Instilling the Spirit of Daniel in Gen Z
Helping young people stand for truth in an increasingly hostile culture
Recently, as I drove with my 12-year-old daughter in the car, we discussed a current moral issue that is at odds with our worldview. I asked her, “What would happen if you shared this opinion at school?”
“They would hate me for it,” she said. “They would say, ‘Why don’t you love people?’”
I was really taken aback by that answer. Having grown up in a Minnesota public school system, I’ve always felt like I could relate to the challenges. But this was a new level. So much for agreeing to disagree, or civil discourse. I felt helpless to help her in that moment.
I’ve since started praying every day when I drop off my children that they have the spirit of Daniel. He studied, lived and worked among the Babylonians, and yet he maintained his devotion to God.
I knew that I had an interview coming up with a dear friend from college who happens to be a leading expert on cultural generational differences. I didn’t realize that she would be able to frame the struggle my daughter was facing in a way that would help me as a parent to understand what she faces daily.
I’ve started praying every day when I drop off my children that they have the spirit of Daniel.
Jolene Erlacher started noticing a trend while working in student life at North Central University in Minneapolis. Year after year, she watched the best and brightest come through the doors, full of vision and anticipation for the future. A few years later, they would graduate, only to become disillusioned with ministry, and even with their faith. They were dropping out of the ministry in record numbers. She started thinking to herself, Something is going on.
Erlacher decided to do her dissertation for her doctorate on millennials in ministry. She spent two years interviewing millennials in faith-based non-profits, churches and missions agencies. Trends started to emerge that were true not only in the Church, but throughout the broader society. She came to a foundational conclusion: America has gone through a cultural shift. Not only generational, but cultural.
Erlacher has written two books on the subject. The first, Millennials in Ministry, is a practical assessment and problem-solving tool for intergenerational leaders. Her most recent, Daniel Generation: Godly Leadership in an Ungodly Culture, casts a vision for what God is doing in today’s young people. Her organization, Leading Tomorrow, works with faith-based and secular organizations to bring more understanding to cross-generational work environments. We discussed the challenges and opportunities facing Gen Z, the group of people born since the mid- to late-1990s.
KRISTI NORTHUP: What are some of the unique challenges facing students and young adults today?
JOLENE ERLACHER: The most foundational is our definition of truth. In the modern era, we determined what was true based on fact, logic and reason. We presented our faith through the formats like the Romans Road, the four spiritual laws, and apologetics. In this new cultural perspective, truth is determined through emotion, story and experience. This means that what’s true to you is true to you, and what’s true to me is true to me. Tolerance is the highest virtue. This lack of a moral compass has created such turmoil that we’ve seen an epidemic of mental health issues, accompanied by high suicide rates among youth that recently even have surpassed the homicide rates.
Oftentimes, we don’t realize the intense pressure on our younger generation to be tolerant. It is a difficult road for them to be in the world and not of it. To say, “I believe this is true” means someone somewhere is going to disagree with them, which in turn makes our young person intolerant. People go to great lengths to avoid being labeled intolerant, because it carries the same negative connotation as being racist or bigoted.
What can the church do to come alongside and strengthen them?
Power, title, experience and education no longer set you apart as an authority figure. If a 15-year-old can tweet just like the president, it makes it a level playing field. So the right to speak into someone’s life has to come through relationship.
The amount of information coming at them is overwhelming, and they’re trying to process it in a culture that has no recognition of absolute truth. They need interpretation, not information. They don’t need someone to say, “This is right from wrong.” They need someone to show them how to study the Bible and apply it. They can read endless blogs about the Bible but don’t know how to interpret it.
When you earn the ability to help someone interpret, that is a powerful influence you have on someone’s life. This is a process that happens best one-on-one. Realistically, this is most effective with fewer than three or four people.
What can I do?
Look around you. Look for the mentoring opportunities. Where are the young people? Where are the people in your life who could use additional intentionality? Pray and ask the Lord to show you who are your two or three Daniels to invest in. A great way to connect with someone is to meet a need that they have. If there’s a young mom, offer to babysit. Invite some college students over for a home-cooked meal. It can seem overwhelming until you just look at who is in your life.
The best skills you can develop are active listening and asking good, open-ended questions. If you can do this, you can mentor anybody. Let them do most of the talking. Then when they hit a crisis, they will come to you. Most young people spend eight to 12 hours a day on their devices, so to have someone to listen to them is a real gift. But because of this, don’t expect them to be great at relationships. It’s modeling and teaching, and it takes grace and patience.
As I (Kristi Northup) think about my daughter and her friends who are learning how to live for God in a hostile world, this Scripture has greatly encouraged me: “So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone — especially to those in the family of faith” (NLT).
I want to see my daughter — and other members of this generation — reap a harvest of blessing from living a life fully devoted to Christ. I want to be there every step of the way, cheering on her and her friends, listening to their struggles, encouraging them not to give up. Like Daniel, they can raise a banner of truth in a culture that is far from God.