Book Review of Engaging Generation Z

McKnight, Tim. Engaging Generation Z: Raising the Bar for Youth Ministry. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2021.

General Overview

            Tim McKnight wrote the American church has failed to develop Christian teenagers because the youth ministry approaches of the church have been the wrong match (20). The statistics of teenagers leaving the church means that the church has not successfully made disciples of teenagers using its methods of youth ministry. Furthermore, he noted that even after about a decade of adjusting church ministries to be more family oriented the situation has not changed (20). Teenagers are still leaving the church. He suggested this is because the church treats teenagers like children in need of a nursery instead of burgeoning disciples that need mobilizing (21).

According to McKnight, the American church must adapt to a new method of youth ministry, but he also suggests that youth ministers are not the solution. Many youth ministers learn how to do ministry from other youth ministers (22). He suggests an outward look. He begins by overviewing generation Z (Gen Z) and their characteristics. This new generation is very technologically based and is post-Christian (31-32). They hold to tolerance as their metic for spiritual pluralism (37). They struggle with their mental and emotional health (40). They struggle with identity (40-41). Specifically, McKnight referred to their sexual identity and their physical identity versus virtual identity. They are ethnically diverse (41). They are maturing too slow and too fast at the same time (42). Gen Z matures very slowly, but they are exposed to more at an earlier age. They are the largest generation in American history, and they are entrepreneurial (44). 

            McKnight leveled some of the blame on the church for their lack of faith and expectation that God will move through Gen Z (50-51). Many pastors want to reach their community with the gospel, but they do not have a genuine expectation that it will happen. He believes the youth ministry should use the modern missional approach to its local context, teaching teenagers to be missionary-minded to their local peers (51). Additionally, he suggests an integrated ministry model between student ministry and parents (55). This two-sided approach uses both the efforts of the church and the family to work together for evangelization of Gen Z and discipleship.

McKnight noted a hindrance to seeing success in youth ministry is existence of adolescence in American culture (57). McKnight argued there is no biblical foundation for adolescence. He argued for only three stages of life according to Scripture: childhood, young adulthood, and senior adulthood (59). He further leveled the cultural concept of adolescence undermines the Christian understanding of human development because if causes teenagers to put off adulthood (62).

            His solution is to disciple and mobilize students for ministry. He gave some historical references as examples of teenage people starting great Christian movements (67-75). Young teenagers initiated every major revival or awakening in modern history. This is still possible today if the youth are properly equipped and discipled. He contrasted the era of great awakenings to the era of youth ministry in the later 1900’s where youth ministries became segregated from the church, and the goal was to grow the youth ministry as a large as possible through fun events and programming (78). However, it was during this time that the Jesus Movement happened. The churches continued to educate teenagers through Sunday School while parachurch ministries focused on evangelism. He wrote, “Any historic movement, particularly one where God’s hand has been at work, provides a laboratory for the contemporary church to discover how biblical principles are worked out in the context of a given generation.

            A result of the Jesus movement was the mega church and church growth movement. Part of the Jesus movement was the large crowds gathered for revival services. This resulted in many churches become in forerunners of similar growth. According to McKnight, the local churches began modeling the youth ministry of the church after the parachurch ministries to have the same kind of growth and numbers (86). This is why the youth ministry became segregated within the church because it was functioning as a separate entity much like a parachurch organization. He argued that a separated youth ministry has become destructive for the discipleship of teenage Christians (88).

            In Part two, McKnight shifted his focus from why youth ministry is unhealthy to what youth ministry should become. He’s used three words to summarize his arguments: orthodoxy, orthopathy, and orthopraxy. He began with orthodoxy which is the robust intake of Scripture for both the youth pastor and the teenagers (97-98). Furthermore, the small groups of the church must be healthy and vibrant because they teach well and teach Scripture deeply (104-106). According to McKnight, this is the greatest indicator if a student will be a Jesus follower after high school because of their love for Scripture. 

            Orthopathy is developing the right feelings and affections for God (110). Teenagers need to develop a love for God and a desire to know him more. McKnight believed that the best way to develop these affections for God is through the spiritual disciplines (111). A youth ministry that focuses on the spiritual disciplines will develop students that have a strong relationship with God. Orthopathy leads to orthopraxy. 

