According to one source, an “unreached people group” is a cohort of people that lacks enough followers of Christ and resources to evangelize their own without some outside assistance.1
The history of missions is lined with the motivating stories of how God placed a growing burden on the hearts of motivated individuals and their sending churches to reach out to the neediest classifications of people. Because of the lasting influence of the gospel, the church is thriving in places (for example, parts of China and Korea) that are currently closed to outside missionary assistance. God has used a variety of called and visionary evangelists to make an enduring impact for Christ.
Yet, unreached people groups remain. With apologies to missionary purists for using a loose definition of this term, the United States is currently experiencing the rise of Generation Z—soon to be this country’s largest and least-Christian “unreached people group” ever. This new generation of young people is comprised of digital natives2, the majority of whom are from dysfunctional and non-traditional households3; plus, they have come of age in a post-Christian4 and post-church5 culture.
Gen Z is the generation now in high school or just starting college—and they are over 74 million people strong.6 This positions them as one of the largest unreached people groups in the world, using the above listed definition and classifications loosely as our guide. This is a generation that is mainly post-Christian and, apart from the grace of God, they will certainly need some outside assistance from committed parents and concerned church youth workers to come to faith in Christ. Their generational standing as emerging adults also makes them a strategic target for ministry endeavors and evangelistic efforts of the church.
Perhaps today’s church leaders and youth workers will need to think more like missionaries than ever before to reach this generation for Christ. Here are a few basic missional suggestions to consider when thinking about how to reach out to Gen Z.
1. Go to them instead of asking them to come to church functions.
The Great Commission begins with an assumption that believers would “go” with the Gospel (Matthew 28:19-20). The early church’s great missionary endeavors, led by Barnabas and Paul, also began with a commitment to “go” (Acts 13:1-5). Going has been the central passion of missions ever since—and that’s what it will take to impact this people group as well.
Gen Z is a generation with busy schedules and conflicting priorities. They are more likely to participate in weekend kids’ sports than they are to attend church services. Youth workers should not complain about how today’s teenagers are unfaithful to the church’s scheduled youth meetings, but instead must commit to find ways to reach out to them through their over-scheduled school, work, and extracurricular activities. In order to reach this generation, youth workers will need to go outside the walls of church buildings to develop growing relationships with young people and their parents.
2. Find creative ways to share the gospel and to teach biblical truth instead of looking for ways to entertain them.
It’s not a pun or a play on words: the mission of missions was and is to share the gospel. That must be the focus of today’s youth ministry as well. The lasting legacy of the history of both missions and youth ministry are the stories of how God used visionary leaders to use their creative energy to reach the next generation for Christ. They looked at culture as an opportunity, not an obstacle to impact others with the gospel. They weren’t overly concerned about ways to attract people to their programs. They were highly motivated to find ways to creatively and effectively teach God’s Word to others.
Reaching Gen Z will demand an entrepreneurial spirit where today’s visionary leaders develop culturally relevant ways to communicate God’s truth to this new generation.
3. Adapt strategies for cultural impact instead of accepting traditional norms of ministry.
Cross-cultural missionaries understand that it’s probably not productive to utilize American or Western methodologies to reach people from other social or ethnic perspectives and backgrounds. Outreach and ministry strategies must be adapted for the cultural mores of the targeted people group.
Church ministry did not look the same in Antioch as it did in the Jerusalem church in Acts, and the seven churches in Revelation each had unique strengths and weaknesses that were sometimes born out of various cultural backgrounds. For example, it may be that the Apostle John’s rebuke to the Laodiceans in Revelation 3:14-16 about being “lukewarm” was because of their city’s vast use of a distribution of water. Their geography helped them visualize and understand the truth being taught.
4. Expect opposition instead of believing that most people will want to hear what we say.
The earliest missionaries faced serious opposition and oppression. They were confronted by false teachers, and they experienced physical torment and harassment; some were beaten, jailed, and ultimately even martyred for their desire to spread the message of Jesus Christ. It is not a stretch to think that the church may be headed toward another time period when those in Christ’s service can expect persecution.
Generation Z has grown up with a post-modern, pluralistic mindset. Researchers report that the leading religious influence of today’s American culture is “moralistic, therapeutic deism,” a school of thought that honors and promotes the well-being of “self” and a person’s own goals as the highest cause in life.7 No longer do most American teenagers see Christianity as a viable option for them personally.8 It is now imperative for American churches to look at their outreach endeavors to emerging generations with the reality of facing opposition.
5. Prioritize and utilize team ministry instead of thinking that ministry is for individuals.
Today’s missionaries realize the days of the “lone ranger” are long gone. There may have been a time in missions history where one individual sensed the call of God and headed out all alone to the field where God was leading them. However, from the account of the first missions trip ever in Acts 13, until today’s current 21st century approaches, God tends to use teams that are highly-committed and complimentarily-gifted to accomplish his work.
The same is true in youth ministry. An example of this can be found in the story of John Mark in the New Testament. He grew up in a Christian home as a church kid, and then was mentored by Barnabas, Paul, and Peter. A variety of godly adults were used to help him grow from a kid with potential, through times of ministry failure, to someone that God used in significant ways for eternity. Churches today must likewise build teams of godly older adults who can and will have a significant impact on members of this generation who crave and desperately need caring adults in their lives.
The United States is on the verge of a huge cultural shift as members of Generation Z mature into adulthood and take on a growing level of influence on society. They will not have the same generational perspectives of the Millennials or Gen X’ers who came before them. They will indeed be a large and quite “unreached” people group with incredible spiritual and social issues facing them. Churches that want effective and successful ministries to members of Gen Z will need to take a missionary approach to reaching them for Jesus Christ. But those who do will have a lasting impact for eternity.
2. Generation Z: A Century in the Making, Corey Seemiller and Meghan Grace, published by Routledge, 2019, pages 39-55.
3. Households of Faith: The Rituals and Relationships That Turn a Home Into a Sacred Space, edited by the Barna Group, published by Barna Group, 2019, page 22.
4. Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian World, by Brock Morgan, published by The Youth Cartel, LLC, 2013, pages 20-37.
5. The Post-Church Christian: Dealing with the Generational Baggage of Our Faith, by J. Paul Nyquist and Carson Nyquist, published by Moody Publishers, 2013, pages 11-15.
6. iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood and What That Means for the Rest of Us, by Jean M. Twenge, published by Atria (Simon & Schuster, Inc.), 2017, page. 10.
7. A phrase first coined by Dr. Christian Smith in Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers published by Oxford University Press, 2005, citing the results of the “National Study of Youth & Religion”.
8. Meet Generation G: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, by James Emery White, published by Baker Books, 2017, pages 107-128.