3 Foundational Principles for Next-Gen Ministry

Does the idea of influencing the next generation (Gen Z) ever overwhelm you?

Chances are for the last decade you’ve spent time learning how your church can increase influence with millennials. You’ve tried new methods, and done your best to refine a ministry approach that connects with Generation Y. And just as you started feeling like you’re gaining traction with millennials, here comes Generation Z!

Pew defines Gen Z as individuals born between 1997–2012. What’s quickly becoming clear is that they are very different from older generations. Just look at these extraordinary insights from Barna’s Gen Z research project:


• Recession Marked – Born in the midst of the early 2000’s recession.
• Wi-Fi Enabled – Common Sense Media found that teens spend 9 hours a day online.
• Multiracial – Most diverse generation in American history.
• Gender Fluid – 48% say gender is based on “sex a person was born as.”
• Post-Christians – 78% believe in the existence of God but only 41% attend weekly religious services (and that was before the COVID disruption).

If we’re going to influence a generation marked by recession, the attention economy, unprecedented diversity, identity fluidity, post-Christianity and now a global pandemic, we’re going to need to try things we’ve never tried before.

Well, good luck with that …

I’m kidding. I’m right there with you. In fact, I might be an eternal optimist, but what I’m already seeing in the emerging generation causes me to believe that the best days of the local church are still ahead of us.

It’s easy to take Gen Z at face value and simply dismiss them due to attributes we don’t understand.

However, dismissiveness doesn’t build disciples. As a millennial, I’ve heard plenty of knocks and dismissive generalities about my generation from pastors, thought leaders and older adults. So here’s what I will ask on our behalf: Please don’t do the same thing to Gen Z. It’s time that we seek to understand what makes younger generations so unique and look at their attributes as opportunities for the gospel to work in new ways.

If you seek to understand someone and assume to believe the best about them, it’s amazing how much influence you can gain with them.

Jesus took this approach with tax collectors, zealots and prostitutes. At the very least, we can do this with kids and teenagers.

This means that if you and I want to go where God is leading the church of the future, we have to choose to open our hearts and minds to methods that are built for a generation unlike any before.

Here are three foundational ideas to jump-start your approach to influencing Gen Z:

1. Develop a Strategy That Outlasts Your Personality.

It’s time for you and I to confront an underlying issue that has existed in next generation ministry for decades: the personality-driven model. You know what this is. It’s the kind of kids or student ministry that dissipates as soon as the key leader moves on to another opportunity. We can do better.

The next generation doesn’t need more big personalities, they need leaders who think strategically.

There are plenty of charismatic YouTube stars and social media influencers who can entertain and draw a crowd of kids and students to their platform. Gen Z doesn’t need ministry leaders to try to do the same.

Now, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be the fullest of who you are or that good old-fashioned charisma isn’t important in next generation ministry, I’m just saying that these things cannot be the only things.

If you think the effective church of the future will be able to hang on the personality or speaking ability of a person, you’re missing the point. For older generations, the charisma of leaders and “cool” factor of the experience was often times more than enough to pique interest. Yet, Generation Z is growing up with unrivaled access to the greatest entertainers on the planet.

Personality can’t be our knockout punch anymore.

Instead, we need to be leaders who put as much emphasis on strategy as we do charisma. We should be inspiring but we should also be focused on playing the long game of building a sustainable ministry. One that continues helping kids and teenagers own their faith, far beyond our tenures.

Are you building a ministry that will last beyond your personality? Are you hiring leaders for how they think or simply how they speak? The local church needs more leaders who are willing to dive into the deep end of strategy and have thoughtful and nuanced dialogue about the best methods, means, and models of the local church for the next generation.

If you don’t have a strategy or have been banking solely on personality, it’s time to start thinking strategically. Charisma has a place in leadership but it’s only as powerful and effective as it is coupled with an effective strategy.

How much time do you spend strategizing methods for a new version of the local church (like digital reach, implementing daily faith practices, and vocational discipleship) rather than just an upgraded version of the current one?

Ok, now that you’re thinking strategically, it’s important to consider the people who are making your strategy possible, the volunteers.

