In Handing Down the Faith, Notre Dame sociologist and researcher Dr. Christian Smith offers a concise description of the parenting style that most-often guides young people into a deep and lifelong faith in God. He calls this an “authoritative” approach: “Authoritative parents tend to be demanding and hold high standards of their children, but they also express high levels of warmth and communication with them.”
This way of relating to children, fueled by an everyday relationship with God that is active and overt, creates of kind of ecosystem for faith growth. It’s a greenhouse for a relationship with Jesus that is more like breathing than discipline. This simple understanding has ramifications that extend way beyond the home. Smith’s intersecting factors—an authoritative parenting style combined with an authentic faith—is a revealing way to describe the transformational impact of love. When we expect much of others, in an atmosphere of relational warmth and engagement, we are loving them. We experience the love of God the same way—a love that transforms us expects much, but envelops us in a cloud of mercy and tenderness.
When we are well-loved, much is expected of us. When we are poorly loved, nothing is expected of us.
Several years ago hundreds of thousands of teenagers took a stand against gun violence by participating in the National School Walkout, a coordinated protest conceived and implemented by student activists from Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. These young leaders, all of them survivors of one of the worst school shootings in American history, were articulate, determined, and shrewd as they tried to leverage an adult-controlled political apparatus into doing something to stop the carnage.
My oldest daughter Lucy, now headed to medical school, was herself involved in a school shooting during her freshman year in high school—running to find shelter after a mentally disturbed classmate killed a student just down the hallway from where she was studying. In recognition of what her best-friend sister went through, and to make her own statement about gun violence in schools, my youngest daughter Emma joined her friends in walking out of her high school class at 10 a.m. on Walkout day.
At the time I told her I couldn’t be prouder of her—her choice to get involved in social activism was both surprising and inspiring. She was determined to prove that she and her protesting peers around the country could and would back up their passion with actions designed to leverage change—the very thing so many dismissive adults in our culture have claimed they’re not capable of pulling off. Well, they’ve already pressured legislatures across the country to pass sweeping new gun-violence laws, and are keeping up the pressure on national political leaders.
Adults in our culture who expect little from young people are in for a shock—the wide-scale leverage they see in gun violence protests and racial equity rallies are just the tip of the iceberg for Gen Z…
In the most affluent culture in the world, well-practiced at removing hardship from our kids’ lives, today’s young people crave something more than a pandering, over-functioning culture is handing them. They’re gravitating to hard challenges and hopeless causes in droves. And that hunger for diving deep is not confined to political/social causes—these same kids are craving a hearty meal as they consider what it means to follow Jesus, not the lightweight juice-box snack-able vision served to them at so many churches.
A year from now my new book Editing Jesus: Confronting the Distorted Faith of the American Church will release. Here’s how the book begins:
For almost a decade, my wife and I have created and led a Tuesday night gathering for two-dozen young adults in our home. The group’s renegade motto is “Pursuing the Heart of Jesus, Not His Recipes.” It means we are co-exploring the person of Jesus, and are fairly unconcerned about “life application.” Together, through creative experiences, guided conversations in pairs and trios, visual and audio storytelling, and deeper-dives into Scripture, we’re on a mission to get as close to Jesus as grafted branches are to their life-giving Vine. These nights have been transcendent and immersive and transformational—I’m flabbergasted by the deep insights and passionate revelations these young people put on the table. And, on many nights, their frustrations with the church also bubble to the surface. One night, after our closing experience, I asked them why so many in their generation see the church so negatively…
Me: What is it about your experience of church that is so often repugnant to you?
Them: The church doesn’t reflect the heart of Jesus—it’s rules-based, not relationally based. There’s a big disconnect between what the church values and what Jesus values. For example, the church is known for excluding people, but Jesus always goes after the marginalized. We are a “come to the table” generation, and the church is a “no place at the table” place. We are a generation that prizes authenticity above all, and the church has become a place of performance—intent on putting on a show. The world is watching the church more than the church thinks it is. And it’s teaching things that aren’t about Jesus; they’re more like TED talks. We don’t want self-help—we want Jesus…
Many of the assumptions and priorities lauded as “models” for a new way of ministering to adolescents and young adults are simple capitulations to a culture that has seen steep declines in church participation over the last decade. These strategies involve lowering the bar as far as possible to entice young people to participate in church-related activities. This translates to faith-formation strategies that limit the “meat” of their spiritual growth efforts to appetizer portions—a five-minute talk that raises big questions that the leader answers in bite-size ways. This ministry model is like giving young people repeated, long swigs of Mountain Dew—a short-term sugar high followed by long-term health hazards… Gen Z wants to be challenged in their relationship with Jesus, not served “try harder to get better” formulas or Christian-lite self-help strategies. They’re hungry for spiritual protein, not spiritual Laffy Taffy.
Rather than lowering the bar for Gen Z (and, really, every generation represented in our churches), the way forward is to respect them more, challenge them more, and delight in them more… We need ministries that are more, not less. And we need leaders who have at least the same level of courage they see modeled by the young people in their midst.
Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith—he created the new curriculum Following Jesus. He’s editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible and author of 40 books, including The Suicide Solution, The Jesus-Centered Life and Jesus-Centered Daily. He hosts the podcast Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus.