Rev. Melissa Cooper


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[Generation Z]: The Next Civil Rights Leaders, Pt. 2

Be sure you didn't miss the first installment of this series by clicking here.

I am continually and simultaneously both completely surprised and entirely unsurprised when older generations comment on the shortcomings of the current generation of youth and children.

The explanation for it, though, is simple: they don't know them. If you haven't spent time with today's teenagers, I get it. In fact, most teenagers throughout history probably didn't look like they would amount to all that much.

There is plenty to be concerned about with this generation. Mounting pressures from parents and schools, skyrocketing rates of depression and suicide, issues of safety and security online. Plenty of issues.

kids political party tweet.jpg

But I see a lot more hope than concern. And I see a lot of those issues being reduced if we build more intergenerational relationships (but that's also another blog post!). 

Today, I want to look at what we can know about this generation by looking at historical generational trends and generational theory. This is a little bit nerdier of a post than I usually put out there, but hang with me and I think you'l find some really interesting tidbits ...

In the early 90s, William Strauss and Neil Howe published the book that started it all, GenerationsTheir study produced a theory that throughout American history (and theoretically before), a consistent cycle of social moments, alternating between secular crises and spiritual awakenings, has produced a four-phase cycle of generational types. 

If that was a bunch of theoretical gobbledygook, I'll give you the most recent example. In the early 20th century, we had a social crisis - marked by major events like the Great Depression and World War I and II. Depending on what stage of life a generation is in during this social crisis, you can determine what generational type it is. The "Greatest Generation," which came of age during this social crisis, is what we call a "Civic" generation - one who ends up focusing on solving the issues through social change, developing new institutions, and doing whatever they need to to take down a whole bunch of Nazis. 

The generation who was born during this social crisis, the "Silent Generation," is known as an "Adaptive" generation. They benefit from the social response of the civic generation, and then build on it. Traditionally, Adaptive generations "grow up as overprotected and suffocated youths during a secular crisis; mature into risk-averse, conformist rising adults," and then they become "midlife arbitrator-leaders during a spiritual awakening." 

I won't bore you with the rest of the cycle today (contact me if you want to hear more about how this impacts your community and church), but what I want to point out is this: if trends continue, [Generation Z] is predicted to be an Adaptive generation. Our most recent Adaptives are the Silent Generation, and the Silent Generation pioneered the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th Century.

As these young people grow, they will not be satisfied with the status quo. But unlike Millennials who have been content to branch off and start their own communities and initiatives, [Gen Z] is likely to feel the need to change the entirety of society and prompt a new spiritual awakening, a new Civil Rights era. 

Currently, we're seeing Millennial/[Z] cuspers speaking out in the wake of the Parkland, FL school shooting. These young people have the entrepreneurial spirit of Millennials combined with the need for wholesale social change of the Adaptive [Generation Z]. Change is on the horizon, friends.

What will be interesting to see as these trends are proven true or bucked entirely (this is all simply a theory and does not reliably predict any outcomes), is how the trend toward shorter time frames between these social moments, and shorter generational turnings, will affect the development of these young generations, especially Millennials and [Generation Z].

So friends, what I want to offer you today is hope. A picture of the future that, if we take the rhythm of history seriously, gives us a bright picture of what these young people stand to accomplish for themselves and for society in the future.

Nothing is certain, but I believe if we give them our support now, and continue to be in relationship with them and help them develop, they will become our next Civil Rights leaders. They will lead us into a new era. I'm ready to follow.


[Generation Z]: The Next Civil Rights Leaders, Pt. 1
kids political party tweet.jpg

"And a child shall lead them ..."

We've heard people quote this over and over, especially when there are shared videos of children or youth speaking intelligently or prophetically on different issues.

But this week, we saw something even more dramatic and prophetic. Something this pithy Bible quote doesn't even begin to describe. 

We saw the next generation of prophets beginning to emerge. 

After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, video after video and tweet after tweet began emerging. No, I'm not talking about the "thoughts and prayers" we kept hearing from officials and other adults in power. I'm talking about the social media frenzy from teenagers. Because it turns out, they've been paying attention.

And whether you agree with them or not, you can't help but listen to them. 

