Disconnection and Gen Z: Searching for Trustworthy Mentors

Two weeks ago the adult male leaders from our youth team got together for food and fellowship at one leader’s house. The evening included some fun, lots of laughs, and stories of youth ministry. At the end of the night I asked “okay, we’ve got a lot of guys here. Who could use prayer?” (I’d encourage you never to miss an opportunity to pray with your adult leaders!) One of the dads started off with a request, then another dad leader, then the youth pastor, then a young college student leader, leading to a rich time together. 

The next day one of the younger leaders (who happens to be a recent graduate of our youth ministry) sent me a text that surprised and uplifted me: “It was such an encouraging time last night! I love hanging out and talking with the older youth leaders. There is SO much wisdom and guidance available to us younger leaders.” 

Mentors make some of the most memorable characters in our favorite stories. Who would Rocky be without Mickey, or Frodo without Gandalf, or Lightning McQueen without Doc Hudson? These leaders provide wisdom, patience, grit, and hope to a young and inexperienced idealist. But for Gen Z, the fracturing of institutions has left many young people searching for older people to speak into their lives, as Kyle Richter and Patrick Miller point out in a recent article for TGC. What a tragedy to read that even the youth in our churches are longing for mentors who believe in them. 

According to Richter and Miller’s observation, we have a whole bunch of Frodos but too few Gandalfs in the church today. And the path to solving this issue in your church is not one of pragmatic creativity, but of faith-filled dependency. No ministry meeting can produce Spirit-filled belonging and mentorship. All human attempts at creating belonging and mentorship fizzle out fast, or turn into social activity clubs or good-citizen development programs. But when we lean into the spectacular belonging we have in Christ, the kind of mentorship culture Gen Z (and all other generations) long for should naturally follow. Following are a few observations from the ministry of Jesus and the life of the early church to guide us in fostering belonging and mentorship. 

Jesus became one of us, that we would belong to him.

Jesus became a human being, lived the perfect life on earth, was baptized, experienced temptation, and had a whole earthly ministry. If not for the incarnation of Jesus Christ we would have never experienced the belonging we needed.

As mentors to the teenagers and young adults in our ministries, we must look to Christ and remember that he became like us, experiencing what we experience. Jesus submitted himself to things he did not have to in order to relate to us, and become our Savior. Christian mentorship starts with incarnation on the part of the mentor, not to be the savior of the person they are mentoring, but to point them to the Savior.

One of the leaders in our student ministry exudes this type of mentorship. He truly treasures the guys in his small group, he loves sitting with them, eating with them, having them over, going to their activities, and watching them grow. He becomes like one of them that they might belong to Christ.   

When you get Jesus, you get belonging. 

Imagine what it would be like if three thousand people came to faith in Christ in one day in your town. Picture full-on repentance and belief in Jesus leading to the transformation of lives. 

This is exactly what happened in the early days of the Church, which Luke records for us at the beginning of Acts. Luke then gives an account of the type of culture this event produced:

“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles” (Acts 2:42-43).

In Acts 2 we read of a community enthralled with Jesus. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship. Luke describes the atmosphere, the characteristics, and the culture of these Jesus-believing people. None of the disciples sat down that morning and thought about how to get people to feel like they belonged to Jesus. Instead, true belonging is birthed out of the riches of grace we have received in Christ. You will feel it, but you cannot create it. In Christ, a person is unfathomably filled with unpredictable life-giving hope. In short, a person is filled with what they long for. 

When I asked my wife to marry me, I loved to replay the fact that she said “yes” in my mind! How could a guy like me end up with a girl like her? Here at the genesis of Christ’s church we see a people who are almost giddy with the unbelievable grace they have received in Christ. People who feel this kind of giddiness about God’s grace in their lives can’t help but lead others to grow in Jesus.

Luke’s account is not of a people going through cultural rituals of familiar expectation, but a new people who have received the best news ever! It is almost as if they are saying, “let’s go regularly and listen to the men who walked with Jesus! Let’s implore them to tell us everything, so we can remember and tell our kids and neighbors. I hope they teach us more about Jesus!” Luke tells us that “awe came upon every soul.” 

When we contemplate the lack of belonging reported by Gen Z, we must consider that maybe those called to mentor have lost the awe of Christ. Because if we see anything from Acts chapter 2, it is that when your community gets Jesus, a community of belonging soon follows. 

When you get belonging, you give your belongings.

Next, Luke tells us the outcome of this deep sense of belonging among the early believers: 

“And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:45). 

Notice what Luke records has disappeared from God’s people because of their new belonging to Christ: attachment to earthly treasures. The trickle-down effect of being in awe of God’s amazing grace in Christ is to treasure others in need more than you treasure your own stuff. 

When you belong to Christ all of your belongings become tools to bless those around you. All of a sudden, how you place your living room furniture is somehow hysterically and gloriously rooted in how Christ has welcomed you. Hoarders become givers, and the social hierarchy disappears. The rich man in you has died and the widow and her mite has been born! Those who were always too busy for others now see the beauty in lingering long, feasting well, and delighting together

This is the kind of community our teenagers so deeply desire—not one that they come to consume, but one in which they share their own gifts alongside peers and mentors. In a broader culture so driven by consumerism and materialism, a church culture of radical generosity is disarming to our students. Teenagers themselves can be the greatest impetus for a culture of belonging and mentorship as they welcome the outsider. When we offer them meaningful discipleship, they in turn can build into the younger students in the group.  

Sometimes I think we attempt to go about creating belonging backwards. We start with focusing on creating spaces of fellowship, or a mentorship program, or a great list of songs for worship and praise together. Unfortunately, we tend to view these things wrongly, as means to belonging, rather than the good products of belonging. 

Only God can create the communities of belonging and mentorship for which Gen Z is longing. By faith in Christ, we belong to God and to one another. When we come together as people who cannot get over the glorious grace they have received in Christ, we will naturally offer a community that is compelling and attractive to teenagers. Just as with the early Church, the most important thing we can possibly do is to devote ourselves to the Lord through prayer, asking him to bring about the kind of belonging that results from being his.

If you are a youth minister, a parent, or a church leader looking for coaching, Rooted has mentorship cohorts to help you grow in youth and family ministry. Apply today to join us in January.

Joey is married to Jenny (his high school sweetheart) and is a father to four amazing kids. He serves as the Pastor of Missions and Adult Ministries at Patterson Park Church in Beavercreek, OH. Prior to his current role Joey was a Student Ministry Pastor for 9 years. He is a graduate of Cedarville University, has a Master of Arts in Theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and is currently working towards in M.Div. through Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL.

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