Gen Z Series: Pastors Need to Build Relationships with Young Believers and Cultivate Church Culture

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By Steve Sun January 13th, 2023

Pastor Cao Qien and Brother Liang Weibin (pseudonym), from South China, shared their pastoral experiences on how the church can better reach and shepherd Gen Z  with the Christian Times, an online Christian newspaper in China.

Christian Times: What do you think of the personality and characteristics of Gen Z? What is the primary difficulty for the church in reaching them?

Liang Weibin: It's truly difficult to shepherd Gen Z. For me, the difficulties I've experienced in pastoring them were that I did not know how to communicate with them and understand their thoughts well. For example, the method of witnessing that I have found effective doesn’t seem to attract them much. I entrusted them with something to do, and they may dismiss it immediately as ineffective. No matter how hard I asked them to try, they rejected to do so. It’s hard for pastors to promote ministries and communicate with them.

I also faced challenges in teaching them the truth of faith. If they held a view different from yours, it would be very difficult for them to accept your teachings. When I tried to tell them the way of truth, they may listen or not listen. They liked to argue and debate with me very openly, and sometimes I felt I was not respected. They are very individualistic, and I am greatly challenged in pastoring them. 

Christian Times: How did you establish a relationship of trust with them?

Liang Weibin: We can divide Gen Z into two groups: unbelievers or seekers and believers. To shepherd them, I believe that we should both invite them in and go out to them. The traditional way of doing youth ministry is to invite young believers to churches and small groups. Besides, I also want to go out and preach the Gospel to them, which is a part of the Great Commission.

I started to minister the Gen Z in 2015 through English corner. We invited foreign friends to come and communicate with them, and many young people were attracted to attend our activities. We also invited them to have a meal together whenever there was an opportunity. During the meal, we prayed and let them know about our faith. Those who were interested were later invited to a group and finally came to worship in church.

For unbelievers, we must have a common hobby with them, such as English corner, music, or playing guitar. Through these hobbies, they can trust us easier, and then we can invite them to church. This is a successful practice.

However, one difficulty of pastoring second-generation Christians is that they have preconceived judgments and impressions. For some of them, their parents are pastors, and they have a prejudice against the church because they grew up in it and have noticed many problems. Negative incidents may have shattered their faith. They may have a very persistent, negative perspective on the church.

I invited them to eat together every week after their group is finished. Sometimes they were busy with their studies and can't come regularly to the monthly church meal. We also tried to know their hobbies and organized activities like music bands so that they can participate. No matter what, we tried hard to establish a relationship with them.

Christian Times: Patriarchal or friend-like pastors--which one is more suitable for Gen Z, or do both have pros and cons? How do you balance the two different roles?

Liang Weibin: My personality is a bit strong, and I may put a little pressure on them. For example, I hope that one of them will soon be willing to lead a Bible study group, but they always say they are very busy and don't have time to prepare. I am disappointed and even argue with them. It is very stressful to try and push them into something. I may be “pushy”, so they oppose me. They prefer to do nothing and let the pastor take care of all things. They don't like paternalistic pastoral care – only friend-like care. They don't like a hierarchical relationship, which would put them under pressure.

Regarding balancing these two roles, pastors need to pray and ask God for wisdom. In addition, personally, I think I need to listen more to their thoughts and understand better why they think as they do. Oftentimes, I am in the position of a parent, giving advice and direction to them like a father to a child, which is based on great trust. But for Gen Z who are still in the process of building relationships, I need to be a friend-like pastor.

Christian Times: How can the church enhance its attraction and catch the attention of Gen Z drawn to online games? What preparations have you made?

Liang Weibin: They really do like playing games, but many of them are anxious. It's a big challenge to steer them towards loving the church and to be willing to attend small group meetings. One of my previous practices was to send a text message every week, asking about their prayer topics. Sometimes, I would meet one or two students who hadn't come during the last week and talk about things that happened. I remind them to attend the gathering in this way, and that's all I can do. For doing so, I need to be very patient because some of them won't reply, and then I would be hesitant to send messages to them again.

I think we need to change the way to guide them to small groups and churches. Why not raise new leaders among them? The practice of some para churches is to have one older person shepherd two younger students. I am thinking about the reason why traditional churches cannot practice in this way.

Christian Times: Brother Liang, do you think the traditional way of Bible study needs to be changed? And how?

Liang Weibin: I want to build a relationship with them first so that I can equip them with the truth in an atmosphere of love. The old way of Bible study only imparted knowledge of the Bible but neglected to build relationships. Pastors need to balance building relationships and telling the truth. I had previously focused on equipping them intellectually and spent little time building relationships with them. 

Christian Times: Pastor Qien, do you have anything to add?

Pastor Cao Qien: It’s true that pastors need to address the personal needs of Gen Z believers, but it’s hard for us to imply the para-church model. Para churches have many workers and can offer one-on-one mentors and follow-up resources, but it's difficult for a church with only one or two ministers. For churches, we can explore ways to build attractions of a home on the basis of building relationships and let family members have more connections, both vertical and horizontal. Then, members of the church family will bring people of a similar age into the church. 

We are also willing to be a platform for them to give full play to their ideas, hobbies, and abilities. The fewer pastors manage, the better, and the best is to leave them alone. Pastors should do everything possible to build a platform with them and then let them “do their own thing”. In reality, it is difficult for us to provide a space big enough for them to give full play to their interests. The church gets crowded with 30 people.

My focus is on training church workers and providing all kinds of channels and resources for them, while their personal efforts are also important. Ministers do not lack theology knowledge since there are many resources on the Internet but the heart of willingness and concentration. 

Christian Times: What is the biggest change in your church in the past three years?

Pastor Cao Qien: Church culture is very important and ours is mission and church-planting. In the past three years, the environment has actually been a driving force for us. Our church experienced different environments and pressures in the past, but basically, any situation that didn’t look good turned into a driving force to help the church grow and develop further. This is God’s special grace to our church. Our church has generally grown and developed in the past three years, including a new influx of Gen Z. Also, the harder the circumstance is, the more our church works to overcome difficulties and forged ahead. I think the most crucial thing is the courage of church ministers and their relationship with God.

- Translated by Charlie Li

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