Gen Z in the Lead?

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A popular refrain heard in the wake of the tragically horrific shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida is this: “Let the children lead.” The media coverage, the “March for our Lives” event in Washington, D.C., and a flurry of conversation on social media has fixed the spotlight on Generation Z. The Stoneman Douglas students have led the way.

It is undeniable that students like Emma González and David Hogg are both intriguing, articulate, and charismatic. Their moral authority stems from enduring a traumatic experience. They also have an appeal that comes from novelty, outsider status, and the innocence of youth, though it should be said that they are not beyond criticism and disagreement. We are accustomed to American political discourse in the wake of a mass shooting: disbelief, grief, outrage, protest, appeals for change, attempts at legislation, followed by a return to the status quo. But in Parkland’s aftermath pundits have asked, “Could it be different this time?”

Generation Z has been the difference. Tara Parker-Pope of The New York Times writes:

“A recent wave of student protests around the country has provided a close-up view of Generation Z in action, and many adults have been surprised. While there has been much hand-wringing about this cohort, also called iGen or the Post-Millennials, the stereotype of a disengaged, entitled and social-media-addicted generation doesn’t match the poised, media savvy and inclusive young people leading the protests and gracing magazine covers.”

Parker-Pope is effusive in her praise, quoting numerous social scientists who argue Generation Z has an incredibly promising future. The Times concludes the article with a quote from Julie Lythcott-Haims, author and former Dean of Freshmen and Undergraduate Advising at Stanford University, who states:

“We are in the process of distilling the data and discerning who they are, but I am excited. We don’t know who they will be in their 20s, but already they have agency, the sense of your own existence, your own right to make decisions and your own responsibility for outcomes and consequences. That’s what we need to have to be mentally well. I think these folks could turn out not to be just leaders, but to be a generation that we look back on and end up calling one of the greatest.”

That remains to be seen.

And there are good reasons to be suspicious when children are designated as leaders of any movement. Sometimes young voices are co-opted in order to advance the agendas other established and more powerful stakeholders. This isn’t a new phenomenon.

Further, it is important to understand the history of protest in America. When compared to the Civil Rights movement and public objections to Vietnam, the demonstrations by Generation Z are numerically smaller and have yet to result in policy changes or a shift in public discourse. We do not yet know what Generation Z will be or the degree to which they will impact our future. But we do know that they are seeing their peers take the lead and are hearing adults, like those at the Times, asking if older generations should get out of their way.

This poses a question for the church, particularly those belonging to the Boomer and Silent generations, and perhaps even Gen X and Millennials. We know that members of Generation Z participate in congregational life. They have concerns, an intuitive grasp of how media works, and a passion to see the world change. Are they given space to voice those concerns and discover where their passions align with those of other generations, and are they empowered to help the church move forward in sharing the gospel and in ministering to the very real needs of our communities? Or are they mistrusted, mischaracterized, and told to wait their turn?

I’m thankful that my elders did not yield to every whim and fancy I asserted as I was maturing in Christ while I was a younger man. Respecting your elders and heeding their wisdom is prudent, and I’m thankful for the times when I was told no.

But there are times when the youngest among us see and perceive the inbreaking kingdom in ways that have been overlooked and missed. Are there ways, today, that this may be taking place?