The Struggles of Generation Z and
The Future of North American Mission Organizations
David R. Dunaetz
Published in Global Missiology, www.globalmissiology.org, January 2023
In North America, members of Generation Z (people born since 1995) are facing struggles and obstacles that previous generations have not had to face, resulting in higher rates of depression and suicide and lower levels of life satisfaction. These struggles are likely to have a negative impact on the future generation of missionaries and mission organizations. Psychological struggles due to social media, addiction related to online gaming and pornography, and fragility due to changes in parenting and education have all been amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, these challenges may make North American Generation Z missionaries less effective unless mission structures change to provide the support and accountability necessary to minimize the effects of the new cultural context.
Key Words: education, Gen Z, mission organizations, online addictions, social media
As the Baby Boomers retire, Gen Xers (typically defined as those born between the early, or sometimes mid-, 1960s and about 1980) and Millennials (sometimes called Gen Y, typically defined as those born in the 1980s and early 1990s) have filled most of the leadership positions in North American mission organizations. The transition has gone smoothly and the missions movement has remained stable (Newell, 2017; Zurlo et al., 2021). However, the future is not at all sure. The current generation of North American young adults, Generation Z or iGen, is struggling against several important cultural elements which may severely impact the future of mission organizations (Lukianoff & Haidt, 2018; Twenge, 2017b; Zimbardo & Coulombe, 2016). We know little of how this generation will develop as they grow older, but their present high rates of depression and suicide and the lack of life satisfaction exasperated by the COVID-19 pandemic may foreshadow an ominous future. Mission organizations need to take into account the struggles of Generation Z to effectively provide those called to world evangelization the structures which will enable them to flourish.
Generation Z (Gen Z) is typically described as consisting of those born in 1995 or after (American Psychological Association, 2018; Twenge, 2017a). 1995 was the year the internet became commercially available to most Americans, making Gen Z the first generation to never know life without it. In 2007 the iPhone was introduced, and in 2010 the iPad hit the market. By around 2011, the majority of U.S.-Americans owned smartphones, the year that Gen Z started high school and the year that depression and suicide rates began to soar (Twenge, 2017b; Twenge, Joiner, et al., 2018). By 2015, two-thirds of North American teens had cell phones and checked them on average 80 times per day (Twenge, 2017b). Although it is impossible to prove that the internet and cell phones—especially the resulting access to social media, pornography, and video games—are the cause of the changes in Gen Z, there is an increasing body of longitudinal and experimental evidence that such factors have a causal influence on Gen Z’s well-being (e.g., Midgley, 2019; Sherman et al., 2013). These trends all began before the COVID-19 pandemic, but many have been amplified by the social isolation that has characterized the key developmental years of many members of Generation Z (McCarthy, 2021; Xiang et al., 2020).
The decline in well-being and mental health of Generation Z has been well-documented before the pandemic (Heffer et al., 2019; Twenge, Joiner, et al., 2018; Twenge, Martin, et al., 2018) as well as during it (American Psychological Association, 2020; Czeisler et al., 2020). Three sources of malaise in Gen Z’s environment are present in ways that previous generations have not had to face: social media (especially affecting females), pornography and video games (especially affecting males), and changes in higher education, all amplified by the lockdown and restrictions in face-to-face communication. It is unknown what effect these new cultural elements may have on the future of evangelical mission organizations. Because malaise provides a motivation to change one’s environment, mission organizations have the opportunity not only to form communities that enable Christ-following members of Gen Z to escape the dysfunctions associated with current trends in Western societies but also to provide structures that will make them more effective in their service for Christ.
The studies that provide information about these trends in North America are often based on data from college students, with an over-representation of White and Asian Americans. Conclusions from these studies are simply trends that are occurring across North American culture. They cannot be used to make conclusions about any specific individual or ethnic group. Different ethnic groups are likely to be affected differently by these trends, but few studies have detected meaningful differences. Similarly, young people in different Christian communities will be affected differently by these trends. Because Generation Z is so ethnically diverse, it is likely that new North American mission organizations will arise to focus on mobilizing specific ethnicities (Kim, 2020).
