By Greg Jao
Every generation has a defining moment that shapes its narrative. For Gen Z college students, the COVID-19 pandemic may be theirs, shaping them like the 2008 economic meltdown reframed the expectations of Millennials and the Vietnam war shaped the story of younger Boomers.
The pandemic also provides churches and college ministries with a unique opportunity to engage perhaps the least churched generation in history.
They have experienced unexpected displacement as colleges suddenly have closed dorms and campuses. They’ve lost community as friends and campus fellowships have dispersed.
They face uncertainty in how classes will be conducted and how certain classes – labs, art studios, music and drama performance classes, etc.—will occur.
Summer internships and jobs, which are economically and educationally crucial for many students, have evaporated.
As churches and campus ministries make adjustments to the pandemic, here are four opportunities to engage Gen Z with the gospel:
1. Engage their immediate physical needs
Ministries can engage first by being attentive to physical and practical needs. The abrupt closure of campuses and pivots to digital learning will leave some students scrambling for housing.
InterVarsity Christian Fellowship staff minister Niki Campbell said, “For some students, home is not a place they want to be. For others, home is not a place they can get to, even if they wanted to.
“International students, students with difficult home lives, students who are working on local co-ops, etc. do not have the option of just moving back home for a couple months. Students are scrambling to find a secure place to live until the summer housing opens up.”
This problem offers campus ministries and local churches a unique partnership opportunity. The Harvard Law School Christian Fellowship, for example, sent an email to their classmates offering to connect students without housing options with local churches whose congregants were willing to offer stranded students shelter.
Other students will have difficulties participating in a digital learning environment. Native American students have told InterVarsity staff that they are returning to reservations and territories with limited internet access at home.
Some campus ministers have purchased low-cost laptops to help community college students access online classes from home. Local churches could offer shelter, internet hot-spots, or low-density places to access online classes, as well as computers to those who need them.
2. Engage their anxieties
Gen Z students report the highest rates of anxiety and depression of any generation. This will likely increase along with the disruptions. Churches and campus ministries need to engage the emotional and theological issues that anxiety points to.
In addition to the anxiety created by social media comparison, social media’s global reach can increase anxiety as students hear about the deaths and disruptions experienced around the world.
Graduating seniors, in particular, will enter a very different job market than the strongly-growing economy they grew up with. Ministries can create spaces for students to express fear, sharpen job-hunting skills, and pray.
In addition to listening deeply and well, ministries have a unique opportunity to point students to a more accurate understanding of God that goes beyond platitudes.
Veteran missionary to Africa David Ivaska notes in his devotional guide Be Not Afraid, “Often when we want to comfort someone who is afraid we say, ‘Do not be afraid, everything will be okay.’
“Unfortunately, things are not always okay; in fact, they often get worse…. The Bible takes a strikingly different approach; it also says ‘Do not be afraid,’ but adds ‘because our God comes …’”
Tracing the theme of faith and fear from Genesis to Revelation, Ivaska encourages ministries to ground students in the whole narrative of Scripture, rather than specific proof texts.
Student ministries in Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as Muslim-majority countries, have translated Ivaska’s book into local languages because they have observed how grounding students in the whole story of Scripture equips them to engage famine, violence, persecution—and epidemics.
Amy Simpson, author of Anxious: Choosing Faith in a World of Worry, confirms this posture, noting in her book, “A close look at Scripture shows us worry has always been a frequent point of correction between God and his people because it undermines that very faith he requires and rewards.
“Worry is still chronically undermining the faith and courage of Christians in this age. … Overcoming worry starts not with a list of therapeutic steps, but with a reorientation around the truth about God, who is not threatened by what scares us.”
3. Engage their grief and losses
Graduating students face particularly stark losses. Most have lost the opportunity to attend a graduation ceremony with friends and family.
Many—particularly athletes and artists—have lost opportunities to complete a final season, perform in a final recital, or to display at a senior exhibition.
Ministries should consider ways they can help create alternative memorable moments for graduating students.
When congregations can meet again, churches should consider creating showcases for graduating artists to show their works or to perform for the congregation. The showcase may also be a meaningful way to engage artists in the congregation or in the community.
Church should also develop a congregation-based graduation ceremony for this year. It could be a remarkable opportunity for church members to invite friends and family members to church to mark the event.
The graduation ceremony would mark not only the end of their college experience but also the beginning of their ministry in the marketplace.
4. Engage them in ministry
Even as we minister to college students, we should deploy them in ministry. Campus ministries are already reporting how Christian college students are inviting their friends into digital Bible studies and online community.
Many campus ministries are putting together tools and guides to help students grow as disciples and flourish as evangelists in this season.
GREG JAO (@GregJao) serves as the director for external affairs for InterVarsity.