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TGC’s 2023 Essay Contest for Young Adults

Some of the most compelling figures in the biblical narrative are young people: Samuel, Josiah, Esther, Daniel. These individuals lived among ungodly people and yet determined to follow the Lord in their generation—often at great cost to themselves. Over millennia, God has used their stories to encourage his people that he isn’t done working and he isn’t done raising up teens and young adults to bring glory to him in a dark world.

Over the past few months, I had the privilege of reading the submissions to The Gospel Coalition’s 2023 Essay Contest for Young Adults. More than 200 young writers submitted original essays, and the editorial team reviewed them. These individuals wrote about the challenges they face in their generation and about what Gen Z Christians are nevertheless getting right. They wrote missionally and thoughtfully—describing the ways they’ve been able to communicate the gospel to their peers. And they wrote about the value of spending time, in person, with the people of their local churches.

Thoughtful Writers

The essays TGC received came from 217 young writers:

  • They ranged in age from 16 to 22. Many of them were high school students; others were in college or just beginning their adult lives.
  • As with last year’s contest, two-thirds of the writers were female.
  • The writers were each a member of a local church—Presbyterians, Baptists, and Anglicans predominated, with many nondenominational churches also represented.
  • They submitted their essays from all over the U.S. and from other countries including Australia, Kenya, and Indonesia.

The writers told stories about simple meals at kitchen tables and about the heartbreaking loss of loved ones. They recounted their struggles with mental illness, eating disorders, and depression, and they recounted their successes in evangelism and ministry. They talked about books that had made an impression on them and about ordinary church members who had impressed them even more.

It was a joy to read their words.

Important Questions

In TGC’s contest guidelines, we gave several options for essay topics, and the students engaged a broad range of issues. Many chose to explain “What Gen Z Is Getting Right,” reflecting on the ways members of their generation are doing good and pursuing God’s glory. While we often think of the weaknesses in Gen Z’s ranks, these essays demonstrated this generation is also leaving a quiet legacy of evangelistic boldness and thoughtful engagement with the world.

Other students identified a member of their local church who had ministered to them and caused them to love Christ more. These were largely stories of unremarkable events—cups of coffee, invitations to lunch, conversations after the Sunday service—that indelibly shaped their writers. Face-to-face interactions with members of Gen Z may matter more than any of us suspects.

But the most selected topic was the prompt “The Evangelistic Approach Gen Z Needs Most.” These writers saw the fissures in their generation—the effects of a pandemic, a divided political climate, and a raging mental health crisis—as opportunities for the gospel to break in. Rather than giving in to despair about the flagging spiritual well-being of their peers, they wrote about moving toward their unbelieving classmates and coworkers with the hope of Jesus Christ, crucified for sinners.

Reading the essays (and TGC will be publishing many of them over the coming months) is an opportunity for people of all ages to be encouraged. The Lord isn’t done working, and he’s doing some of his most remarkable work in and through the members of Gen Z.

3 Winners

Among the essays, three pieces stood out as well-crafted, thoughtful, and engaging. Our editorial team was clear about which winners to select, and we’re delighted to publish them on the site for you to read.

First Place: Gen Z Needs a Place at Your Kitchen Table” by Abigail Thompson

Abigail’s essay impressed the editorial team with its clear writing and its compelling argument for the value of presence in the local church. The stars of this essay aren’t on TikTok or YouTube. They’re the members of Abigail’s church who welcomed her at their kitchen table. Readers who feel out of their depth in today’s online world will be encouraged to know that, for Gen Z, a bowl of vegetable soup with a smile is worth more than all the digital content in the world.

Second Place: Faithful Pastors, You Matter to Your Youth” by Crissa Esse

More than one editor confessed to crying while reading Crissa’s moving tribute to the pastor who ministered to her throughout her growing-up years. “Pastor might have seen a teen girl with droopy eyelids leaning on her mom’s shoulder,” she writes. “This may have been discouraging for him. After all, he cared deeply about the congregation, dedicated his life to teaching them the Bible, and studied hard for his sermons. But don’t be fooled—that tired teenager heard more than he thought, and it mattered more than he knew.”

Third Place: “Gen Z Will Not Save the World” by Callum MacLeod

In his essay, Callum unmasks the pressure on Gen Z to be a generation of positive change. Though there’s certainly value in working for social good, Callum sees the toll on his peers who are crippled by the works-based mindset of always striving to save the world. Instead, he highlights an opportunity for believers to invite Gen Z to know the all-sufficient grace and salvation of our God. “Gen Z will not save the world.” Callum writes. “Our job is to point them to the One who has.”

Take a minute today to read these essays and then join the psalmist in giving praise to God: “You, O LORD, are enthroned forever; you are remembered throughout all generations” (Ps. 102:12).

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