It was sat at a table in the University Starbucks that some of the things I’d read over the last few years about apologetics and Gen Z became real and urgent.
I was having lunch with a student who had been around our church for a while. He had come along to my Life Group a few times. I hadn’t seen him in a couple of months so had suggested lunch to catch up.
I had the sense that all wasn’t well but was expecting an issue of one sort or another that would have led him to be withdrawing from church. Instead I was met with what I recognised as a classic Gen Z objection to Christianity but had yet to hear from someone I considered ‘inside’ the church.
“But Tim” (I’m paraphrasing) “I guess it all could be true, I can see how it could be, but whether it’s true or not, it doesn’t seem to make any difference to me. I’m going to try not living as a Christian and I bet it makes no difference to my life.”
The typically Gen Z question is not “is this true?” but “what difference would it make to me?” or “why should I care?” That might even be offensive to some of our Christian sensibilities, but it’s a radically individualist question about use rather than an ultimate question about truth.
I blustered my way through the conversation a bit, but if the idea that God is your Father who loves you, wants to know you and has made a way for you to be loved forever (and all you have to do is die) doesn’t sound like something that makes a difference to you then something has gone wrong somewhere. I’m used to having “counting the cost” style conversations, where a young person is becoming aware that following Jesus will cost them profoundly and they want to know if it’s worth it. This conversation was fundamentally different, it was “I know what Christianity is like and it isn’t worth it (for me)”
Taste and See
My usual go to when asked if it was worth it would be “come and see,” and I’m secure that encountering the Spirit and meeting the risen Jesus will make anyone declare it was worth it. Somehow for this young man that hadn’t happened. He was operating out of a framework that’s common for most people to operate from, in a form that’s very common in his generation, he was judging things by their utility.
It’s a technocratic approach, with roots in the way technologies gift us great benefits but foreground being useful. They gift us with stories (what James K. A. Smith calls cultural liturgies) that reinforce the idea that good things are useful things. It’s particularly strong because it’s also true, but it is harder for us to approach value from other perspectives. Another image-bearing human being, for example, is never valuable because they are useful, but because they are inherently valuable. We want to hold on to this thinking, but our reasons culturally for doing so are being eroded.
We’ve been thinking about these issues in preaching and teaching for those in our congregation who don’t follow Jesus, ensuring we talk about the difference that it makes to our lives as well as engaging the big ultimate truths about us and God that the Bible teaches. What I hadn’t been actively doing was thinking the same way about those I was discipling.
I was making the mistake of thinking that it was obvious why following Jesus is worth it and that those in Gen Z who were part of us were well aware—after all they’re with us and worshipping and trying to follow the Way. But there’s a bigger failure of discipleship here—of ours to this student and of what he’s received before coming to University. He’d been formed by the world (haven’t we all?) and our counter-formation has been poor.
I don’t really have many answers yet, but I’m trying to figure them out. There are real people in my church who love Jesus but desperately need counter-formation to the way the world has formed them. They desperately need deep discipleship. Some of them are getting it, many of them are doing really well, but there are others like this student who are on the edge and potentially slipping away from church. He knew it made a difference to my life, he could see it did and agreed as much. It didn’t make any difference to him.
Whether he was “really” a follower of Jesus or not isn’t the most important question, though I would understand your doubt. Being around us didn’t convince him that it was worth persevering with. Nor did it undermine the deadly assumption that worth is found in use rather than truth. If he’d persevered, he would have continued to hear the gospel over and over again, which would have done him good wherever he was with Jesus.
Following Jesus is where we find truth, beauty and goodness. It may not always be “useful”—though I would dispute that—but that’s hardly the most important thing in our lives. We desperately need to be reformed away from being obsessed with utility.
Beauty is good for us. It’s also beautiful, which is a good enough reason to enjoy it. Following Jesus is good for us, but its also true, and its also beautiful. Asking “what use is this” isn’t always the most helpful question. At the same time, we need to demonstrate with our lives that following the way of Jesus has dramatically changed everything for us.
Photo by Sorin Sîrbu on Unsplash