the shape of leadership

Homelanders: The Next Generation

Translating our message to reach Generation Z

Tim Elmore on August 3, 2016

I met 15-year-old Carson recently. He’s a typical teen who provides a picture of what’s coming in the future. I’m not so sure we’re ready for it.

Carson is a case study of a new generation, born since the turn of the century. He entered his freshman year of high school a bit nervous, but he soon developed a scrappy, independent style. He plans to “hack” his way through adolescence. He games for three to five hours a day, and Googles for even more. He is truly a “screen-ager,” but he claims he doesn’t get much screen time compared to his friends, who rack up 100 hours per week and rarely sleep.

Almost weekly, Carson binge watches a TV season on Netflix. When I asked what he imagined doing for a career, he told me he wants to earn money by continuing his hobbies. After high school, he plans to pursue an online education so he can stay close to home, maybe even at home. He says he has a girlfriend, but they haven’t met in person. They met online. They text, Instagram and Snapchat a lot, but they attend different schools. In fact, he met most of his friends on screens, playing games or interacting on social media. Carson has encountered few of them face-to-face. Several are global friendships. When I asked why, he said he feels safer in a relationship that he can start or stop on a screen. He can walk away at any moment. Part of Carson’s uncertainty is his own identity. He’s still figuring out what gender he prefers, both for himself and his companions. He figures he has options.

While Carson’s life is drastically different from mine at 15 years old, he’s found a way to make life work so far. Here are some telling statements he made that reveal what he thinks about regularly:

• “I have a sister who went to college, and now has tons of debt and no job. I don’t want to get into the situation she did. I think people lied to her about her career.”

• “My personal life is OK, but the world is screwed up. Every time I watch the news, it gets into my head. I try to block it out, but it stresses me out.”

• “My dad is gone; my mom is always on Facebook, from the time I get home from school until I go to bed. She has no idea what I am doing at midnight.”

I wish you could meet Carson, too, because he represents a new type of person you’ll need to understand if you plan to reach kids outside your church family — or, perhaps, even better understand the kids you may already be serving. What makes this task especially challenging is that many denominational churches and pastors are aging — measurably. The average age of a Southern Baptist pastor is 50. The average age of a United Methodist minister is 53. The average age of an Assemblies of God lead pastor is 55. The average Presbyterian elder is 62.

This means big-time adjustment if we’re serious about reaching this new generation outside our walls. Are you ready?

How should we attempt to connect with a new population some describe as digital natives, binge watchers, sexually ambiguous and polyspiritual?

Who Are These Kids?
The numbers are just coming in from studies of younger members of Generation Z (the generation following Generation Y). Some call this generation Homelanders, since its beginning roughly coincides with the founding of the Department of Homeland Security.

They are part of a population that grew up post-9/11, with terrorism as part of the landscape. A sour economy is all they remember. In this generation, racial unrest is prevalent again, and uncertainty defines our culture. Many compare Homelanders to the Silent Generation, the group born between the Great Depression and the post-World War II Baby Boomers. War and a tough economy will likely shape them into adults marked by pragmatism and caution.

Homelanders Up Close
A new digital awareness marked the Millennials. But according to a report from marketing research firm Sparks and Honey, today’s young teens are more concerned about coping with reality than about virtual reality. Consider the following:

• Their movies are Hunger Games and Divergent, stories of youth navigating dystopian societies.

• They multitask on five screens rather than one or two. Fearful of missing out, they try to consume it all.

• They have strong internal filters. Teen attention spans have gone from 12 seconds in the year 2000 to six seconds today. You’d better be engaging.

• They plan to get educated and start working earlier, but these “school hackers” will not necessarily attend liberal arts colleges. They can be full of angst, living in a broken world from which they never unplug, receiving 1,000 messages a day.

So, let’s take a moment to listen to their heart. At Growing Leaders, we hosted several focus groups of middle school and high school students from the Homelander Generation. The following conclusions — supported by statements from these students — provide a glimpse into what makes them tick:

1. They worry a lot about the future and the future of the world.

• “It’s hard, but I try to keep myself thinking about the positive as much as possible.” — sixth-grade male

• “Our generation cares about the world — not just for ourselves, but for generations to come. We don’t know what could happen in the future if we don’t. We want to make sure future generations have everything they need to survive.” — ninth-grade male

• “I’m glad we have ISIS, because, without them, we would be living our lives as a lie, thinking that everything else is OK when really nothing is OK.” — sixth-grade female

2. They love the Internet, but they don’t trust it.

• “I like social media that disappears because people can stalk your pictures. It’s really creepy. My brother had someone hack his Instagram account.” — sixth-grade female

• “Being careful about what you say on social media is being drilled into us all the time. We think about that a lot.” — eighth-grade male

