BJU Seminary Head Graduates with Primer on Reaching Gen Z
It isn’t every year that a seminary’s graduates include its newly appointed leader, not to mention having him deliver a valuable resource aimed directly at one of the prickliest challenges facing today’s faith community: reaching Generation Z, which has been deserting the church in droves.
When God led Alan Benson from pastoring a church to Bob Jones University — where he is now executive vice president for student development and ministry advancement, overseeing ministry education at the University and BJU Seminary — he switched the focus of his doctor of ministry dissertation to address current Gen Z Christians’ skepticism about church. (His 2020 degree conferral was celebrated this year due to COVID-19.)
“The world needs the church more than it ever has, and that is especially true of a generation searching for the meaning we can all find in Christ,” Benson asserts.
Why Gen Z Rejects the Church
Unfortunately, that need runs headlong into two characteristics of Gen Zers Benson identified in his research and interactions with teens, both as a father and as the leader of a college and career ministry:
Conflicting desires for belonging and self-realization. Rising secularism and humanism compel Gen Zers, who significantly influence other generations, to find identity in belonging to a community. For example, as Benson has illustrated, a nurse finds identity as part of a group that helps others through unpleasant but rewarding tasks.
Yet while religious Gen Zers have adopted that desire for belonging, identifying with a local community of believers, with its rules and leadership, hinders their self-realization. “They’re looking for opportunities for synergy to accomplish something great, but they’ve almost turned their backs on the fact that the established church is a pathway for that,” Benson says.
A failure to personalize their faith. Many Gen Z Christians feel disconnected from a local body as third-generation Christians, who attend church because their families expect them to.
Approaching Gen Z: Emphasize the Gospel and Community
These insights lead Benson to a three-point approach to reaching Gen Z within the local church setting:
- Appeal to their desire for identity by driving home Paul’s Gospel claims about our adoption and being “in Christ.”
- Emphasize community by teaching the biblical commands involving “one another” —showing that exercising servant-minded involvement and creating a network of relationships within the body is essential to their spiritual walk.
- Urge existing church members to build on these efforts at forming relationships and sharing the Gospel so that Gen Zers can clearly see these commitments put into action.
When Benson came to BJU, he advanced changes to the church attendance policy that align with key elements of his approach and are laid out in his dissertation:
- Reflecting Gen Z students’ desire for identity and self-realization, teach them the characteristics of a healthy church. Instead of mandating those they may attend, they are responsible to evaluate their options and choose one.
- Through this personal decision, equip them to consider their need for church.
- Over time, encourage self-examination to determine the type of church in which students can build relationships and community and thereby thrive.
Gen Zers’ Search: The “Greatest Gospel Opportunity”
More broadly, Benson sees a powerful opportunity for reaching Gen Zers in their struggle to find belonging during COVID-19. Answers from humanistic leaders — primarily instruction to stay home and wear masks — left them feeling hopeless in their pursuit. Many turned to unfulfilling social media or addictive behaviors to satisfy their longings.
Benson compares the resulting emptiness to that preceding the Reformation: “Religion had become very broken, the Dark Ages had left people in despair, and the light of the Gospel shined into that.”
With Gen Zers’ desperate search for identity, they could not be more ready to find hope in the Gospel and local churches — a moment Benson expressed during BJU’s 2021 Bible Conference as “the greatest Gospel opportunity since the Reformation.”
BJU’s Commitment: Serve the Church in Advancing the Gospel
BJU Seminary is fulfilling its promise to “serve the church” in realizing this great Gospel opportunity by:
- Offering insights and resources — such as those reflected in Benson’s dissertation — through multiple channels, including its All-In for Ministry Education Facebook communities for pastors and other friends and supporters.
- Filling the need for pastors as part of its 500 x 5 x 5 vision to put 500 pastors on the path to the pulpit in the next five years, and every five years after that.
- Training these pastors to be shepherds proclaiming Bible truth, not just business leaders.
To read Benson’s dissertation, “Helping Gen Z Students at a Conservative Christian University Choose a Local Church,” contact [email protected].