Ministering to Gen Z in the Immigrant Church
James H. Lee | OCTOBER 30, 2018 | 10 MIN READ
Gen Z students have taken over the local church’s youth group, so it stands that the church should learn about their distinctive characteristics and minister to them accordingly. Unfortunately in the immigrant church, this task is often more daunting thanks to cultural, theological and practical complexities unique to such context.
In addition to generational differences experienced by mainstream churches, the immigrant church context is complicated by cultural, practical and theological bipolarization. The parent generation and the youth are often so distinctively different in several significant and interconnected areas of life that they end up resenting each other rather than trying to understand each other.
What are the primary issues that persons of Generation Z go through at an immigrant church, and why is it so? How can youth workers and parents walk with this generation constructively for the sake of the Gospel?
East Asian Confucian culture and Americanized western culture value two opposing sets of virtues. The former emphasizes harmony, balance, humility, and collectivity. The latter values individuality, creativity, passion, and freedom. Generation Z is pulled simultaneously to these opposite directions by their families at one end and the rest of the society at the other.
Moreover, many Asian American families continue to have a language barrier. Even as we are seeing 3rd and even 4th generation Asian Americans, our churches are still full of immigrant families made of 1st and 2nd generations who cannot communicate well with each other.
Consequently, many young people of Generation Z face double communication barriers. First, they do not speak the same language as their parents do. Secondly, as the first fully digitized generation, they use different modes of communication (texting, DMs, memes, etc.) of which their parents are unaware or even vilify.
The lack of English proficiency for the parent generation means that some Generation Z children grow up forced to play roles of adults in the household. For instance, many teenagers have experienced calling credit card companies or mobile service providers on behalf of their parents.
To a 15-year old, such flipping of the roles is polarizing because it can makes them feel embarrassed, because her parents cannot take care of themselves, and entitled, because she is the only person who can do certain tasks for the family.
On the other hand, the parent can feel incapable because he knows that his own child is doing something that he should be doing. And when the child takes up an entitled attitude, the feeling of unworthiness can become anger. The practical role flipping pits the parent and the child against one another.
The differing experiences of the parent generation and the child generation in the immigrant church lead to their have conflicting values when it comes to theological issues.
The hot issue of Generation Z is gender identity. This generation is by far the most accepting of varying sexual spectrum. To this generation, such diversity is normal and we should accept them all. For the typical immigrant parents however, such diversity is nonsensical at the least. To them, there are only two genders, male and female, and a sexual relationship is only allowed in a heterosexual marriage.
The parent generation focuses more on the need to theologize about blessings and divine provision because their immigrant lives was so financially unstable. Generation Z rejects that theology because they are entrepreneurial and focused on future success. They don’t want money from God, and they want to make their own money.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR YOUTH WORKERS
God bless you youth pastors and volunteers at immigrant churches. As a youth pastor-turned-college-pastor at an immigrant church, I appreciate and applaud the courage you have and the sacrifice you are making. Here is some advice I hope you find helpful to serve your Gen Z students well:
1. Use social media to minister to the students but also communicate to parents constantly in good old face-to-face interaction or phone calls
Young people of this generation really come alive in the cyberspace. Who they are on Instagram may be closer to who they actually are, and tough conversations can be started and continued through text.
But do the opposite for their parents. Take retreat registrations on paper only. Call them personally and invite them to parent meetings. When they come, shake their hands, make eye contact and smile. It’s OK even if you don’t speak their language. Your posture and gestures will communicate a lot to them.
2. Be relatable to your students by being open and honest but also earn trust from the immigrant church leadership and parents by showing up to their things
Notice I am not saying “be relevant.” You don’t need to know BTS songs by heart (though it would help). But you need to be genuine. Show them you care, and be slow to correct. Let them know that you have an open mind. Gen Z thrives on diversity, and they will appreciate their pastor/teacher doing the same or at least wanting to do the same for their sake.
But don’t forget to go to morning prayers, staff lunches, and deacon meetings too. Do that for a year or two. Know that the immigrant adult ministry people are not crazy or evil. Be humble.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR PARENTS
As a child of two immigrants with a Gen Z child of my own, I personally thank you parents for all the sacrifice you make for your kids. I know that I would not be who I am today without the prayers and tears of my parents. I hope you find the following suggestions helpful:
1. Don’t stop communicating with your children
Whether or not you have a language barrier, it is important to talk to your children. Whether it’s in your native tongue, broken English, or a combination of both, your kids need to know that you care for them. It will strengthen your family dynamic for the better.
2. See your own faith practices though the lenses of your children’s faith
Gen Z’s strong entrepreneurial tendency and love of diversity means that your children want to speak to you theologically on an equal playing field, even at a young age.
Talk to your children about gender identity. Don’t try to teach, but listen. Text if that feels more comfortable for them. You can follow their Instagrams or Snapchats but ask for permission in person first, but do this after you are ready to relate to her rather than supervise her.
3. Know that your youth pastor/workers are under extra burden with less support
Immigrant churches often are unable to pay their staff as much as multicultural or mainline churches do. Yet pastors and volunteers must navigate through extra-complicated situations as described above.
Youth pastors and directors also don’t get much respect in the immigrant church hierarchy. So please support them. Pray for them. Fight for their causes. Forgive mistakes made. Coach them up gently so they can earn the adult ministry’s trust. Treat the youth ministry staff to lunch. Bring coffee for them. Write them Christmas cards.
FOR THE GLORY OF GOD’S KINGDOM
With all of its challenges, the immigrant church is important and beautiful. It uniquely offers the potential for wide and deep generational forgiveness and healing reminiscent of those of the early church. Heaven rejoices when two or more generations from different experiences and perspectives come together overcoming cultural, practical and theological barriers. Unity in diversity is a core characteristic of God’s church after all.
Moreover, ministering to Gen Z and their parents well strengthens the foundation for the future of the Asian American church. Asians are the largest immigrant group to the United States, and that Asian Americans are the fastest growing people group in the country. This growth means that the challenges between Generation Z and their immigrant parents will continue to exist for a while. Helping them to love Christ and one another will be then a key task for the health of the Asian American church in the coming generation.
Finally, as more Asian Americans become better integrated to the larger American society - Asian American followers of Jesus will exercise greater influence in spheres beyond the walls of their local churches. Ministry to Generation Z in the immigrant context hence has implications for the Kingdom of our God, whose sovereignty rules over every square inch of the entire world. May He richly bless and use our immigrant churches, their young people, parents, pastors and teachers for the glory of His Kingdom.
James H. Lee is a pastor at Young Nak Church in Los Angeles. He is the happy husband to Hannah and blessed father of Abigail. He is also a proud only child of two hard-working immigrant parents. He loves reading theology, listening to rap and taking naps.