• “I don’t let people follow me online unless I know them. I get more requests from people I don’t know than from people that I do know, so I keep my account private.” — ninth-grade female

• “Having your parents ask you for your password is one of the scariest things ever. My parents have no idea what’s going on in my life, so when they go through my phone and see things they didn’t know about, I can’t handle it.” sixth-grade female

3. They believe parents are oblivious to the issues they face.

• “I’m scared that one day my mom will figure out how I hid all of my social media accounts on her iPad.” — sixth-grade female

• “My mom is busy all the time, messaging her friends on Facebook, and my dad’s on his phone every day catching up on the news.” — tenth-grade male

• “I got Snapchat so I could post things that my parents wouldn’t be able to see. Plus, I want to keep my Snapchat streak going.” — seventh-grade male

• “My parents are mostly clueless to the stuff that’s going on in my life. When they take my phone away, I just get online through my iPad. — ninth-grade female

4. They are dependent on technology, building their social identities through social media.

• “When I get grounded, and my phone is taken away, I always give my username and password to my friends so they can log in and keep up with everything that’s going on.” — ninth-grade male

• “For five years, I’ve slept with my phone at night. I hate to admit it, but now I shower with my phone every day. — tenth-grade female

• “My friends and I use code names on social media to talk about our crushes in a public space. I don’t think I could live without my phone.” — ninth-grade female

• “If my friends post something online and it doesn’t get enough likes, they take it down fast. It’s our social report card.” — tenth-grade male and female

How did we end up living in a world that produces kids like this? When you think about their realities, it’s not hard to see these quotes as the new normal. The 107,000 deaths by terrorism since the year 2000 have taught these kids to fear the world around them. The global recession has taught them to mistrust the economy and job market. Racial unrest has taught them to be weary of authorities. Social media’s prevalence has taught them they can experience relationships without the danger of getting hurt. Pluralism has taught them that the world is open to interpretation. What kind of kid would you have been if you’d grown up in this world?


Contrasting Millennials and Homelanders
It’s a mistake to assume Homelanders are simply extensions of Generation Y, or the Millennials. These younger counterparts have grown up with new realities that uniquely marked them.

While Generation Y grew up with computers, Homelanders grew up with touchscreens. Their phones have always been “smart.” To them, Bill Clinton is a president from history, and Madonna is an icon from a bygone entertainment era. Cultural acceptance of transgenderism is a growing reality. We live in a new day.

Based on research from Growing Leaders and Sparks & Honey, there are striking contrasts between Generation Y and Generation Z:

• While Generation Y grew up with a strong economy and self-esteem, Generation Z has seen little beyond the recession, terrorism, racial violence, volatility and complexities that mark today’s political world.

• While Generation Y subscribed to everything social, Generation Z doesn’t want to be tracked, opting for Snapchat or Whispr for sending messages that evaporate.

• While Generation Y watched YouTube, Hulu and Netflix, Generation Z wants to co-create, livestream, FaceTime and help create activities as they participate.

• While Generation Y loves sports and adventure, Generation Z sees sports as an extracurricular activity rather than a way to play or unwind. Increasingly, games are inside — and digital. Consequently, teen obesity has tripled since 1970.

• While Generation Y initiated text messaging as a norm, Generation Z prefers communicating through images, memes, icons and symbols.

• While Generation Y worried about its social presence and “likes” on social media, Generation Z is more concerned with the economy and world ecology.

Think about all the ways this generation is changing. One of best examples is in the way today’s young students use language, naturally using a number of terms that would have rarely or never been used just two decades ago — terms like instant access, on demand and emoji show just how different our world has become for this generation.

More than anything, these shifts reflect the younger generation’s expectations about the world. This generation expects immediacy, where previous generations would have expected to wait. They expect diversity, where previous generations would have expected homogeny. And they expect constant connection, where previous generations would have enjoyed privacy and solitude.

As Homelanders age, we will watch the world around us change. Based on reports by the Monthly Labor Review, The Futurist and World Population Prospects, 2012 U.N. edition, I expect a changing landscape as we move from today’s reality to tomorrow’s.

 Millennials, or Gen Y (1983–2000)  Homelanders, or Gen Z (2001–2018)
 Use technology for entertainment  Will use technology to learn
 Compete with 80 million for jobs  Will compete with 172 million for jobs
 Had two to four siblings  Will likely have zero to two siblings
 Share the planet with 7.5 billion  Will share the planet with 11 billion
 Largest population is peers  Largest population will be older
 Growing problem with obesity  Severe problem with obesity
 Communicates with text   Communicates with images
 Shares things  Creates things
 Multitasks with two screens  Multitasks with five screens
 Confident and self-absorbed  Cautious and self-directed
 Focuses on today  Focuses on the future
 Optimists  Realists


As you can see, Homelanders will become adults with a different mindset than their older siblings, aunts and uncles. This new day requires a new style of leadership from our own.