2. Build a System That Attracts Adult Leaders That Are Worth Following.

My pastor, Andy Stanley, has said that one of the biggest steps for someone exploring faith is “trusting a Christian.” What does it look like to build a volunteer system that is focused on finding, training and supporting the kinds of small group leaders (SGLs) you want kids and students to trust and model their lives after? (Note: Groups aren’t going anywhere. Eighty-one percent of Gen Z say that community is part of their “ideal church.”)

Let me ask you something: Are your current adult volunteers the kind of adults you want students to become someday?

I know we always need more volunteers, but what if the truth is that you need the right volunteers rather than just more of the mediocre ones? This may sound a bit harsh, but the next generation deserves adults worth following.

I can tell you from personal experience that I’ve seen small group leaders take kids away from church, leave leadership vacuums that kids dissolve in when they leave unexpectedly and create drama that rivals that of 7th graders.

On the other hand, I’ve seen adult volunteers who have engaged entire families in the local church, helped kids navigate extreme crisis and breathed momentum into the vision of the ministry. This is why doing the hard work of identifying, recruiting and developing adults worth following is so worth the effort.

Here are a couple of tips for building a system that attracts the right people:

Set a High Bar

I truly believe that volunteers will rise to the level of expectations you set for them.

It’s why years ago our small group leader roles shifted from a year-by-year commitment to a 4-year commitment for high school leaders. Additionally, we asked all of our SGLs to commit to embodying the principles laid out in the book, Lead Small. Yes, over the course of implementing new expectations, we saw about 80% turnover of our team. However, within a couple of years we re-staffed our SGL roles with quality, consistent and mission-oriented leaders.

As I said earlier, the truth is, leaders will rise to the level of the bar you set—no matter how low or high that is. Our adult volunteers will almost always respect what we as ministry leaders expect and inspect. Don’t expect extraordinary results when you set ordinary expectations for volunteers.

Develop Them Spiritually

One of the most important roles for next-gen ministries of the future is to create volunteer systems that help adult leaders grow spiritually.

Many of the volunteers we’re recruiting nowadays are millennial adults. Millennials are the most biblically skeptical people on earth today (even more so than Gen Z).

This means that we can’t expect millennials to be biblically founded spiritual mentors for Gen Z by default. Instead, what if we started taking the spiritual development of our volunteers just as seriously as that of our kids and students? What if we gave our volunteers spiritual mentors? What if we created environments where they could build their theological foundation? Or what if we wrestled with and studied the Bible alongside them instead just hoping it happens as a part of their daily routine?

We have an opportunity to help Gen Z build a faith of their own, but we also know that we cannot do this alone. We need incredible adult small group leaders that kids and students can trust. When we set a high bar and choose to believe that fostering the spiritual growth of our leaders is our responsibility, we’ll start heading in the right direction.

3. Change Your Perception of Parents.

Ok, let me talk about the elephant in the room. Kids and student ministry leaders just wished parents would care about the spiritual development of their children a little more.

Not to pick on student pastors (I am one), but Barna’s research shows that:

Sixty-eight percent of youth pastors say their biggest struggle is parents who don’t prioritize their teen’s spiritual growth.

Maybe you feel this deeply. Well, you’re not alone. However, if you stop here you may also be missing one of the greatest opportunities for building a next-gen strategy that reaches Gen Z. Here is another fascinating insight from Barna’s research:

Four out of 5 Christian teens say they can “share honest questions, struggles and doubts with their parents.” (79%)

This is a really big deal. Christian teenagers feel incredibly safe sharing some of their most personal and pivotal perspectives with their parents. This means that it would be foolish for us to discount the influence of a parent in the spiritual formation of a child or teenager. So, if we want to be strategic about reaching Gen Z, we have to be strategic about including their parents on the journey.

If we are going to strategically prioritize parents we have to genuinely change our perceptions.

We must choose to believe that parents care about the faith of their kids.

If we make this assumption, it means we will also take the time to build a strategy for resourcing, supporting, and encouraging parents of kids and teenagers. There are so many ways we can act out the assumption that parents care about their kid’s faith. From resources that help them navigate social media with their children, to gift cards for a hot coffee on a weary day of parenting.

This article originally appeared on CareyNieuwhof.com and is reposted here by permission.

Shane Sanchez
Shane Sanchez

Shane Sanchez is the InsideOut Director for Gwinnett Church (a campus of North Point Ministries.)