Malaise from Social Media
Generation Z began high school around the same time that smartphones became the norm for North American teenagers. Adolescence has long been recognized as a period of identity formation, primarily through face-to-face interaction with peers (Erikson & Erikson, 1998). However, Generation Z was only spending about half the time in face-to-face communication that teens before 2000 spent, primarily due to their increased time on phone-related activities (social media, gaming, viewing pornography, etc.), which has had a major effect on their identity formation (Twenge, 2017b) and their psychological well-being (Twenge, Joiner, et al., 2018). Once the pandemic began, face-to-face contact with peers was reduced dramatically or even eliminated—with unknown effects on identity formation.
The decrease in psychological well-being is associated with greater use of social media, especially in teenage girls (Heffer et al., 2019; Twenge, Martin, et al., 2018). Social media strongly affects girls’ body image, because they tend to follow the most attractive people on Instagram and other visually-oriented social media platforms. Posts with sexy images receive the most likes, which motivates additional posting (Mascheroni et al., 2015). These patterns result in upward social comparison (Collins, 1996); when people are exposed to others who are superior to them in some salient dimension (e.g., physical attractiveness), their overall self-evaluations tend to decrease, resulting in a general malaise. Upward social comparison occurs not just when viewing attractive people but also when viewing groups of happy people or people doing interesting or fun things. When members of Gen Z are bored or feeling alone, the first response is often to go to social media on their phones, where they are bombarded with images of peers who are with others, happy, and doing interesting things. This phenomenon appears to be one of the main driving forces behind the increases in depressive episodes, suicidal ideation, plans for suicide, suicide attempts, and death by suicide observed in Generation Z compared to Millennials (Duffy et al., 2019; Twenge et al., 2019).
Generation Z is not only characterized by greater psychological difficulties but also by a lower level of life satisfaction and happiness. In a major study of happiness in Generation Z, lower levels of happiness were associated with greater time spent on a wide range of phone activities: listening to music, internet surfing, computer gaming, use of social media, spending leisure time alone, texting, video chat, talking on the phone, and reading internet news (Twenge, 2019; Twenge, Joiner, et al., 2018). In contrast, greater participation in almost all of the non-phone activities that were measured—including sleeping, exercise and sports, face-to-face social interaction, volunteer work, going to the movies, attending church, reading print media, and doing homework—predicted higher levels of happiness.
Social media and smartphone use also seem to be adversely affecting the moral and theological values of Generation Z. Although members of Generation Z are having less premarital sex, participating in fewer dating activities, and drinking less than previous generations, most likely due to more time spent on the internet and less time spent in face-to-face activities (Twenge & Park, 2019; Twenge et al., 2017a, 2017b), they are far more tolerant of homosexuality and other alternate forms of sexual expression than previous generations (Twenge et al., 2016, 2017a). Similarly, members of Generation Z are less religious and less spiritual than previous generations, attending fewer religious services and spending less time praying (Twenge et al., 2015). However, these decreases in church attendance are much smaller in evangelical churches compared to mainline churches, and church attendance continues to be a predictor of psychological well-being (Twenge et al., 2015; Twenge, Joiner, et al., 2018).
