We must be proactive in reaching out to youth without becoming the awkward adult who forces young people to talk about Jesus. Here are some practical tips and some “do’s” and “don’ts”.Walking with Generation Z: How to Dialogue with Gen Z – Catholic World Report
Several years ago, I was walking through the streets of Ann Arbor with a friend. Robert and I were engrossed in a theological conversation when a young college student approached us. He admitted that he overheard part of our conversation about the faith and had some questions about Christianity that he wanted to discuss with us. So, we walked with him and even invited him to join us for lunch. The three of us talked for hours, and the young man asked a lot of important questions ranging from God’s existence and the problem of evil to the primacy of the pope. As the conversation ended, he thanked us and said that even though he had talked to dozens of Catholics and non-Catholic Christians, he had never talked to two people who presented the faith so convincingly.
We were humbled by his compliment because we realized that it was not us, but the Holy Spirit working through us that touched this college student. Nevertheless, his comment indicated a much larger problem: Most Catholics have a hard time talking about the faith with Generation Z. This series of articles has repeatedly recommended that to reach this generation we must begin by understanding the unique struggles of Gen Z and then establish relational authority. But once we have this knowledge, we need to put it into practice by dialoguing with the youth effectively. Therefore, this last article will offer practical strategies for how to start, maintain, and end a conversation with today’s youth.
Setting the Stage
Starting the conversation is often one of the hardest parts of talking to Gen Z. However, if proper relational authority is established, these conversations will come about much more naturally. Relational authority encourages the youth to approach a trusted adult with their questions, but it also requires us to be ready for these conversations.
I have repeatedly been asked important questions about the faith when I least expect it. When I worked in landscaping, a high schooler asked me about the Church’s stance on abortion as we were planting trees on a hot summer day. God may ask us to engage with today’s youth when we least expect it, and we cannot let other distractions, our own sense of inadequacy, or our weariness deter us from having these conversations.
However, we cannot always wait for Gen Z to initiate these conversations. Instead, we must be proactive in reaching out to youth without becoming the awkward adult who forces young people to talk about Jesus. So here are three practical tips on how to set the stage and strike up a conversation with Gen Z:
• Foster the youth’s sense of wonder by giving them an experience of beauty. When we see something beautiful, we are drawn out of ourselves, and so beauty encourages reflection and discussion. Reading insightful books, watching truly artistic movies, praying in a magnificent Church, or walking through nature are all ways for the youth to experience real beauty and wonder, which can in turn prompt further conversations.
• Find the right environment in which these youth will be more open to talk and be less distracted by technology. Fruitful conversations can take place while driving, taking a walk, fishing on a lake, working on a project, or shooting some hoops. These moments not only build relational authority, but also provide openings for conversation and dialogue.
• Be provocative. Not provocative in a negative or demeaning way, but rather we should ask questions to provoke deeper conversations. For instance, we can ask the youth, “Who do you think is the most exemplar man or woman in recent history?”, “What do you hope people say about you at your funeral?”, “What makes you truly happy?”, or “Can animals love other people?” When timed well, these questions can prompt a much larger conversation about one’s character, the meaning of life, and the nature of happiness and love. For these questions to be truly effective, we must be authentically interested in their response, which in turn will help further a conversation as well as encourage a greater openness to hear what we have to say as trusted adults.
The Beginning of the Conversation
The beginning of a conversation with Gen Z is critical because it often dictates how the rest of the conversation will proceed. Especially when addressing sensitive or controversial topics on ethics, politics, or religion with a youth who may disagree with you, it is of paramount importance to express goodwill and establish common ground.
First, we must remind the youth of our goodwill and care for them before discussing a delicate topic or proceeding to give hard advice. For example, before addressing the Church’s position on abortion, a youth minister would be wise to begin by reaffirming our love for the mother and child and that the Church’s position is taken out of concern for both. Too often, Gen Z thinks that if you disagree with them, then you don’t like or care for them. But in expressing any disagreement, our primary motive should be our love for each other. Both sides should communicate their ideas because they genuinely want to lead each other to greater happiness and to a more fulsome understanding of the truth. By expressing our goodwill, we contextualize the conversation within our relationship, which will lead to a productive dialogue with Gen Z if the relationship is healthy and secure.
Second, we must establish common ground and address any deeper disagreements. For instance, Gen Z often wants to talk about political issues like socialized medicine. But most often, we must first clarify the role of the government before discussing the effectiveness of particular policies. Too many times I have had discussions with a young person for several hours before I realized that we disagreed on something much more fundamental than what was actually being discussed. By establishing common ground at the start of a conversation, we foster a collaborative spirit and avoid unnecessary confusion.
The Do’s and Don’ts of Holding a Fruitful Conversation
Once a conversation is underway, there are several do’s and don’ts to holding a conversation with Gen Z.
• Winning the argument but losing a soul. Sometimes we can get so caught up in proving our point and “winning” the argument that we end up unnecessarily hurting and ostracizing the youth through our vigor or intensity. For example, when discussing abortion with a Gen Z youth, we may provide several logical reasons why it is a moral evil and impermissible, shoot down all the misconceptions, or leave feeling like we “owned” the arguments. Yet unbeknownst to us, the youth we were speaking to previously had an abortion, and while her arguments held no water, our tone and vigor hurt her and pushed her away from the truth instead of leading her to it. Especially when conversing with Gen Z on matters of sexual ethics and personal identity, we must speak the truth. But we must do so with all charity and in a way that has the greatest chance of being received.
