment Dos and Don’ts: A Practical Guide to Vocational Discernment, he serves as pastor of Catholic Nacogdoches including 4 parishes and missions and a campus ministry.
[i] Augustine, Confessions, Book 1.
[ii] GS 19, 1
[iii] Cf. Acts 2:42
[iv] https://reignministries.co.uk/gen-z-what-every-church-needs-to-think-about/. Accessed June 8, 2020.
[v] http://www.siebertfoundation.org/EngagingMillennialsinMinistryResearchReport2. Accessed June 8, 2020
[vi] https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/essay/on-the-cusp-of-adulthood-and-facing-an-uncertain-future-what-we-know-about-gen-z-so-far/. Accessed June 8, 2020.
[vii] https://www.businessinsider.com/generation-z#featured. Accessed June 8, 2020.
[viii] https://reignministries.co.uk/gen-z-what-every-church-needs-to-think-about/. Accessed June 8, 2020.