Contributing factors to this decline in moral and religious values include the fear of online bullying (Kowalski et al., 2014) and the “mum effect” (Dunaetz, 2019). The mum effect describes the human reluctance to share bad news with others; it is often easier to remain mum than to share something disagreeable with others, even if it is in the others’ interests to know that information (Dibble, 2017; Tesser & Rosen, 1972). For Christians, although the gospel is good news for those who believe, for those who do not believe it can be viewed as bad news (2 Cor. 2:15-16). People are hesitant to share bad news for a variety of reasons, including not wanting to hurt or offend the listener, not wanting to be judged by the listener, and not wanting to feel bad about the listener’s response. Such hesitancy occurs in both face-to-face conversations and online. The online mum effect can be especially strong because of cyberbullying (Kowalski et al., 2014): anonymously attacking, sometimes viciously, someone who has posted an opinion or belief that is not shared by the attacker. Those who spend the most time online (Generation Z) are the most susceptible to this phenomenon and thus often strive to avoid posting anything controversial, even anonymously. Generation Z Christians may take on a non-Christian persona (but not anti-Christian) or avoid any mention of being a Christian or of Christian values in order to avoid cyberbullying; living out such an identity online is likely to weaken their faith and their moral behavior in daily living that involves actual, non-virtual interactions with people.
Addiction to Video Games and Pornography
Generation Z spent about six hours a day online before the pandemic, roughly divided equally between social media, gaming, and internet use (including the use of pornography; Twenge, 2017, p. 64). Whereas young women are primarily affected negatively by social media, young men tend to experience more negative effects from gaming and pornography (Zimbardo & Coulombe, 2016). Generation Z’s passion for gaming can be partially understood through Yee’s (2006) taxonomy of motivations for playing online games, which includes three overarching components: achievement, social, and immersion.
The need for achievement is linked to Generation Z’s desire for meaning and value (Deleuze et al., 2019). By mastering the various levels of online games, young men experience feelings of success and victory. Such successes and victories, unlike the successes and victories in real life, are not especially costly, apart from the time and subscriptions required to master the necessary techniques. Nevertheless, they provide a sense of having achieved something great, even when the participant has not achieved anything of value in real life (Zimbardo & Coulombe, 2016). Similarly, social needs can be met with little cost through online gaming. Cooperation, camaraderie, reputation, and dialog about felt concerns are all available in online gaming. However, if any relationship becomes costly or undesirable, leaving the community is easy and generally has no long-term consequences in the real world. The third motive for gaming, immersion, tends to be even more problematic. Immersion occurs when one loses one’s sense of self to discover new worlds, experience new and pleasurable phenomena, and escape from the stresses of real life. This motive is also closely associated with the use of pornography. Gaming and pornography may help relieve the stress caused by failures, boredom, loneliness, or sexual desires; however, such gratification occurs at the cost of productivity and the development of lasting relationships.
In addition to limiting productive work and the development of healthy relationships, gaming and pornography may both become addictive (Gorelik, 2019; Love et al., 2015; Schüll, 2014). Because human beings, made in the image of God, are innately social, social needs drive humans to make social connections. Both online games and pornography are designed to exploit these social needs. By providing periodically rewarding experiences, bodies and brains become accustomed to the pleasure associated with dopamine rushes triggered by the stimuli provided online. The sought-after stimuli may be difficult or at least challenging to find, motivating the individual to continue to pursue the goal and providing a greater sense of satisfaction when it is achieved, contributing to its addictive nature.
Although the concept of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) is often used to design work so that it becomes more engaging, the same conditions that make people lose themselves in productive work also cause people to fall into the machine zone (Schüll, 2014): the unthinking state where all problems are forgotten and only what appears on the screen matters. Both flow and the machine zone occur when four conditions are met (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002): Each moment has a goal, the rules for making choices about how to achieve the goal are clear, immediate feedback provides information concerning how close one is to achieving the goal, and the difficulty of achieving the goals is matched by one’s skill level, resulting in a challenge that is not beyond one’s ability. Online activities provide exactly these conditions, resulting in total mental absorption where the participant has no sense of time, financial context, social standing, responsibility, or even existence (Schüll, 2014).
Several factors make Generation Z especially susceptible to the dangers of video game and pornography addiction (Zimbardo & Coulombe, 2016): increased fatherlessness (which makes long-term relationships less attractive), cultural changes that encourage impulsiveness (information is obtained by clicking around until one finds it rather than by in-depth reading and analysis), fewer social skills (due to less time spent in face-to-face interactions), and increased availability of games and pornography (because few adolescents have adequate supervision to limit the time spent on their phones or the content viewed). These conditions may have a significant impact on Generation Z as they begin joining mission organizations. Those who are addicted to these online activities will have limited spiritual resources at their disposal to aid them in fulfilling the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20, Rom. 8:5-8). Moreover, even those who are not addicted may feel the temptation to escape the immense pressures of cross-cultural stress through online activities.