I've been working with teenagers in some capacity since I was a teen myself. (I could write a whole separate post on how important that has been in my own development and how thankful I am for their presence in my life.) I spent time with teens throughout the 2016 election cycle. At least once a week, I was teaching them the basic tenets of the Christian faith and helping them figure out what that meant for their lives. And inevitably, social issues came up. Not because I told them, but because they're paying more attention than, I would argue, any young generation in history. They know the names of elected officials (I probably couldn't have told you the name of the Secretary of State or the Attorney General when I was their age). They know about legislation that is passed or not passed. They know about campaign finance issues. They know. They're paying attention.

So when a school shooting happens, they know that "thoughts and prayers" aren't going to cut it. They know whether or not their legislators have taken money from the gun lobby. They know. And if they don't know, they know how to find out.

The first of this generation is registering to vote. Some of them will vote this year. And they aren't going to vote the way their parents vote just because their parents vote a certain way

Watch out, world. [Generation Z] has been watching you, and they're not going to just sit back and watch for much longer.

Be sure you're subscribed to the blog (click here and sign up for updates) so you can catch part 2 of this series where I look at historical generational trends to help us understand why it makes perfect sense that we're seeing a new generation of civil rights leaders emerge in [Generation Z], and what that may mean for the future of our country and our churches.

Who is [Gen Z]? Let's take a look ...

Last week, we heard from the Barna Group about the first major study done on [Generation Z], the generation estimated to be born from 1999-2015. As the first of their cohort is just beginning to graduate high school, the information we can acquire about them as a generation is limited, but Barna took the opportunity to get a small glimpse into the lives of this current youngest generation. 

As a committed student of generational theory, I was excited about this first look at the post-Millennial generation, so I ordered the study report as quickly as the internet would allow, and broke into it the moment it arrived on the doorstep.

The Challenges with the Research

Before I dig into the pertinent findings, though, I have to make a few caveats about this "research." 

  • First, this is not generational research. At this stage, it's polling of a group of people from a specific age cohort. This was one of the most disappointing things for me as a student of generational theory. While the study is able to make some solid generalizations about [Gen Z], the researchers often choose to compare them to other generations. Unfortunately, they're not making comparisons about other generations at the same age, but those other generations today. It shouldn't be shocking to anyone that the priorities of teenagers and the priorities of sixty-somethings are different. So, while the data still may be valid, the comparisons only give us a point-in-time reference rather than a generational one, so it's hard to parse out what are generational characteristics and what are just related to age and stage in life.
  • This study only included Protestant Christians. Excluding Catholics and Catholic Churches excludes a significant population of churchgoers, so is simply not a representation of all of the landscape of Christianity in the US. Whatever this study tells us, we have to be aware that it only represents a segment of the Christian population. 
  • The other major challenge I faced in reading the research is the religious bias. No doubt, Barna is a religious research group and their partner for this study, Impact360, is an evangelical organization, and in their words, they "cultivate a biblical worldview." Unfortunately, most mainline Christians would not qualify as having a "biblical worldview" under their definition. So as the data are interpreted throughout the report, some comparisons and evaluation are skewed toward a conservative evangelical approach. It's not subtle, though, so it's not hard to distinguish the evangelical Christian agenda from some of the raw data. 

So with those caveats in place, let's look at what we have now learned about [Gen Z] at this point in time.

My Questions

As I approached the report, I had a few key questions I hoped to have answered: What characteristics will arise? Will they match my experience with [Gen Z] teens and kids? Will technology be the focus of everything or will we be able to move past that distraction to look at the actual people technology is shaping? Will these [Gen Z] kids carry on the Strauss/Howe four-type cycle and carry some of the traits of their great grandparents in the Silent Generation?

I can't say any of my questions was answered completely (and some not at all), but there were some findings of interest and some key themes that arose.

Reclusive & Communal

[Generation Z] has been said to be the loneliest generation on record, and it appears for good reason. Overall, [Gen Z] is less likely to leave their homes, drink alcohol, get their license, and go out on dates than generations before them at the same age. Teen pregnancy rates are down, even rare, but teen suicide and depression greater than ever.

Why? It appears that the over-the-top parenting techniques, commonly referred to as "helicopter" parenting have moved them in this direction. This restrictive but involved form of parenting has created a generation with curated lives, each moment of their day scheduled, and with more homework from educational institutions than ever before.

So, when they don't have control over most of their lives, [Gen Z] seeks out agency and community in the only way they can: through technology and social media. They spend time on social media because they hunger for community and that is the only way THEY can create it.

And the community they seek out? A diverse one. Whereas Millennials embrace and are comfortable with diversity, [Gen Z] expects it. The study showed that they say they find joy in being around people different from them, a shift from previous generations who often express fear and anxiety about being with different cultures.


