Disillusionment and Gen Z: Looking for Servant Leaders

The recent TGC article “5 Reasons Gen Z is Primed for Spiritual Renewal,” highlighted an incredible opportunity for those of us in positions of authority over Gen Z’ers. (Pew Research defines Gen Z as those born 1997-2012.) Authors Kyle Richter and Patrick Miler write, “Disillusionment with ineffective, abusive, hypocritical leaders is creating a hunger for sincere, humble, transparent leadership.”

With their assessment in mind, I want to help discern how we can minister the good news of Jesus to a generation of hurting, but spiritually open, teenagers. 

Disillusionment can be a good thing. “Disillusioned” means stripping away an illusion. And by definition, illusions are not real. At best they are shadows and fakes, imposters and idols, pretending to be the real thing.

When we put our trust in an illusion, it will eventually show its true colors. Idols cannot support the weight of our worship. Idols are, after all, human creations. And everything made with human hands eventually breaks or falls apart. 

For those of us in positions of leadership and influence, be it a parent, pastor, youth minister, or teacher, is that it’s all-too easy to become the illusion or idol. Our kids can start looking to us as the source of salvation, and we can start thinking of ourselves as their savior. But Gen Z doesn’t need more false gods. They need the one true God.

So how do we use our influence to minister the good news of Jesus to a generation seeing the limits of sinful humans? By keeping Jesus at the center of our ministry, and by guarding against making idols of ourselves and others—all while soaking ourselves and others in prayer.

Before we go into more detail on each of these points (and we will get there), we need to dig deeper into how we got to this cultural moment when so many leaders have failed so spectacularly. Until we repent of our past, it’s hard to chart a life-giving path forward.

What Got Us Here: Settling For a Lesser Glory

Scripture teaches that while God has formed humans in his image, we are not gods ourself. God gives us the high calling to steward his good creation, but he has not made us to determine wisdom and wield power in our own way.

But as humans created to reflect God’s glory, our instinctive desire is to seek out and reflect glory. But there’s a problem: Our human eyes and hearts trade the glory of the Creator God for shiny things within God’s creation. Rather than worshiping the Light of the World, we settle for lesser lights and make those illusions the object of our desire. Rather than being content to reflect God’s glory, we would rather play gods and keep glory for ourselves.

After the serpent deceived Adam and Eve into thinking they could be like God, Scripture tells us that, “when [Eve] saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate” (Gen. 3:6).  

Like an insect with a broken antenna, we struggle to discern the path back to reflecting God’s glory as image-bearers.

This is a problem, particularly when it comes to leaders wielding authority and followers looking up to those with authority. We are easily dazzled by the lesser lights of our own glory or the glory of other humans. We believe that someone else can provide the fullness and salvation that only God can truly give.

Whether it’s the power and influence of a politician, an athlete, a singer, a journalist, a parent, a pastor, or a youth pastor, we are quick to give our worship to people rather than to the God who made them. And when we’re in a position of authority, we are prone to receive the glory and praise given to us by others, rather than reflecting that glory back to God.

If you’re reading this article, you are likely someone with power and influence over others. So, as we begin to consider how to be good leaders who can meaningfully reach Gen Z, we need to do so with eyes open to our heart’s bent inclination towards power.  

Practical Applications for Ministry to Gen Z:

I want to offer three suggestions as to how we can we minister the good news of Jesus to a disillusioned Gen Z. 

1) Jesus at the Center

First, we need to be sure to keep Jesus at the center of the communities we lead. 

It sounds obvious, but it is deceptively difficult to do. We can easily make our communities about good things that relate to Jesus, but which aren’t Jesus himself. We can manipulate experience and emotions with setting and music. Doctrine and theology help us understand and relate to God, but as finite human beings, we can get them wrong. In our sinfulness, we can even manipulate God’s Word to serve our own agendas. 

But you cannot control the living Jesus, the Spirit who moves like the wind, or the Father God of all.

Experience, emotion, doctrine, theology, and Scripture are not bad things. They are good things and gifts from God that help direct us to God’s glory. But none of these can replace a relationship with the triune God. 

Paul writes,“For in [Jesus] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him” (Col. 2:9-10a). The easiest way to help people discern lesser glories, illusions, and idols is to taste true glory in God found in Jesus by the Spirit.

Let’s not just focus on helping Gen Z know about God, but to know Jesus and his fullness personally.

2) Watch for Making an Idol of the Self

Second, we need to guard against our tendency to make idols of ourselves and others.

When you teach, preach, or counsel your students, who or what are you asking them to worship? Who or what are you setting up as their savior? Who or what are you teaching them to look to for fullness, hope, or purpose?

If it’s anything other than Jesus, even it it’s good things like government, church leadership, education, or their abilities, you are building idols for your youth that will inevitably let them down.

Paul’s words to the Philippians provide an excellent practical guide for us in this mater:

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3) God calls us to guard our hearts against ambition and pride. Honesty and confession are powerful antidotes to pride. It’s hard to feel prideful when we take responsibility for our sin and ask for forgiveness.

Paul continues, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4). It’s hard to get puffed up when your focus is on others. Parents, take interest in the interests of your kids. Pastors and teachers, take cues from your youth on what they want to talk about and learn from them. Jesus’ teachings were often a response to the particular situation of the group before him. 

We need to learn to not grasp at power, but to be servants who make genuine sacrifices for the sake of those over whom we are in authority. Or, in Paul’s words,

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”  

Phil 2:5-8

If we want to be winsome with Gen Z, we need to keep Jesus at the heart of our ministry, seeking to become more like him in service and humility. We need to reflect God’s glory rather than pretending to be gods of our domains. 

3) The Necessity of Prayer

Lastly, we need to pray.

We cannot change people’s hearts. But God can—and does—by the Spirit. So let’s stay committed to praying regularly for those over whom God has given us influence. Pray that God would expose our idols, and that his Spirit would attune our hearts more and more to God’s glory. And pray, too, that we all would awaken to the reality that the living God is with us, working his salvation and purposes in our midst.

If we lead in these ways, pointing teenagers toward greater dependence on Jesus, perhaps Gen Z can finally find in him the fullness for which they are so desperately searching.

Rooted offers mentoring cohorts for youth ministers and family ministers looking for more encouragement and equipping. Consider joining our next round of groups starting in January 2024.

Mark Howard was a youth pastor for five years before joining Elam Ministries, an organization that seeks to strengthen and expand the church in Iran and surrounding areas. Through Elam, he's had the opportunity to work with Iranian youth as well as talk with American churches about God's work in Iran. Mark has his M.A. in Theological Studies from Wheaton College Graduate School and serves on Rooted's steering committee.

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