Fragility from Overprotection
Compared to their Millennial elders, members of Generation Z are far more concerned about safety and risk reduction. They receive fewer traffic tickets, have fewer auto accidents, get into fewer fights, date less, and have fewer sexual experiences (Twenge, 2017b; Twenge & Park, 2019; Twenge et al., 2017b). Part of these changes is due simply to spending less face-to-face time with others, but part is due to changes in education, both from parents and colleges.
Safety and Risk-Taking
Human beings have been described as anti-fragile (Taleb, 2012). Rather than becoming weaker from stress, humans grow emotionally and socially from stress, developing skills enabling them to better deal with future difficulties (this should be all the more true for Christians, in whom God uses trials to shape character; James 1:2-8). However, members of Generation Z have been raised by parents who often desire to protect them from any unpleasant experiences; then they attend colleges that also seek to protect them from stressful ideas and situations (Lukianoff & Haidt, 2018).
Compared to previous generations, Generation Z has grown up with a greater degree of helicopter parenting (LeMoyne & Buchanan, 2011), a parenting style in which parents constantly watch over children and their environment, ready to intervene to prevent any adversity from threatening their children’s well-being. This safety-seeking, along with the rugrat race (Ramey & Ramey, 2009)—the pressure from parents for a child’s academic success to ensure admission to a highly ranked college—significantly reduced Generation Z’s unstructured time in childhood (Lukianoff & Haidt, 2018). Such over-protection may have led to greater anxiety and the inability to adapt to new situations (Gray, 2011), making missionary service more difficult for Generation Z.
Reliance on receiving news from social media and other online sources has led to an amplification of the dangers that exist around us. Since humans have a tendency to focus on dangers and threats (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979; Kermer et al., 2006), news headlines are often written to instill fear and maximize the likelihood of being clicked on (Altheide, 2013). This phenomenon causes people to be overexposed to negative, fear-generating events relative to positive events, amplifying the perception of danger when one interacts with people face-to-face (Intravia et al., 2017), increasing Generation Z’s hesitation to take risks. Adolescents who were quarantined (either by government regulation, parental choice, or personal choice) during the pandemic had significantly higher levels of worry, helplessness, and fear than those who were not quarantined (Saurabh & Ranjan, 2020).
Also contributing to a desire for safety and an unwillingness to take risks is the development of call-out culture, the willingness of members of an online community to publicly shame others in the community who express ideas that may be interpreted as offensive (Huffman, 2016). This condemnation tends to occur in public online posts in response to something the supposed offender has posted; the focus is on judgment with little emphasis placed on trying to understand the context of the post or understanding the author’s intentions (Tucker, 2018). Since such a large part of Generation Z’s life is online, call-out culture creates a general feeling of danger, where one false step can bring about public shaming that risks going viral (Lukianoff & Haidt, 2018). This threat amplifies the mum effect (the tendency to avoid sharing bad news because of the negative consequences), an effect that may discourage Generation Z from openly discussing their faith online.
Because professors and administrators are sensitive to the devastation that being public critiqued can bring both to them and to their students, there is less emphasis in classrooms on discussion and debating ideas in Generation Z’s university classes, with a shift towards focusing on emotions rather than on determining what is true. This shift can especially be seen in the emphasis in higher education on the perceived danger of microaggressions (Lilienfeld, 2017; Sue et al., 2007). Although the pain that people experience when someone says something insensitive is real, an emphasis on focusing on and reporting microaggressions—specifically, beliefs that an aggression has occurred based on one’s feelings rather than on the speaker’s intentions within the context of the discussion—encourages cognitive distortions rather than critical thinking, which would instead involve basing one’s beliefs and conclusions on the evidence rather than one’s emotions.
