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Hopeful signs about Generation Z

Resilience and faith among high-school graduates

A 2023 graduate takes part in commencement exercises in Washington, D.C., on May 13. Associated Press/Photo by Alex Brandon

Hopeful signs about Generation Z

This month, almost four million high-school students will walk down the aisle and graduate from high school in America. Among those will be my oldest daughter, Grace. It’s hard to capture in words the swell of emotions I feel, the slow letting go of our parenting control as we ease her into adult life.

My daughter, like her Generation Z counterparts, is facing a world of challenges, including a divided America whose only leadership options seem to be broadly unpopular Boomers from both parties. At home, mass shootings and a fragile economy greet them. Across the world, war rages in Europe and parts of Africa and is threatened by China in Asia. And everywhere, the institutions we once trusted have shown themselves to be vulnerable.

Gen Z has borne a disproportionate burden of our dysfunction, growing up in the shadow of failed wars, economic collapse, racial tension, political violence, and a global pandemic that robbed them of too much of their high-school years. It is no wonder that Pew Research reports 37 percent of public-school and private-school students admitting to poor mental health. This is also the first fully wired generation, having grown up immersed in the digital age.

And yet, there are hopeful signs that so much adversity has made Generation Z resilient. Consider the spontaneous outpouring of prayer, fasting, and worship among Christian college students, first witnessed at Asbury College in Kentucky and then spread around the nation. I’ve experienced this fervor for God, for theology, and for the Great Commission both at my own institution and in speaking around the country at churches and on college campuses.

To live out the faith will likely require more courage in a country where the demands of the gospel are not just considered strange but dangerous.

The Wall Street Journal reports a turning to faith among young people:

About one-third of 18-to-25-year-olds say they believe—more than doubt—the existence of a higher power, up from about one-quarter in 2021, according to a recent survey of young adults.

Young adults, theologians and church leaders attribute the increase in part to the need for people to believe in something beyond themselves after three years of loss. 

For many young people, the pandemic was the first crisis they faced. It affected everyone to some degree, from the loss of family and friends to uncertainty about jobs and daily life. In many ways, it aged young Americans and they are now turning to the same comfort previous generations have turned to during tragedies for healing and comfort.  

There has been so much ink spilled on the supposedly inevitable decline of faith in the next generation of American evangelicals, but many of these narratives have been disputed by researchers such as Ryan Burge. Perhaps our young people are not forsaking the faith after all.

What we do know is that the world our graduates are walking into is a world different than the one we faced a generation ago. Economic conditions make launching into adulthood more difficult. To live out the faith will likely require more courage in a country where the demands of the gospel are not just considered strange but dangerous. And yet, we can embed hope in the next generation of the church because we know that this mission field was not given to them by accident (Acts 17:26). While we want to inspire this year’s graduates to work hard, to persevere, and to accomplish much, we should also be sober-minded. Hardship and opposition are what Jesus predicted for those who choose to follow him (John 15:18).

However, God is not in heaven wringing His hands over the things that cause parents to lose sleep at night. Our kids can live with fearlessness and joy, knowing that Christ has overcome the world (John 16:33). The difficult things the next generation of adults will face can be used by God to shape their character. And we can rest in this promise: Christ is still building his church, in America, and around the world, mostly through the quiet and ordinary acts of redeemed sinners. Keep this truth in mind as you congratulate your favorite graduate.

Daniel Darling

Daniel Darling is director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. His forthcoming book is Agents of Grace. He is also a bestselling author of several other books, including The Original Jesus, The Dignity Revolution, The Characters of Christmas, The Characters of Easter, and A Way With Words and the host of a popular weekly podcast, The Way Home. Dan holds a bachelor’s degree in pastoral ministry from Dayspring Bible College, has studied at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and is a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife Angela have four children.

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