Want to Understand Millennials and Gen Zers? Find Out Who They Admire


Who do you admire, and what do your heroes say about you?

That’s a great question, and one that can be applied to each generation. Who does The Greatest Generation admire? What about Generation X, or Boomers? What traits do those people exhibit, and what does this reveal about a generational cohort? What similarities exist, and what differences?

When these questions are put to Millennials and Gen Zers you can learn a few things about who you are ministering to, what they are longing for, and the ways Christianity either aligns with or deeply challenges a number of prevailing contemporary master narratives.

According to this 2015 article from the World Economic Forum, Millennials admire Nelson Mandela, Pope Francis, Elon Musk, Gandhi, and Bill Gates. In 2016, Inc. Magazine wrote about Millennials and their admiration for Mark Zuckerberg.

What do these leaders have in common? In different ways each represents social responsibility, an entrepreneurial spirit, political influence, and a challenge to existing systems, whether technological, economical, religious, or social. They are all change makers, and extremely influential. Most are very wealthy.

What about Generation Z? That’s tough to say. Many of the lists that I’ve seen list those who are on the leading edge of pop culture, though I haven’t found a consensus on who the leading influencers are. There are plenty of names I didn’t know much about, since their fame is linked to stardom on YouTube, Instagram, or Snapchat. As far as individual influencers, there is still more sifting to do.

There are, however, some larger trend lines that may tell us something. Teens today say they are most likely to study the arts, medicine, or engineering in college. Business Insider notes that Gen Zers are very concerned about politics.

Whereas Millennials seem to look to those who have secured status and economic stability, Gen Zers seem to be focused on influence and fame not just in industry but through culture.

How can your church respond?

For Millennials, it may be helpful to demonstrate how Christian convictions can help them to be good stewards of their resources and powerful local actors in bringing about the common good for their community. They may never have the global reach of a Gates or Mandela, but they can contribute to the good of their communities as a servant of Jesus Christ.

For Gen Zers, it may be of value to preach and teach the importance of spiritual formation and development of Christian character. Many of the messages peddled by celebrities amount to nothing more than a false gospel, and fame is ephemeral and fleeting. Each Gen Zer in your congregation is known and valued by God, and are therefore of eternal significance. Christianity also provides a vision for meaningful change in any social order, as well as the inner resources to work for change over a long period of time.

As a last bit of ministry advice, ask the Millennials and Gen Zers whom you know who it is they look up to. Do research. Learn about these individuals. Use their lives as case studies to understand what emerging generations are seeking. Then, filter this information through a missiological lens, and bring the wisdom of the Christian tradition to bear on the lives of those you shepherd. Help them to see how the gospel meets their deepest longings and addresses the world’s deepest wounds. Then, lead the way. Join them as they seek to live according to Christ’s call.