“God brought me back to him when I was hopeless.”
“God helped me set aside drugs, alcohol and porn.”
“God took the anger out of me.”
“I found joy again.”
After I (Kyle) had spent 16 years pastoring a college ministry in my local church, these handwritten stories of personal conversion and radical life change from Gen Z students brought tears to my eyes. They wrote them at the end of the 2023 school year as a testimony of what God did that year.
Hundreds of longer stories filled the board. But that wasn’t the only small miracle. Our last meeting of the year was bigger than the first. We started with 300 students and ended with 400. That never happens. Then in the fall of this year, it happened again: 500 students attended our first meeting; 600 showed up the next week. This doesn’t happen.
But it did. And it’s not unique to us.
As we talk to campus ministers and pastors from San Francisco to Jacksonville, Billings to Atlanta, DC to Dallas, we know we aren’t alone. Some will urge caution before drawing conclusions. Isn’t this the era of dechurching, deconstruction, and rising “nones”? But data lags behind reality and we don’t want the church to miss what may be happening.
In the wake of the Asbury revival last spring, it looks as though the Holy Spirit is priming the souls of hundreds of thousands of teenagers and young adults for renewal—the very generation that has been repeatedly touted as the least religious ever.
This may sound impossible, but Jesus got it right: “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27). Dry bones are rattling to life. The question is whether we’ll be attuned to the Spirit’s work and join him.
Why Is Gen Z Primed for Spiritual Renewal?
Gen Z is spiritually starved. The disorienting circumstances of the last three years—a global pandemic, countless mass shootings, the woke wars, a contested election, rapid inflation, and widespread abuse scandals—created a famine of identity, purpose, and belonging.
The Holy Spirit is priming the souls of hundreds of thousands of teenagers and young adults for renewal.
Gen Z is hungry for the very things the empty, desiccated temples of secularism, consumerism, and global digital media cannot provide, but which Jesus can.
1. Isolation during the pandemic created a hunger for belonging.
Before the pandemic, 45 percent of Gen Z reported severe loneliness—making it the loneliest generation in American history. After the pandemic? A year isolated from friends and school dramatically intensified the trend. A Harvard study found that 61 percent of 18-to-25-year-olds reported “miserable degrees of loneliness.” The national average was 36 percent.
We hear it firsthand on campus every week: Gen Z is desperately alone. Students anxiously desire to be known. They don’t just want friends. They don’t simply want to belong somewhere. They’re absolutely starved for belonging and friendship.
2. Disillusionment with ineffective, abusive, hypocritical leaders is creating a hunger for sincere, humble, transparent leadership.
Gen Z Americans dislike Donald Trump as much as millennials do. They also dislike Joe Biden more than any other generation. They agree the government and most national leaders are failing. Over the last five years, they’ve seen presidents, athletes, celebrities, church leaders, journalists, and educators unmasked as bullies, phonies, liars, and abusers. They’re tired of it.
So perhaps it’s no surprise Gen Z responds not to my most eloquent sermons but to those in which I’m most transparent about my own life and shortcomings. They’re starved for leaders who care more about transparency than their image and who exude sincere humility rather than hollow impressiveness.
3. Pervasive anxiety is creating a hunger for deep peace.
Before the pandemic, Gen Z was already the most anxious generation in American history. Six years ago, Jean M. Twenge wrote that Gen Z “is on the verge of the most severe mental health crisis for young people in decades.” During the pandemic, Twenge’s predictions became a reality. While world rates for depression and anxiety grew by 25 percent during this period, Gen Z experienced a 33 percent increase. Now only 45 percent of Gen Z describe themselves as mentally healthy.
The students we spend time with want few things more than freedom from depression and anxiety. They’re starved for a peace that surpasses all understanding and that can still the waters of chronic anxiety.
4. Digital self-projection and self-perfection are creating a longing for real-life, nonjudgmental sincerity.
Gen Z spent years of their lives projecting curated, filtered versions of themselves to the watching world. They learned to commodify their identities into bespoke digital brands, whose valuation accumulated in the intangible currency of likes and shares. They bore the weight of a digital deity: We must form and create ourselves online. Students tell me this self-projection and self-perfection are exhausting. They’re deeply hungry for friendships where it’s OK not to look perfect, sound perfect, and be perfect.
5. The loss of places of belonging is creating a hunger for healthy institutions where Gen Z can find mentors.
Gen Z wants to be mentored, but they don’t know how to meet older people. Only a minority actually have mentors. Normally, this kind of intergenerational connection takes place inside institutions, but Gen Z was largely raised outside institutions. Their parents (Gen X) were cynical about institutions. Their generational predecessors, the millennials, deconstructed them. But, according to Springtide director Joshua Packard, Gen Z is largely uninterested in institutions.
At first glance, this hardly seems like good news. But lack of interest is preferable over outright cynicism. Springtide’s research suggests that if churches are intentional about fostering intergenerational mentoring and relationships, Gen Z won’t have any anti-institutional hurdles to jump over. Put differently, Gen Z will try on church if older church members do what Jesus calls them to do—make disciples.
The students want few things more than freedom from depression and anxiety. They’re starved for a peace that surpasses all understanding and can still the waters of chronic anxiety.
Gen Z is hungry for the very things Jesus provides through his presence and people: belonging, humble leadership, peace, transparent friendship, and intergenerational mentoring.
As we reflect on this, we keep returning to the image of God’s Spirit that Jesus offers to a confused old man: the movement of the Spirit is like a wind blowing (John 3:8). Of course, this is wordplay—“spirit” and “wind” are homonyms in both Greek and Hebrew—but it’s more than that. Just like you can’t see the wind, you can’t see the Spirit. But you can see what the wind moves: dust, leaves, and waves. And so it is with God’s Spirit. You see him by what he moves.
We see the dust spinning, the leaves cartwheeling, and waves whitecapping in Gen Z. They’re hungry. We must seek to join our heads, hearts, and hands together for the sake of God’s generational cause.