Dr. James Emery White

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

They are growing up in a post-9/11 world. They are experiencing radical changes in technology and understandings of family, sexuality and gender. They live in multigenerational households, and the fastest-growing demographic within their age group is multiracial.

Who are “they”? Generation Z.

And to understand them it’s important to dig deep into the characteristics that define them as a generation. In my latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, I outline five defining characteristics beginning with…

Recession Marked

With most members of Gen Z being born after 9/11, the most defining event in their lifetimes is the Great Recession. Beginning in 2007, this economic era is widely considered the worst global downturn since World War II. While Millennials were “raised during the boom times and relative peace of the 1990s, only to see their sunny world dashed by the September 11 attacks and two economic crashes, in 2000 and 2008… Generation Z, by contrast,” says the New York Times, “has had its eyes open from the beginning, coming along in the aftermath of those cataclysms in the era of the war on terror and the Great Recession.” This helps explain the (surprising to many) embrace of socialism among young voters in the 2016 presidential election, in marked contrast to older voters. A YouGov study found that 26% of those between the ages of 18 and 39 had a favorable view of socialism, compared to only 15% over the age of 65.

As members of Gen Z develop their personalities and life skills in a socioeconomic environment marked by chaos, uncertainty, volatility and complexity, it is no surprise that blockbusters like The Hunger Games and Divergent, with their depictions of teens left alone to face a dystopian future, connect with them. Simply put, they are deeply worried about the present.

They are not alone.

The Public Religion Research Institute’s (PRRI) annual American Values Survey “documents discontent among all major religious groups, races and political views.” As PRRI CEO Robert Jones commented, “I am struck by the high level of anxiety and worry on all fronts.” For the first time in six years of the survey, Americans are split – 49% to 49% – on whether “America’s best days are ahead of us or behind us… Americans of all faiths and viewpoints are gloomy about the economy, anxious about Islam, bothered by immigrants and mistrustful across racial lines.” And adding to the joy, more than 7 out of 10 (72%) believe that the country is still in a recession.

“No wonder,” says the research report of Sparks and Honey, “Gen Z developed coping mechanisms and a certain resourcefulness.” Even when news broke of the widespread terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015, the younger people I engaged were shocked but not surprised. There’s a difference. And the difference is that attacks like these are not simply reality but what life has always been like.

Their coping mechanisms have led to a strong sense of independence and an entrepreneurial spirit. According to a study by Northeastern University, a “notable 42% of Generation Z respondents expect to work for themselves during their careers.” But their goal is not simply economic security. They are marked by a very strong sense of wanting to make a difference – and thinking that they can.

Among the attendees at a Generation Z conference at American University in Washington, DC, was Sejal Makheja. At the age of 14, she founded the Elevator Project, an organization that aims to lift people out of poverty through apprenticeship, vocational training and job placement. She said she went to the Gen Z conference because she wanted to cultivate the skills she’ll need to take the Elevator Project to a national scale. “The young people at the conference want to take an active role in their communities and futures,” she said. “It’s an upbeat group that’s full of passion.”

Not surprisingly, the research of Sparks and Honey reveals that social entrepreneurship is one of Generation Z’s most popular career choices.

This may explain why, when MTV conducted a nationwide survey of 1,000 respondents born after the year 2000 to see how they would identify themselves if they had the choice, they came up with the self-important name “The Founders” – as in needing to “found the new world,” rescuing it from the sins of its past.

Want to dig deeper into the other characteristics? You’ll have to read the book.

Why is it important to know and understand these characteristics about Gen Z?

Because understanding and reaching this generation is the heart of understanding and reaching our post-Christian world.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Adapted from James Emery White, Meet Generation Z (Baker).

Alex Williams, “Move Over Millennials: Here Comes Generation Z,” The New York Times, September 18, 2015, read online.

Sam Sanders, “Why Do Young People Like Socialism More Than Older People?” National Public Radio, November 21, 2015, read online.

Sparks and Honey Culture Forecast, “Gen Z 2025” and “Meet Generation Z.”

Cathy Lynn Grossman, “Americans Fret about Islam, Immigrants, The Future – and Each Other,” Religion News Service, November 17, 2015, read online.

“Innovation Imperative: Meet Generation Z,” Northeastern University, read online.

Alexandra Levit, “Make Way for Generation Z,” The New York Times, March 28, 2015, read online.

David Sims, “All Hail ‘The Founders,’” The Atlantic, December 2, 2015, read online.


About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

We Are Strong (2017)

In The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien writes of a race of ancient tree shepherds called the Ents. In the midst of the war between good and evil engulfing Middle-earth, the Ents are insular, worrying more about their lost Entwives. Many have fallen so deeply asleep that it is not clear whether they will ever reawaken.

