In the summer of 2019, David Brooks, a columnist at the New York Times, wrote an op-ed titled “Will Gen-Z Save the World?” Brooks quotes a Pew survey that reveals what he defines as a “spiritual crisis” across America—the ubiquitous lack of meaning in people’s lives, across class, race, and religion. The exception he finds to this rule? Gen Z.
For Brooks, Gen Z is a generation that has revolted against the boomer privatization of morality. The older generation has become increasingly disillusioned with finding meaning in the pursuit of ideals or a higher calling. But he points to trends that show Gen Zers as having made this kind of calling central to their identity. I can’t speak to the cynicism of the older generation that Brooks analyzes; but from my experience, his assessment of Gen Z is accurate.
Quest for Identity
Most of my peers in Gen Z have rejected traditional sources of identity. Class lines have increasingly broken down with the explosion of the suburbs. For a generation of atheists and spiritualists, who see no god or all as god, religion is nowhere close to central. And differentiation by race or ethnicity is seen as a heinous crime.
While being born into a world that worships individual choice, Gen Z has made moralism their defining feature. They find meaning in the social issues they’re tackling—whether it’s discrimination, climate change, or economic inequality. Gen Z sees themselves as the generation that’s woken up to the evils of their elders.
Morality Without Truth?
This dogmatism isn’t without its issues. Chief among them is the paradox of morality without objective truth.
Gen Z sees themselves as the generation that’s woken up to the evils of their elders.
Francis Schaeffer articulates this dichotomy best. In his book The God Who Is There, he describes modern non-Christians as living “pulled between two consistencies.” On one side, there’s a desire for the external world, the objective system of living that God has created, and the morality he’s instilled in us. On the other side, as people without God, there’s the need to follow the logic of one’s presuppositions. For a modern non-Christian living without a God who is there, love is emotionless, meaning is fabricated, and humans are machines.
Gen Z lives between these two poles. But I see them as much closer to the pole desiring the truth of the external world. Within their conflicting desires for relativism and morality, my peers yearn for a world with truth. And it’s here that evangelicals must concentrate their presentation of the gospel to Gen Z. When Paul spoke at the Areopagus in Acts 17, his sermon established the commonalities between Greek and Christian philosophies before pointing to Christ. We can do the same for Gen Z today.
Although much of Gen Z’s dogma is incongruous with orthodox Christian morals, the overlap is significant.
When racial discrimination is a problem for Gen Z, it’s the Christian God who exclaims, “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt” (Ex. 22:21, NIV). When Gen Z chants for social justice, it’s this same God who says, “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, and plead the widow’s cause” (Isa. 1:17). And as shouts for environmental protection have come forth, it’s the Bible that declares, “The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, for he has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers” (Ps. 24:1–2).
Despite many disagreements, agreeing on the importance of these issues opens the door to conversations. These are opportunities to show that Gen Z may not have all the answers.
In these conversations, I’ve had some of my most productive discussions about the gospel. For Gen Z, just as for all generations, the gospel and the God who brings it are the only solution. The Christian tradition has not only a rich history of fighting for social causes but also a basis for defending those actions.
The morality and truth of the God who is there both upholds the defense of justice and confirms justice isn’t subject to the whims of shifting opinion. Justice becomes defendable and unchanging. Christianity shows Gen Z how to hold this justice with love.
For a generation that struggles with cancel culture, a whole new kind of pharisaical law, Jesus’s grace is the only remedy. Gen Zers are willing to recognize their guilt. For many, even the inability to adequately perform to the culture’s standards weighs on them—to say nothing of their inadequacy in comparison to God’s standards. Under this weight, it’s Jesus who patiently says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).
Christianity shows Gen Z how to balance justice with love.
Gen Z needs the God who is there. The personal God whose character is justice. The same God who doesn’t crush us as we deserve but instead was crushed so we might be exalted.
We must reveal God by living out his justice. We must use our similarities with Gen Z as opportunities and patiently reveal that this generation is right to desire holiness—but also show how they’ve been going about it the wrong way. We must return to the message of the cross: that justice is necessary, but for it to become beautiful it must be both true and done in love.
Gen Z will not save the world; our job is to point them to the One who has.