The Future is the Focus (and that's scary)

One of the most poignant findings in this study is now future-focused this generation is. Personal achievement kept coming up as central to the [Gen Z] identity. And while it's not new for teenagers to be focused on college and considering career, it seems to have spiked with this group. 

Much like their carefully curated childhoods, they are learning to curate their online presences not for the sake of propriety or social inclusion, but because from a young age, they've been told that colleges and future employers will be monitoring their online engagement.

When asked about their role models, the majority of the reasons they chose role models were related to future personal achievement - six of the top ten reasons given were related to career or financial success.

And no wonder this is also the most stressed-out generation in history; in addition to the personal pressures they feel, they are also distrustful of the future in general on a global scale. As far as they know, the world has always been at war, and these kids have greater global awareness than any previous generation. (I know I don't remember having such nuanced opinions about the government when I was their age!)

Spiritual & Don't Know How to be Religious

When it comes to the church, they've inherited an interesting bag. Like Millennials, they are drawn to spirituality, but even more so than Millennials, they don't have the foundation for religious and theological exploration that previous generations had. They're working from a blank slate - and depending on how you see it, that can be a gift or a challenge.

They also appear indecisive at times. They are reluctant to form strong opinions for fear of offending someone. In the end, they tend to end in indecision, and they find it hard to give an answer when needed.

They also don't necessarily feel warm and fuzzy about the church in general. When asked, they chose images that were neutral or judgmental (a cross and a finger pointing over a Bible) to describe the church.

And yet, when they were asked to choose between extremes for their "ideal church," they often chose some pretty traditional images. They chose community over solitude and being in a sanctuary over an auditorium. Unsurprisingly, they preferred a casual, varied experience, but on almost everything else, they were split nearly 50/50: quiet vs loud, traditional vs modern, relaxed vs exciting, performance vs ritual, classic vs trendy. Much like with Millennials, a hip, non-traditional, contemporary church is not the magic bullet for young people of any age. 

As much to Teach us as We have to Teach Them

While there may be some response needed in knowing the lack of conviction and penchant for indecision of [Gen Z], that same characteristic highlights one of their key positive characteristics: empathy. [Gen Z] seems to be able to tap into and anticipate the feelings of others, and they have a great desire not to do harm or offend. They have a high tolerance and low desire to antaagonize; I would say most of our adult generations could learn a few things!

That being said, a lifetime of indecision will not do them well. They need to be given opportunities to practice and skills for critical thinking and discernment. From my experience, when given those tools, they shine brightly! 

While this list is nowhere near the extent of the research from Barna, nor does it even scratch the surface of the intricacies of an entire generation, we are beginning to see the emergence of a new, distinct group in our society, and before we know it, they'll be among our workforce and leading in our churches and our society.

Keep in mind, though, that the youngest of this generation is estimated to be only three years old. This research, even with all the limitations already mentioned, is also limited by the fact that it can only really survey a maximum of about half of the generation.

My hope is we will continue to challenge this generation, and continue asking some of the right questions so that we can not only figure out what makes them tick but also be the best possible mentors and leaders for them, inviting them to participate in a society we choose to create together.

Who is [Generation Z]? We're about to find out ...
Download the complete infographic at

Download the complete infographic at

In my little Generational Theory rabbit hole (if I've never invited you in, give me a minute or sixty sometime and I'll take you on a journey ...), the world has been abuzz for years about Millennials. They're the latest generation we love to hate.

But not for long! "Those darn kids" is about to shift in meaning from Millennials to the generation following Millennials, identified with a temporary placeholder name, [Generation Z]. 

If you've been to one of my workshops on generational theory or intergenerational ministry, you may have noticed that I don't yet present on [Generation Z]. Thus far, the oldest [GenZ]-ers are just beginning to enter college, depending on who is estimating the date range. 

They don't yet know who they are developmentally; it's very difficult to consider generalizing about a generation who isn't even yet old enough to vote! 

But now, there's something coming soon that has me more nerdily excited than a Doctor Who Christmas Special ... 

On Tuesday, January 23, Impact 360 and Barna will release the results of the first official research done on this generation. It's really the generational theory equivalent to the release of a new Harry Potter book, so to say the least I am excited! 

If you're interested in hearing about this firsthand with all us GT nerds, you can sign up to view the simulcast here

Afterward, I plan to host some conversation over on my Facebook Page about what they present. I hope you'll come and nerd out with me!