I took my first church staff role when I was a few weeks from turning nineteen; I became the youth pastor at a church in Ruston, Louisiana, where I attended college. Though my roles have changed, I have been committed to leading and discipling kids and students through the local church ever since. Our kids and student ministry team leaders at LifeWay report directly to me, and I want it that way because I want to stay as close to the action as possible. My commitment has, of course, multiplied exponentially because I parent two children. My home is the most important kids ministry and soon to be student ministry I will ever lead.
Jean Twenge’s latest book, iGen, takes an extensive look at the generation sometimes referred to as Generation Z or iGen—those born approximately between 1995 and 2010 (dates vary based on the researcher). They have grown up surrounded by technology fueled by the Internet, are digitally native, and their lives can easily revolve around a screen. I have shared twelve observations from her research, and now I offer six thoughts for those of us who lead iGen’ers in our homes and in our churches.
1. Hold off as long as possible on a phone.
Kids who spend more time on their phones are less happy and struggle more with mental health issues. They also sleep less and read less. After two years of researching iGeneration, one of Jean Twenge’s main takeaways is “It is best to put off giving your child a cell phone as long as possible. There’s really no reason for an elementary child to have his own cell phone, so that’s an easy one. By middle school, with kids in more activities and more likely to ride a bus, many parents buy phones for convenience and safety. However, that phone does not need to be a smartphone complete with Internet access and the ability to text.”
Twenge’s encouragement reminds me of a recent dinner with Matt Carter, friend and pastor at Austin Stone. Kaye and I asked him questions about parenting as we respect him and he is further down the parenting road than we are. While in days past inquisitive parents asked, “When are you letting your kid get a license,” we now ask, “When do they get a phone?” Matt’s counsel was to hold off as long as possible with the caveat that a phone around age 14 allows the child to learn what is good and appropriate while still receiving parental supervision. Don’t ignore the counsel of a pastor and a psychology professor. They are saying the same thing.
2. Facilitate community.
Compared to other generations, iGen’ers are lonelier and less connected to others. Community has always been important in local church ministry as God uses community to mature us and grow us. Community must become an even greater priority now. A kids ministry or student ministry that focuses solely or even primarily on large group environments where kids and students face forward and don’t connect with each other must reexamine their ministry strategy. The Church has an incredible opportunity to offer what is really needed and what the world is not offering iGeneration—community that transforms and encourages.
3. Play as a family.
Research reveals that iGen’ers are more likely to stay home than previous generations. But this does not mean they are connecting and enjoying their families. Because of our phones, being in the same house, the same room, or even at the same table does not mean relationships are deepening. On my best days as a parent, I am not settling for being in the same house. We are pursuing our kids, playing as a family, and having fun together. Kaye and I love and respect Travis and Angela Cottrell and believe they have done an incredible job raising their kids. One day Kaye asked Travis for insight on parenting and Travis provided great counsel, “We taught them to have fun together and fun as a family.”
4. Go deeper than behavior.
There is some encouraging data from the research on iGen’ers. Compared to previous generations, they engage significantly less in binge-drinking, sexual activity, and fighting. But their good behavior is not rooted in Christian conviction or even moral commitment. It is rooted in risk-aversion as safety is of utmost concern among iGeneration. We must not be misled and think the data means we are effectively passing on the Christian faith to a new generation. Christian leaders and parents have always needed to distinguish between behavioral modification and true heart transformation, and that is especially true now. We must go for the heart and not reinforce apparent morality by attaching Christian nomenclature or values to it. Instead, we must apply the good news of Christ to the hearts of our kids and teenagers—knowing only the gospel transforms.
5. Encourage risks.
The downside of risk aversion is a lack of discomfort and an unwillingness to try new things, which often brings growth and learning. Parents and ministry leaders are wise to encourage kids and students to move out of their comfort zones. The beauty of risks during childhood and adolescence is that the parents and ministry leaders are able to debrief, encourage, and teach in the midst of the risks.
When our youngest, Evie, was born, and I was feeling overwhelmed as a new father. I went to see Dr. Bob Barnes, who is a well-respected counselor in South Florida. I asked him about raising kids in South Florida as we lived in Miami at the time. And Bob’s words still encourage me. He said, “This is the best place in the world to raise kids because they see so much now that some kids don’t see until college. But my kids saw it while I was there to interpret, to discuss, and to help them process in light of our faith.” While I no longer live in South Florida, his words challenge me to encourage risks while my kids are in my home so we can process those together.
6. Become an apologist.
Compared to previous generations, iGeneration is less religious and less spiritual. In the past it was commonly understood that if you served in an area outside the Bible Belt, you needed to be equipped to have conversations about the existence of God, evidence for the resurrection of Christ outside the Bible, and the authority of Scripture. This is now true regardless of context. And this is a great thing, I believe, as ministry leaders and parents should be able to have these conversations no matter where they live.