How to Feed Gen Z’s Hunger for Jesus

Reprinting copy @ TGC, 2023


God’s Spirit is moving in the hearts and minds of Gen Z. College ministries and churches across the country have seen the impossible become reality: weekly gatherings and small groups bursting at the seams. In less than a year, our college ministry’s weekly attendance doubled in size. It seems to us the Holy Spirit is priming young adults to be more spiritually hungry than previous generations.

Our awareness of these generational hungers led us to recalibrate how we evangelize and disciple Gen Z. While those efforts cannot entirely account for the spiritual renewal we’re seeing—that’s God’s work, after all—we want to suggest five ministry practices that can help churches and college ministries reach America’s second-youngest generation.

  1. Preach repentance and forgiveness as a way of life.

Gen Z is hungry for transparency in a plastic, digitally perfected world. But honesty creates tremendous risk. What if I’m excluded? What if people don’t like me? What if I’m too much? The gospel creates an environment where honesty about our imperfection doesn’t exclude the possibility of acceptance. In fact, as Tim Keller wrote in The Meaning of Marriage, “The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”

This is why our sermons emphasize repentance and forgiveness not as a one-time event but as a way of life. On the one hand, the lifelong call to repentance reminds Gen Z they aren’t perfect and they’ve been invited by God to honestly confess their sins in community. On the other hand, the promise of definitive forgiveness communicates that no sins exclude us from either divine or human communion.

Rather than skirting around difficult issues plaguing Gen Z like sex, sexuality, gender, and addiction—which can perpetuate cycles of hiddenness and shame—we must affirm the goodness of corporate confession and absolution as an ongoing part of lifelong sanctification. What John wrote must be felt in all our sermons: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

  1. Emphasize belonging.

Gen Z—exhausted by the vacuousness and isolation of online individualism—is hungry to be part of something bigger. They long not merely for an individual sense of purpose but for a communal purpose rooted in a deep feeling of belonging.

The problem for most churches isn’t that they offer too much belonging (e.g., inappropriately inviting non-Christians to be members, take the sacraments, or teach) but that they offer too little. Not infrequently, churches create barriers by requiring belief before belonging. Moreover, they create too few spaces for belonging to develop. This is why, at our church, we plan more socials than we care to count, and we host weekend relational intensives—retreats, trips—to help Gen Z students connect. It’s why we challenge leaders and members to meet new people and make sure they never sit alone.

For the last year, we’ve repeated “You belong here” more times than we can count. We say it in sermons. We emphasize it in small groups. We make signs and take them on campus. When students show up, we greet them with those words and remind them that their longing to join a cause and do good in the world can only be satisfied by the King of justice, goodness, truth, and beauty.

Most of the conversions we’ve seen came about not because people believed the gospel and then found their place in our community. The inverse is true: they belonged with us, saw how we lived, wanted the gospel to be true, and then found out it really is.

  1. Practice extravagant hospitality in church and at home.

Talking about belonging isn’t enough. Churches must be over-the-top hospitable to Gen Z. For us, this means that from the first time a college student enters our doors to the day he or she moves away, we’re extravagantly and intentionally hospitable. We smile when we greet people. We learn their names. We immediately connect them with insiders. We follow up after they leave. We let them know we miss them if they haven’t shown up for a while. We train leaders to invite students into their homes for meals.

After spending over a year isolated during a global lockdown, Gen Z is hungry for the hospitality Jesus showed to sinners, disciples, and Pharisees alike. His ministry was a movable feast, breaking cultural norms—ask the woman who cleaned his feet with her tears—so he could communicate a deep truth through action: God wants you at his table too.

Churches need to encourage and empower older generations to own this mission. Gen Z doesn’t just want a free meal; they want mentoring relationships. Older saints must be challenged not to simply retire but to use their freed-up time to pass down the good deposit of the gospel to future generations. This can happen formally through mentoring programs or by encouraging older church members to lead small groups for young people. But it can also happen informally on Sunday morning, at coffee meetups, or through an invitation to lunch.