            For making disciples, the church must also mobilize students to be missionary minded (124). This does mean in their local context, but they should also be on mission outside of their context. Being involved in both the local and global mission of God, students get a better understanding of God’s mission for the world and how they can be a part of it. The consistency of sharing their faith with others will reaffirm their spiritual identity and develop their own discipleship as proper evangelism naturally leads to discipleship. An evangelizing Christian will have a stronger faith than a non-evangelizing Christian because they have to internalize the gospel.

Strengths and Weaknesses

            McKnight’s greatest strength is his argument for getting away from the parachurch model of the Jesus Movement and back to a disciple-making model. The parachurch model sought to gather as many teenagers as possible for worship events that focused on the experiential elements of worship. His contrast of the educational model of the church during that time and the evangelistic approach of the parachurch ministries was very helpful. The church as not seeking to add to its numbers, because at that time church was still a social center of American culture. They simply wanted to educate teenagers about the Bible not thinking they would leave the faith later in life. The parachurch ministries accentuated that many of these teenagers did not have a vibrant relationship with Jesus only intellectual knowledge of Jesus. 

            His assessment of the Jesus movement youth groups led him to a model of student ministry that is more transformational. He argued that it resembles the early, biblical church more closely. Like Sunday school, the church should use small groups to achieve this goal. Small groups that do not only educate about Scripture but also disciple teenagers towards transformation. These teenagers then go out into their community for evangelism. There is still a place for evangelistic events such as the parachurch ministries of the Jesus Movement, but they should be less emotionally driven. The evangelistic events cannot replace the evangelism of students but should work in harmony.

            The students who convert to Christianity then go into these small groups for transformation as well. In these small groups, the church teaches the biblical disciplines in these small groups. As part of Bible reading and study, the disciple maker imparts theology and understanding to the others in the group. This slow and steady method of discipleship is more reliable than the fast growth of events. McKnight gave many different methods and ways to carry out these tasks.

            Two additional good resources from this book are how a youth pastor can relate to the parents and to the other staff at the church. He advocated for the integrated family ministry model. In this model the youth ministry and the parents work together for the discipleship of the teenagers (155). The church should equip parents to disciple their children not segregate parents and children. He argued Generation Z wants more meaningful time with their parents (158). The youth ministry must exist for the teenagers whose parents are not believers, but the youth ministry can partner with parents. The parents need to develop stronger relationships with their children, but resourcing and confirming what the Christian parents teach at home. Youth ministry also acts as a place for involving significant adults that act as role models for Christian teenagers (168).

            The youth pastor engages with the other staff at his church for a concerted effort for discipling children and teenagers. The church ministries should work together not separated (171). For the youth pastor to be able to make important changes to the student ministry for disciple-making, there needs to be some expectation management. The lead pastor needs to support the youth pastors by guiding them, directing them, and giving them the opportunity to make critical changes (174). By working in tandem, the youth pastor will grow and mature as and pastor, and the lead pastor will be shepherd the people of the church. 

Contribution to Youth Ministry

            McKnight’s assessment that youth ministry as currently practiced in many churches is no longer working is very accurate. Even his comment that after ten years of family integrated ministry has not made a difference is poignant. By surveying the historical movements of revivals, awakenings, and the latest Jesus Movement he presented a solid case that many churches provide a youth ministry that was designed for a different era of ministry and is no longer relevant. The church must change its tactic.

            McKnight’s argument for a discipleship driven youth ministry. This method focuses on transformation through spiritual disciplines and discipleship efforts. The focus of small groups for churches giving space for in depth Bible study and open discussion is the future of youth ministry in America. Churches must raise the expectations for these young disciples to become evangelists and disciple makers of their peers. Using students to reach other students is like a missionary teaching indigenous people how to share the gospel.

            McKnight’s book is very practical in nature after chapter six. This could be a great resource for youth pastors looking for content to train their leaders in how to make disciples and lead small groups. Many of these chapters are so practical that a volunteer could easily use this book as training to prepare for how to lead a small group.