• Being defensive and overly frustrated. It is very hard to remain calm when somebody is vehemently attacking or questioning the faith. We can become defensive and frustrated if we personalize their questions and feel like we must convince them that this is the truth because it’s so obviously true. However, this spiritual agitation and frustration usually derails the conversation and undermines our position. We should remain calm and collected because no matter what anyone else says or believes, the faith is true and will remain true regardless of whether somebody else recognizes it or not.
• Starting with Scripture and the authority of the Church. Initially, this suggestion may seem incorrect because Scripture and the Tradition of the Church most clearly articulate the fullness of the truth in Christ. However, the research summarized in the second and third article of this series shows that Gen Z youth, even those who claim to be Catholic, no longer accept the authority of the Church and do not believe that Scripture has much relevance in their personal lives. They may be interested in learning about Christ and Scripture, but beginning the conversation with “this is what the Church or the Bible says” will be ineffective with this generation because it no longer serves as common ground. In fact, when the young college student was conversing with Robert and me, he thanked us for not simply telling him to have faith and rely on the authority of the Church or Bible.
Using reason-based arguments. In 1998, at the start of Generation Z, Pope Saint John Paul II prophetically said in Fides et Ratio “Philosophical thought is often the only ground for understanding and dialogue with those who do not share our faith. . . . Such a ground for understanding and dialogue is all the more vital nowadays.”1 Many people are immediately repelled by the word “philosophy” because it seems academic or because they equate it with philosophies like relativism, atheism, and materialism. However, as John Paul II explains in the rest of Fides et Ratio, true philosophy is simply reason seeking to understand divine truth. Through rational arguments alone, we can prove certain truths about natural law, ourselves, and even God. Because these arguments are not just based on faith or the authority of the Church and Scripture, they will be much more convincing for Gen Z, especially when discussing controversial issues about morality and politics. For example, arguing that pornography is bad because the Church says so will be less effective than making a rational argument to show that pornography treats others as objects to be used rather than as persons with unique dignity.2
Asking questions and gently pointing out contradictions. From my own experience, the most effective way to encourage a philosophical conversation with Gen Z is simply by asking probing questions. If you want to encourage Gen Z youth to live more virtuously, ask them questions about who they want to be. Inevitably, they list characteristics such as brave, selfless, kind, and pure. Then, ask further questions about their plan to grow in virtue. Not only do these questions show that you care for them, but they also naturally reveal certain areas where the youth understood less than they previously thought. These are the moments where you can step in to guide and mentor them. At other times, the answers to your questions might reveal a contradiction or inconsistency in their thoughts or actions; for instance, they want to be selfless, but their friendships are based mostly on self-interest. When these contradictions are pointed out gently, you can gradually steer the youth closer to the God and life of holiness.
Sharing alternative views. When rational arguments and questions are ineffective, another option is to provide an attractive and intelligible alternative perspective. If a young person does not accept the arguments that prove God’s existence, we can show how God’s existence makes more sense of our experience of suffering, love, and the order of the universe. In other words, by comparing one perspective against another, we can show how the faith accounts for more of our experience and reality. This is where Scripture and Tradition can be extremely helpful. While Gen Z may not accept these as sources of authority, Scripture and Tradition offer a complete and coherent picture of our experience, which is appealing and convincing.
Relating it back to their lives. Whenever discussing the faith with Gen Z, we should always try to make it relevant to the youth. Be prepared to answer the “so what?” question. It is not enough to explain the Incarnation, but we must also show that through Christ’s Incarnation and Paschal Mystery, the youth can be transformed by God’s grace to become like Him in holiness. If we can show that the faith is eminently practical and relevant to their lives, then we will be effective in changing hearts.
Wrapping up the Conversation
When the conversation is coming to a close, express your gratitude for the time that young people spent talking to you. If they helped you to see a new perspective or brought up intelligent questions, make sure to acknowledge their ideas. If there was more of a debate and difference of thought, acknowledge legitimate agreement on the issue at hand, and reiterate that you care for them, despite any disagreement. Finally, if the conversation could be continued later or the youth ask a question that you could not answer, tell them that you look forward to talking with them about these topics in the future. These efforts show Gen Z youth that they are valued people and end the conversation on a positive note, which will encourage future conversations.
Hopefully, this series has contributed to a much larger dialogue about how to effectively engage and evangelize Gen Z. I am grateful for all the research done by other institutions that contributed to these essays. Our culture is dramatically changing, and we all are facing a new host of problems, temptations, and confusions. By being more aware of the struggles this generation faces and by practicing strategies to reach them, we can be instruments of the Holy Spirit to touch the hearts of these youth.
Previously in this series:
• “Walking with Generation Z: Understanding the Loneliest Generation” (August 11, 2022)
• “Walking with Generation Z: Distrust of Institutions and Organized Religion” (August 21, 2022)
• “Walking with Generation Z: Religiously Complex” (September 6, 2022)
• “Walking with Generation Z: Steps Toward Flourishing” (September 19, 2022)
• “Walking with Generation Z: Reaching Youth with Relational Authority” (October 7, 2022)
2 For approachable and practical works on philosophy that anyone can read, please examine Thomas Howard’s Chance or the Dance, C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man, Mortimer Adler’s Ten Philosophical Mistakes and Aristotle for Everybody, and Peter Kreeft’s Summa of the Summa.