The prospect of a sunny day at an Orlando water park to cap off summer vacation managed to raise an eyebrow among our emerging adult children. With one in college, one a senior in high school, and one in eighth grade, we were lucky they wanted to be with us at all.
We trailed our kids up at least 150 steps to the top of Volcano Bay’s Ko’okiri, anxious for the fun to begin. Breathless on the top deck I was stunned as my children each climbed into the door of a clear capsule then vanished down the chute.
I hadn’t researched the new Ko’okiri. I didn’t know it is reportedly the world’s tallest body slide, with the highest plunge, a fall at a 70 degree angle and 125 feet of sheer terror. I didn’t know about the trap door. If you think this is about quality experiences to cement relationships, you’re getting way
ahead of me. No, I’m using this as a metaphor for the dramatic and quick decline of the spiritual interests and practices of our millennials and the teens after them, the Generation Zers, or “screenagers.”
Have you seen the numbers in Gen Z The Culture Beliefs and Motivation Shaping The Next Generation? (Barna, 2018) More agnostics, atheists and “nones,” more ambivalence about the relevance of Christianity, and pillars of faith. As a Christian, this feels like a breathless ride into the abyss.
Without question, we believe the task to keep the legacy going falls to Christian parents: “And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up” Deuteronomy 6:4-7.
So, people of faith want their children to have a living faith, a faith that allows them to navigate a secular, if not hostile society (p. 80). But, if a vibrant Christian life is what we want for them, researchers studying this younger cohort wonder at the dichotomy in modeling and teaching in parents. Parents bubble-wrap their children’s lives to protect them, yet, leave them unprepared for spiritual challenge.
Parents wait in cars for the school bus with their children to avoid the stranger danger. Yet, the empty streets after school, hide the fact that there are plenty of children in the area; they’re just spending their time inside, isolated, and unsupervised with uncritical access to a hazardous universe of media at their fingertips.
“[I]n an age of social media, ubiquitous porn, self-harm, cyberbullying and sexting,” said James Emery White (Gen Z p. 35, Barna, 2018), “children need greater protection than ever before—not less. Thanks to their parents, however, Gen Z is growing up too fast, and childhood has slowly evaporated in the name of independence and freedom.”
I am convinced that relationships are the most powerful shaping influences during the teenage years.
Strangely also, the unintended message Gen Z catches from watching the professional pursuits of their parents is the idea that financial success is the highest goal. Parents are role models, alright, for what they supply. Gen Zers are missing the underlying source of drive: purpose and life-meaning. It is no wonder that as a group, they are not in a hurry to engage in the the lifework of an adult.
Similarly, we seem surprised at what appears to be ambivalence on the part of our young people when it comes to “lifestyle” choices. We have taught them love, tolerance, compassion, appreciation for differences, talents, and gifts, cultures, races and peoples. Now, in the face of exploding exposure to diversity in gender, race and culture, and religion, instead of being threatened, our young people seem non-committal. It is logical, and not as frightening as one may think, according to Fikre Prince, an Associate Pastor, Evangel Ministries.
“When we make it seem as though God is against youth or their friends, of course they want to find ways to rationalize or explain away that idea. A lot of what comes across as ambivalence is really kids trying to make sense of what they hear, what they see, what they know of truth and love” said Prince. (p.67) We can help them by giving them a way to understand and explain their own beliefs (1 Peter 3:15, 16), but have to respect the way their compassion and empathy, and capacity for inclusiveness get tested every day.
Fortunately, we can both teach and learn by coming alongside the twenty-somethings and “screenagers” among us. “Gen Z increasingly feels isolated and alone, but they hunger for real relationships,” writes Jonathan Morrow, Director of Cultural Engagement at Impact 360 Institute. “I am convinced that relationships are the most powerful shaping influence during the teenage years.”
The teenager operating Ko’orkiri wouldn’t even look me in the eye. I watched her chat with a co-worker while she worked her buttons when the sudden clang of the trap door at my feet let me know she pushed my button. Free-falling and drowning at the same time, I thought “This might really be the end.”
As my husband and I washed ashore the concrete beach at the bottom, nose and sinuses stinging, pulling swimsuits from the crevices in which they hide, I realized one kid’s thrill ride, is another woman’s near death experience.
This article is part of our 2019 September / October Issue