  1. Embrace expressive, participatory worship.

We want to urge caution. There will be voices claiming a certain style of music, liturgy, or lighting is what Gen Z wants. The truth, of course, is that Gen Z is diverse. Some will be drawn to low churches and others to high churches. Some will scoff at haze and lights and some will seek it. Some will want traditional instruments and voices, while others desire booming guitars and drums. From what we’ve seen, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all Gen Z worship service.

But there’s one consistent theme we’ve seen across traditions: Gen Z doesn’t want to stand on the sidelines in worship. They want to learn the songs and sing them out. They want to use their bodies—whether that means raising hands or kneeling. They want to pray and meet God in their hearts and in the congregation. They want to express what they’ve learned to be true: Jesus is King. They want to be aware of the people around them. They aren’t singing alone to Jesus. They’re singing to their people, with their people.

Depending on your tradition, your worship service may seem passive to the average Gen Z attendee. Whether it’s “special music” that feels like a performance, stationary bodies, or timid singing—they all communicate to Gen Z that you may not really believe what you say you believe. So don’t think of your worship service as a product for passive consumption but as a corporate act of intergenerational involvement. Invite everyone in the space to give themselves to worship, and allow Gen Z’s zeal for the Lord to encourage the hearts of worshipers younger and older than themselves. The local church is at its best when older people and younger people encourage one another by their worship

The good news is that this can be done in churches with rigid liturgies or looser liturgies, higher traditions or lower traditions, guitars or organs. But it will often mean challenging older congregants to stretch outside their comfort zone or at least not object to those who worship more expressively.


  1. Revitalize the priesthood of all believers.

Gen Z is full of young people who want to build and lead. They’re attracted to influencers for good and bad reasons. At best, it’s not because they want fame—it’s because they want to influence their world. They want to do something that matters. And rather than being cynical about institutions or deconstructing them, Gen Z may be the generation that rebuilds them. They want to be engaged in the positive project of construction and renewal. They are hungry to be on mission.

This is why we’ve tried to resist the tendency to have paid staff doing all the ministry and making all the decisions. Instead, we invite Gen Z into the war room. We challenge them to lead their peers, and we seek their input on important decisions. As much as possible, we try to give them the keys to ministry and free them to drive the car.

Of course, this produces its fair share of accidents and problems, but if we truly believe what Peter wrote—we’re a kingdom of priests (1 Pet. 2:9; Ex. 19:6)—then it’s imperative to act on it.

Keep Jesus at the Center

None of the above points is a brand-new insight. Each is rooted in an ancient tradition of the church. But this shouldn’t surprise us. Gen Z lives in the radioactive fallout left behind by the Enlightenment. The blasted landscape tells a story: God is absent or aloof, and the self is the only tenable God-substitute. This environment is hostile to life, leaving everyone (but especially the young) hungry for spiritual vitality. The nuclear desert begs to become a garden once more.

Around them are the crumbling ruins of the church. They can see that great buildings, sweeping pastures, luxuriant trees, and lush farmland once stood here. So they feel the dissonance—Why am I eating spiritual junk food in a commodified digital dystopia when something better exists?

Hunger demands to be fed. It points to the undeniable fact that it can be fed. Gen Z senses, whether or not they can find the words to say it, that they were made to eat real food, to live in real community, to cultivate real beauty, to know the real Spirit, to glorify the real God, and to enjoy the real Savior forever.

So if everything above feels like a return to the old, deeper, truer ways, that’s because it is. It’s a return to Jesus at the center of life: Jesus as the One who hears confession and forgives; the One who rescues a people and unites them to himself; the One who deserves our exuberant worship and praise; the One who calls us to mission and empowers us with his grace.

The Spirit is moving. It’s our prayer that older generations will see it as their joyful calling to set aside their interests, preferences, wealth, and time to join that movement.

Kyle Richter (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is a pastor at The Crossing and codirector of Veritas, The Crossing’s college ministry. He and his wife, Noelle, have three kids and live in Columbia, Missouri.

Patrick Miller (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is a pastor at The Crossing. He offers cultural commentary and interviews with leading Christian thinkers on the podcast Truth over Tribe and is the coauthor of Truth over Tribe: Pledging Allegiance to the Lamb, Not the Donkey or the Elephant. He is married to Emily and they have two kids.