Young hobbits Merry and Pippin begin a relationship with the leader of the Ents, Treebeard, and do everything they can to open his eyes to the needs of the world in light of its great conflict. The hobbits are somewhat successful in their efforts, and Treebeard gathers together the few remaining mobile Ents for an Entmoot to discuss the matter.

The Ents are maddeningly slow and methodical. After days of convening, Treebeard breaks away to give the hobbits an update. Hoping to hear about their decision to go to war against the forces of the Dark Lord Sauron, all Treebeard reports is that they have decided that hobbits should be added to the accepted list of other known creatures.

In the movie version, only when Treebeard sees the carnage enacted by the evil wizard Saruman against the forest does he bypass the slowness inherent in his race, call the Ents to action, and go to war. As Gandalf the wizard had earlier predicted, if the Ents awakened, they would discover they were strong.

And they were.

I am reminded of this scene often in relation to the rise of the nones. Personally, I am not surprised by the findings of studies documenting their continued rapid rise.

But I am grateful. Why? Because I pray this will be a desperately needed wake-up call for American Christianity – a wake-up call to shake us from the trivial and divisive, the mundane and the meaningless. This is no time for such things.

The need is too urgent, the day too dark, and the challenge too great.

This is no time for cross-town church competitions for transfer growth and then patting ourselves on the back for reaching the already convinced as if we somehow made a dent in hell.

This is no time to cling to outdated forms of communication or style because of the fear of change – not to mention the selfish attitudes we turn into theological fences we then build around our personal taste.

This is no time to cave into spiritual narcissism, where the primary concern is whether people are fed, are ministered to, or “get anything out of the worship experience,” as though the mission is caring for believers as consumers instead of dying to ourselves to reach a lost world.

This is no time for seminaries and their leaders to bow down in front of the academy, as if the ultimate goal is getting another paper into another academic journal on some inane issue irrelevant to anyone but fellow academics, when students are in desperate need to be trained and developed to lead churches to their fullest redemptive potential.

This is no time to keep putting evangelism down in the name of discipleship as if spending energy on one takes away from spending energy on the other, thus falsely spiritualizing a passive approach to outreach.

This is no time for denominations to protect outdated programs, agencies, policies, or strategies that no longer work – continuing to foist them onto churches in the name of effectiveness, self-preservation and revenue stream.

This is no time to wave the flag of social ministry and justice issues so single-mindedly in the name of cultural acceptance and the hip factor that it becomes our collective substitute for the clear articulation of the gospel.

In other words, this is no time to wander around looking for Entwives or spend time worrying about how to classify hobbits. 

It’s time to wake up and engage the battle at hand.

And that battle is clear: we must do whatever it takes, barring any reduction of the gospel itself, to bring this world to Christ. Sadly, the rise of the nones will only continue. Our only hope, and the heart of our Great Commission, is to stem the tide by turning the nones into wons.

And it can happen.

If we make the commitment as the church to do this we may just find, as did the Ents…

… that we are strong.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Adapted from James Emery White, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated (Baker). 


About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Hills to Die On

It’s an old phrase, but a telling one: Which hills are you prepared to die on? Meaning, which stands are you going to take no matter the cost? For what are you prepared to die? Your answer will determine your core values, and until they are established, your church will not have a defined DNA. And that means it will not be set apart. 

If you were to compare the Christian churches in your city by doctrinal statement, there probably wouldn’t be much disparity. Most will not veer from the original Nicene Creed established by the early church. If you were to compare them by purpose, again, you won’t find too many wavering from evangelism, ministry, discipleship, community and worship. We all get cute with nomenclature, but we don’t drift far from these five core purposes.

Even comparing your church to other churches in terms of mission won’t reveal much to the average observer. The Great Commission is pretty clear; the lesson of the sheep and the goats is apparent. In one form or another, we’re going to have a mission that embraces evangelism and discipleship along with social ministry; in a phrase, “the least and the lost.”

So what separates churches? 

The hills they will die on. 

Values.

Let me give you Mecklenburg Community Church’s (Meck’s) 10 core values, and perhaps you’ll see what I mean.

1. The Bible Is True

We believe the Bible is true and is the catalyst for change in individuals’ lives and in the church. From day one, whenever it comes to what to believe, how to think, how to operate, or where we should land on a particular position or issue, we've had one simple value: go to the Bible and then go with the Bible. 

2. Lost People Matter to God

Lost people matter to God and, therefore, they ought to matter to us. This value puts us on mission. It tells us we have a clear cause: we are to be turned outward, not inward. For Meck as a church, growth is not an option but an absolute imperative. As long as there is one lost person left in our community, we are going to try and grow.