Changes We Must Make
So, how do we communicate with this emerging generation? How should we attempt to connect with a new population some describe as digital natives, binge watchers, sexually ambiguous and polyspiritual? The only way forward, I believe, is for something to change.

Let me suggest we must adapt our messaging. We don’t need to change what our message is, but how we deliver it. To connect with Generation Z, we should keep it short. Homelanders have strong filters and short attention spans.

We don’t need to change what our message is, but how we deliver it. To connect with Generation Z, we should keep it short. 

We should also keep it interactive. Is your instruction visual, interactive and applicable in multiple ways? More than 65 percent of the population consists of visual learners, but few leaders are engaging the visual parts of the brain when they teach.

We also need to give them ownership. Homelanders are used to commenting, liking, uploading and upvoting. They feel personally connected to much of the content they find on the Internet because they have a hand in creating it, making it more popular or sharing it with their friends. If you aren’t finding a way for the young leaders under you to engage with, comment on or share your content, you may be one step behind. 

The Latin root word for educate is ducere, which means “to lead or push out.” We’ve previously seen learning as something we do to students, not something they do for themselves. The key is that learning is not something done to you. It is something you choose to do. We should not put students in a passive mode as we teach. We must inspire learning. We must help pull ambition out of them, not push information into them.

We also have to change our minds about how to lead these kids. Part of the greatness of the gospel is that it offers a cause. Most kids want to do something important and challenging. The mission of the gospel provides Homelanders with the kind of cause they want, but we aren’t translating the message in a way they can understand. To connect them with our message, we must be willing to adapt.

1. Establish a connection rather than control. Too often, our ambition as a parent, pastor or teacher is to seize control. We want to govern every action and direct each step kids take. Studies show that parents who over-program their child’s schedule often breed kids who rebel as teens. Why? The child never truly got to be a child.

Control is a myth. None of us are actually in control. Instead, good leaders work to connect with the next generation. Once we connect, we build a bridge of relationship that can bear the weight of truth. We earn our right to influence them.

2. Provide interpretation instead of just information. Again, this is the first generation of kids that doesn’t need adults to get information. It’s coming at them 24 hours a day. What they need from us is interpretation. Their knowledge has no context.

Adults must help them make sense of all they know, helping them interpret experiences, relationships, work and faith via a wise, balanced lens. Discuss together what’s behind movie plots, books and technology. Teach them how to think.

3. Help them do it; don’t do it for them. Adults have tried to build kids’ self-esteem for 30 years now. We wrongly assumed, however, that it would come from simply telling them they’re special and awesome.

According to the American Psychological Association, healthy self-esteem doesn’t come merely from affirmation, but from achievement. In our attempt to protect, we’ve actually created a different kind of “at-risk” child: middle class and affluent kids who are depressed because they didn’t really do anything to achieve what they have. Sure, it’s quicker to do it yourself — but it’s better to transfer a skill.

4. Seek to expose rather than impose. When adults become scared their kids are falling behind, we tend to impose a rule or a behavior on them. While mandatory conduct is part of life, it carries negative baggage with it. When students feel forced to do something, they often don’t take ownership of it; it’s your idea, not theirs.

Give them an opportunity they can’t pass up so they can participate willingly rather than feeling forced.

5. Describe; don’t just prescribe. Many kids today have had everything structured for them, from practices and playground time to lessons and phone games. Even Lego sets now have diagrams of what to build and how to do it. We’re removing the need for kids to use their imagination and creativity.

Instead of prescribing what they should do next, try describing an outcome or goal. Let them figure out how to reach it with their own ingenuity.

6. Be real rather than cool. Many adults try to connect with kids by emulating them. In reality, grown adults can rarely pull this off without looking silly.

We want to be relevant, but students don’t look to us to be cool. They need us to be authentic. Learn to laugh at yourself. Be self-aware. Genuinely listen. Speak in a conversational tone that’s believable. Far worse than being uncool is being unreal.

7. Include a lab with the lecture. When young people do wrong, it’s tempting to lecture them and move on. Talking is the quickest way to transmit an idea, but it’s not always the best way to transform a life. Just like science class, kids need a lecture and a lab to learn.

We must create environments and experiences from which we can process truths. There are life lessons to be found everywhere, from trips and meals with influential people to service projects. The lab is where head knowledge becomes true understanding.


Tim Elmore is president of Growing Leaders, a nonprofit that partners with schools, athletics and ministries to equip ministers to reach the emerging generation. For resources, information or blogs go to This article is an excerpt from Elmore's upcoming book, Marching Off the Map, and was originally published in the August/September issue of Influence. For more print content, subscribe here.

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