How to Talk to Gen z

Tanita Maddox

"Someone has to tell the grown-ups what’s happening to us." This was the plea of a high school sophomore who shared with me as we walked down a pathway at Washington Family Ranch – Canyon, a Young Life camp in Eastern Oregon.

That sentence has stuck with me: someone has to tell the grown-ups what’s happening to us.

She’s a member of Generation Z (Gen Z, born ≈1999-2015), which comprises the current world of adolescents. This generation is coming of age in a world of social media, frequent school shootings and a global pandemic — none of which existed when many of us were teenagers. There is much I don’t understand about their experience. For a generation where 71% feel misunderstood by adults, being understood is a big deal.

Adolescents feeling misunderstood by adults and adults not “getting” adolescents is nothing new. However, this current divide is far deeper and wider than ever, and the ripple effects and consequences are dire.

In our journey to understand adolescents, let’s take a peek behind the curtain on three messages Gen Z adolescents are constantly receiving, and how we can enter the conversation with good news.



The previous generations’ circles of comparison were those in their own school, neighborhood and geography. With Gen Z comparison is global, made possible and accessible by the technology in their hands. According to Dr. Jean Twenge, by 2015, race and socioeconomic differences did not have a measurable impact on social media use by Gen Z. This is evidence smartphones are eradicating an internet gap that once existed between social classes, both in the U.S. and around the world. Gen Z is a globally connected generation.

In a never-ending search to quench the need to be enough, there’s always another achievement or accomplishment to attain. Social media feeds are filled with high-performing, elite peers, normalizing the impossible and unreachable. A simple search for filters on social media provides an abundance of options. I can find a filter that smooths my skin, adds makeup or changes the shape of my nose, lips or eyes. It’s a quick reminder: I don’t look the way I’m “supposed” to look. I am not enough.

Add to this the words Gen Z hears about themselves in surround-sound from media and older generations around them. Ask a Gen Z-er in your life, “What do you hear about your generation?” They’ll respond quickly and clearly: fragile, weak, snowflake, over-emotional, over-sensitive and more. In my experience, not a single positive word comes up. They hear the message: I am not enough.



What if we spoke different words over this next generation? What if we sought out how Gen Z reflects the image of God? What if the global-connectedness of Gen Z led to a global revival?

We get the opportunity to speak great vision into a great generation. They’re truth-seekers. They care for creation. They believe all people deserve dignity (as we would say, all people bear the Image of God). They’re positioned for global influence. Imagine what will happen when the Lord captivates the hearts of Gen Z.

And we get to tell them: you were always enough to be loved and valued by God. Romans 5:8 says, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” You were enough, not based on your achievements or failures, but on the simple fact God decided to show His love for you in this way. True freedom comes from our identity being found in Christ, not in the sum of our successes.

What if we spoke different words over this next generation? What if we sought out how Gen Z reflects the image of God? What if the global-connectedness of Gen Z led to a global revival?


In real time, adolescents can watch an idea being shared. And then they see this idea get commended, retweeted and celebrated, or called out, rebuked and canceled. They’re aware every word, picture, action or inaction incites response. They’ve seen an old photo or tweet unearthed from the past only to tarnish or destroy someone.

Culture demands perfection from Gen Z. With “cancel culture,” Gen Z knows they won’t only be publicly shamed, called out, yelled at and cast out for sharing the “wrong” opinion or thought, but also by simply asking the “wrong” question. Imagine being a teenager, too afraid to raise your hand and ask a question, because it could be met with hostility and outrage.

My most foolish moments are mostly forgotten legends, with likely no photographic or video evidence. This is not the case for Gen Z. They’re surrounded by cameras at all times. Pictures are shared instantly over the internet, videos are sent through social media and text messages are screenshot and posted. There’s no hiding, unless they go into total isolation. It’s no wonder anxiety and loneliness are prevalent, and why Gen Z needs accepting adults to enter into the world of kids.



What if we celebrated trial and error in addition to success? What if we paused to listen and process instead of instantly correcting or instructing? What if we shared our embarrassing failures, both past and present?

We were not created for anxiety, but for peace. There is room for error under the umbrella of God’s grace. It’s about God’s perfection, not mine. In 2 Corinthians 12:9 Paul wrote, “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”

Conviction is not the same as shame, and correction is not the same as canceling. We have the opportunity to offer a place where kids can learn and grow alongside caring adults who can help them cultivate maturity, part of which is learning how to try, fail and try again. Gen Z values authenticity, which means sharing the good and the bad, the ups and the downs, the successes and the failures. We can engage their value for authenticity by modeling authenticity.



We all have different reasons for keeping our phones on the table during a coffee date: business, family, or time-sensitive needs.

When our Gen Z-ers keep their phones on the table, for many, it’s because it’s been drilled into them that if they’re not connected at all times, they’ll miss out. Gen Z is aware there’s always something better happening (or at least they feel like there is). Of course, we’re aware other things are happening in the world, but Gen Z adolescents watch it happen without them. They can see their friends hang out without them or watch an exciting event alone in their bedrooms.

This fear of missing out (FOMO) is a constant fear of making the “wrong decision” about where to be and how to spend one’s time. Marketers prey on this fear, encouraging businesses to utilize FOMO by creating time-sensitive content and deals that vanish. FOMO impedes commitment. Because authenticity (or what we would call integrity) is important to Gen Z-ers, they hesitate to commit knowing another option could arise. Gen Z wants its “Yes” to be “Yes” and “No” to be “No,” but they’re coming of age in a context that tells them they’re constantly making the wrong decision.

FOMO also says: You are not enough. If I sit across the table from you in conversation, and you immediately turn your eyes away with the chime and alert of your phone, you just communicated: there may be something better. You are not enough.



What if we turned off technology and said aloud, “You are the best thing I can do with my time?” What if we taught Gen Z how to look for what God has for us in this moment? What does it look like to have peace despite knowing we are always missing out on something?

When our eyes are always looking for what’s next or what could have been, we’re in danger of missing what God is doing here and now. We can coach the next generation to pause, look up and learn how to hear and see what Father, Son and Spirit are doing at any given moment. What’s the reason the Lord has you here, now, instead of somewhere else? This is a skill, cultivated over time, with the help of someone who has gone before us.

There is so much pressure to make the right and perfect decision. Peace is in the fact that our imperfect decision-making process is in the hands of the perfect God.


The older generations are always given the task to steward the next one — to teach them, prepare them, coach them and speak vision over them. This generation is looking for mentoring. It’s often one of the top criteria in choosing a career. We can show how an active and flourishing relationship with the triune God touches every part of our lives — an authentic, holistic, freedom-giving faith the next generation hungers for. ​

How will we steward Gen Z?

How will we speak vision into them?

Who is in front of you today whom you can mentor?

Tanita Maddox completed her Doctorate of Ministry at Phoenix Seminary. Her thesis was on sharing the gospel with Generation Z.


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