3. Culturally Relevant

As a church we should be culturally relevant while remaining doctrinally pure. We are trying to bring the message of Jesus to our world – and not just to our world, but also to our nation, to our city, to our time. So what we say and do must make sense to the person experiencing it. The apostle Paul had a deep commitment to this, once writing that he became "all things to all men so that by all possible means" he "might save some" (I Cor. 9:22). 

The message of the gospel is unchanging; the method of communicating that gospel must change according to the language, culture and background of the audience. We never want to abuse this or cross a line. The goal is to be in the world, not of it. But we are to be out there on the front lines communicating the gospel in the most compelling, culturally relevant and understandable way possible. 

4. Spiritually Authentic

It is our conviction that it is normal for followers of Christ to manifest authenticity and to grow in their spiritual maturity. That simply means we want to be spiritually real: real about our sin as we strive to become more like Christ. We believe that anyone who calls themselves a Christian should be a Christ-follower. They should be authentic in their faith.

That doesn’t mean perfection. It doesn’t mean Sunday smiles and plastic halos. Authenticity means that not only is our relationship with Christ a real one, but we’re also going to be real about it. It also means it must be growing. It’s not real if you are the same today as you were two years ago, or three years ago. There should be evidence of progress, growth, development and maturation. To be authentic means to become increasingly like Jesus.         

5. Servanthood

The church should operate as a unified community of servants stewarding their spiritual gifts. The Bible teaches that every member of the church is a minister based on how God has gifted them – not just the ordained clergy or paid staff of the church.

We should have administrators administrating, teachers teaching, singers singing, counselors counseling and leaders leading. People should discover their gifts, develop them, and be freed up to use them in whatever capacity God intends so that they can make a difference in the world. And they should do this with a servant’s heart, a servant’s mind and a servant’s attitude.

6. Loving Relationships

Loving relationships should permeate every aspect of church life. This value drives me to be a zealous defender of the community of this church. We do everything in our power to relate to one another lovingly, truthfully, compassionately and graciously.

When there is conflict or tension, stress or misunderstanding, we tackle it head-on within the context of love. We’re not going to let it go underground, much less let it become cancerous so that it infects the body of Christ. I know we won’t all be equally close to one another; this isn’t about every single person being your best buddy. But we can be loving in our spirits, gracious in our hearts, and fiercely loyal to each other.

7. Life Change Through Relationships

Life change happens best through relationships. We are keenly aware of what other people do for our spiritual life. They challenge us, push us, motivate us and influence us. We all need people who come alongside us and help us to keep going. We all need people who can put their arms around us and help us make it through those times we cannot stand on our own.

8. Excellence

Excellence honors God and inspires people. This is a value for us for two reasons. First, because it’s the only way to live a life that honors God. God deserves our best. Mediocrity does not honor God, nor does it reflect His character. 

And second, excellence sends a message. When somebody comes in your church and sees typos in the program, sloppy printing or mailing, messy floors or grounds, poorly performed or rehearsed music, or a talk that sounds like it was pulled together the night before, they make a value judgment: “This God you talk about must not be that big of a deal. If He was, you wouldn’t do things this way.”   

So we're passionate about excellence not only because we want to honor God with our lives but also because we know that mediocrity could invalidate everything we want to try to communicate to those around us about Christ.

9. Let Leaders Lead

This value is fleshed out behind the scenes, but it’s very important and strategic to everything we’re about. We believe that churches should be led by those with leadership gifts and structured according to the nature and mission of the church. We let leaders lead and we’re structured the way the Bible intimates we should be structured – not with committees and policies and constant business meetings with talk about “who’s in control” but along the lines of what a church is

The church is a fellowship, so we structure for unity. The church is a family, so we organize, manage and lead it like one. The church is a body, so we are made up of people with differing gifts, filling different roles. And the church is a flock, so the church is cared for and led by shepherds.

10. Full Devotion

We believe that full devotion to Christ and His cause is normal for every believer. Not wavering back and forth; not lukewarm; not limp-wristed or halfhearted; not undecided or greeting the whole thing with a yawn. Fully devoted. That’s what we believe the church demands. As Eugene Peterson paraphrased Ephesians 6:12, “This is no afternoon athletic contest that we’ll walk away from and forget about in a couple of hours. This is for keeps, a life-or-death fight to the finish against the Devil and all his angels” (Message).

Now, stating core values is meaningless. Living them, upholding them, modeling them, rewarding them, protecting them – that’s what matters.

And when that’s done, your values become your DNA. 

So what are your values?

James Emery White

 

Sources

Adapted from James Emery White, What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary (Baker).


About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

In the late 1930s, Corrie ten Boom was living in a small town in the Netherlands, better known as Holland. Her home, called the Beje (pronounced bay-yay), was a tilting, centuries-old house in the center of Haarlem and its bumpy brick streets.