This emphasis in higher education on emotional responses to what others say encourages misperceptions of intentions, anger, resentment, and feelings of victimization. Students are encouraged to develop an external locus of control (in contrast to an internal locus of control)—specifically, the belief that they cannot control the outcomes of these events because the outcomes are determined by forces external to themselves (Hiroto, 1974; Lukianoff & Haidt, 2018). Such beliefs will likely make members of Generation Z less sure than previous generations that they can have a positive impact on the world around them, a conviction that is essential for future missionaries.
Us Versus Them
In North America, Generation Z, compared to previous generations, is more concerned about making a living compared to developing a philosophy of life and living consistently with it (Twenge, 2017b; Twenge et al., 2012). Materialism and owning many possessions have become more attractive, perhaps due to increased exposure to advertising and decreased exposure to ideas and people who believe that living consistently with a set of values is important. Social media use is positively correlated with materialism, especially a desire for luxury items (Kamal et al., 2013). Although social media users often express concern for social issues, much of that concern may simply be an attempt to get more likes through virtue signaling (Orlitzky, 2017).
Without a coherent philosophy of life, there is an increased emphasis on identity, whether it be ethnic, social class, or political. Whereas previous generations were encouraged to view all human beings as of equal worth, either because they were created in God’s image or bound together by a common humanity, the tendency for members of Generation Z is to view themselves primarily in terms of group membership. The echo chamber of social media prevents users from hearing views held by members of other groups, making the most extreme views seem the most reasonable and cooperation with members of one’s outgroup for the common good nearly impossible (Gross & De Dreu, 2019). The phenomena of ingroup favoritism (Balliet et al., 2014) and outgroup derogation (Branscombe & Wann, 1994) are pushing Generation Z to view the world as “us versus them” or “the good guys versus the bad guys.”
This shift away from a coherent philosophy of life will make it more difficult for Generation Z to forsake material well-being to reach the unreached for Christ. Not only will the threat of a lower standard of living discourage people from moving to developing nations, but an emphasis on one’s own group’s values will make cultural adaptation more difficult as the unique aspects of the host culture that Generation Z missionaries will move into will seem less valid.
Responding to Generation Z’s Struggles
The next generation of North American missionaries is facing significant challenges. Assuming a global scope of many of Gen Zers’ characteristics and influences on them, the next generation of missionaries sent from other contexts will also need to overcome ominous obstacles. Social media-related struggles with psychological stability and well-being, addictions and compulsions linked with video gaming and pornography, and emotional fragility associated with changes in education, all amplified by the pandemic, stand to make it more difficult for Generation Z to be successful servants of Christ in cross-cultural settings. Mission organizations must adapt to maximize the stability and success of those who choose to serve the Lord in the most challenging locations.
One of the most promising approaches to meet Generation Z’s needs is greater social support and accountability through missionary teams (Dunaetz, 2010; Thom et al., 2020). Single-sex support groups that meet regularly can help provide the stability, accountability, and focus to minimize the likelihood of succumbing to the challenges and obstacles that the missionaries will face. To minimize the possibility of destructive conflict, such groups, if possible, should be in addition to and different from ministry teams focused on accomplishing tasks. Mission organizations can also organize these support and accountability teams for groups of appointees before they leave for the field, perhaps with virtual meetings if face-to-face meetings are not possible. The development of Zoom and other video conferencing tools during the pandemic has made virtual meetings possible for everyone. On the field, missionaries should meet regularly with others in the region for support and accountability, either personally or through video conferencing. Team leaders should be trained in effective group dynamics to ensure that such teams are viewed positively and that the necessary trust develops.
Although the challenges facing Generation Z missionaries are daunting, providing the appropriate structure for developing a healthy missionary community can make missionary success more likely. Such initiatives will require creativity and flexibility—characteristics, after all, of any successful mission organization.
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