Actually it was two houses. In front it looked like a typical old-Haarlem structure: three stories high, two rooms deep and one room wide. But sometime in its history the rear wall had been knocked through to join it with the even thinner, steeper house behind it.

Horrified by the German onslaught against the Jewish people of her country, Corrie – along with her family – began to hide within their home those most threatened by arrest. It was precisely the eccentric design and construction of their house that allowed such a perfect “hiding place” to be built in Corrie’s bedroom. To this day, you can tour the home and see where so many Jewish persons were hidden, protected from capture and, most certainly, death.

The family was eventually discovered for doing this and transported deep within Germany to a place whose very name struck terror – Ravensbruck, the notorious extermination camp. Her father died within the first two weeks of his arrest. Corrie’s sister, Betsie, eventually died in Ravensbruck as well.

Corrie survived. The humiliation, the beatings, the deprivation, the starvation, the sickness, the stench – she survived. Corrie spent the rest of her life speaking of Christ’s love and forgiveness, mercy and sustenance, goodness and trustworthiness, wherever she went. Eventually her story was captured in the bestselling book The Hiding Place, one of the most life-changing biographies you will ever read. Corrie became an ambassador to the world.

I traveled to see her house in Haarlem, to see the “hiding place” and, perhaps most of all, to remember what it means to trust God.

Corrie learned to trust God early through the faith of her family. When she witnessed the death of a baby as a young girl, she realized that death could come to anyone. That night she burst into tears and sobbed to her father: “I need you! You can’t die! You can’t!”

Her father sat down on the edge of her narrow bed. “Corrie,” he began gently, “when you and I go to Amsterdam – when do I give you your ticket?”

She sniffed a few times, considering his words.

“Why, just before we get on the train.”

“Exactly. And our wise Father in heaven knows when we’re going to need things, too. Don’t run out ahead of him, Corrie. When the time comes that some of us will have to die, you will look into your heart and find the strength you need – just in time.”

Trusting in God is an interesting thing. It involves a “letting go.”

If I trust you with something, it means I give it to you. It passes from my hand to yours. It is no longer in my possession. If I have confidence in your character and abilities, there is a relief at the passing. I no longer worry or concern myself with the matter. It is, as they say, “in good hands.” This means that trust is very much about the person being trusted. It also means acceptance. If I trust you, then I accept what you say and what you do.

We are called to trust God in the same way including the ultimate area of trust: His will.

The primary will of God for your life is the same as it is for everybody else – to know and to love Him. When someone asked Jesus what the heart of life was all about, what the ultimate law to follow was, this is what He said: “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment(Matthew 22:37-38, NIV). We came into that love relationship through our acceptance of Christ’s work on the cross.

The second major dimension of God’s will for your life is His moral will. God’s moral will has to do with how we should think and believe, what we should value and honor and, from that, how we should live.

We want to trust God, particularly by following His will for our lives. But that means following His moral will, for it is precisely His moral will that is at the heart of trust.

If you want to know what God’s moral will is, just ask yourself this question: What does the Bible say?

Yes, that seems simplistic. And interpreting the Bible is not always easy. But most of the time, it is simple. Notice how the Apostle Paul explains this in his second letter to Timothy: “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It straightens us out and teaches us to do what is right. It is God’s way of preparing us in every way, fully equipped for every good thing God wants us to do” (2 Timothy 3:16-17, NLT).

If you’re struggling with whether God wants you to do something, or whether it’s okay with God, you can stop struggling. God has already spoken and made His will known to you because His guidance for the day-in, day-out flow of your life is primarily moral. The question is whether you will trust it.

One night in the Beje, while Holland desperately fought a battle against a German invasion it would eventually lose, dogfights raged overhead, streaking the sky above with fire. Corrie heard her sister stirring in the kitchen and decided to get up and join her.

Suddenly there was an explosion, rattling the dishes in the cupboard. Corrie and Betsie stayed up another hour, talking. When Corrie returned to her bed, she found a jagged piece of metal, 10 inches long, that had cut through her pillow where her head had been laying.

“Betsie, if I hadn’t heard you in the kitchen–”

But Betsie put a finger on her mouth. “Don’t say it, Corrie! There are no ‘ifs’ in God’s world. And no places that are safer than other places. The center of His will is our only safety – O Corrie, let us pray that we may always know it!”

She was right.

The center of God’s will, and specifically his moral will…

… is the safest place on earth.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Adapted from James Emery White, A Traveler’s Guide to the Kingdom (InterVarsity Press).

Corrie ten Boom, The Hiding Place.


About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Image courtesy of the Ten Boom Museum Photo Album.

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