By Tom Lin

Developing Gen Z Student Leaders

If you were in an InterVarsity chapter in college, you know InterVarsity focuses on developing student leaders who follow Jesus as Lord and see their campus as a mission field. But doing this for the current student generation, Gen Z, has seemed like a daunting challenge for some. How do you equip an un-churched generation that struggles with mental health into Christian leadership? 

Besides leading InterVarsity, I’m also a father of two Gen Z daughters. And I want to say at the outset, this generation has the curiosity, the heart, and the desire needed to be great leaders on their campuses and beyond.

At the Urbana Student Missions Conference this past December, over half of the student attendees said “yes” to participating in God’s global mission. Then, at our national Greek InterVarsity conference for fraternity and sorority students in February, hundreds said “yes” when they were invited to hand over one thing they were keeping from Christ’s Lordship.

And students are coming to faith at schools like Jackson State University in Mississippi, where they’re celebrating over 15 coming to faith at one event. Even at Urbana, 117 students said “yes” to following Jesus for the first time, and another 233 recommitted their lives to Jesus. 

Students are saying “yes” to Jesus sacrificially and whole-heartedly.

The Unique Need 

At the same time, this generation has unique needs because of the unique time they’ve grown up in. Some of their most formative years occurred during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. They’re the generation least likely to identify as a Christian and have so many more voices discounting and denying the existence of God. Their lives have been shaped by smartphones and digital devices, which more and more researchers point to as a cause of record high rates of anxiety, suicidal ideation, and depression. 

We know we need to invite students to meet Jesus and to receive his healing.

Again, at Urbana, students waited in line—some of them for hours—to get prayer ministry. It was our most attended afternoon program option. These long prayer lines reminded me that given the opportunity, students are hungry to connect with Jesus.

Tools to Train Up Student Leaders

Being InterVarsity, we especially want students to meet Jesus in Scripture. Gen Z is very unchurched, with only 40% report attending church at all, and has read the Bible less than previous generations. That’s why InterVarsity welcomes students who have never read the Bible.

We also know from research from American Bible Society, just last summer, two-thirds of non-Bible readers said they were curious about the Bible and/or Jesus. And one third said they were very or extremely curious. There’s an enormous opportunity!

That’s partly why we redesigned the Bible study experience at Urbana 22. Over 600 students from around the country led daily small group Bible studies of their peers. Prior to the conference, we trained them to lead Bible study and to make a call to faith. And as they’ve returned to school, they’re now leading in the campus mission field where God has placed them. When students lead the Bible studies, they’re more confident and more excited about sharing their faith on campus.

Another way we’re training this tech-savvy generation with little Bible knowledge is our Ministry Playbook. This tool trains people in key ministry skills: leading Bible study, doing evangelism, leading prayer meetings, and ministering cross-culturally. This is some of InterVarsity’s best training offered online in a clear, engaging way. And, it’s free to anyone to use.

InterVarsity equips students to give calls to faith. When they take bold steps to invite others to follow Jesus, they witness the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of their friends. And when their community sees the life-change firsthand, it has a galvanizing effect on not just the student’s faith and witness, but the whole chapter. 

This generation is also more likely to know someone of another religion. InterVarsity is teaching them to engage these friends in ways that are respectful, gracious, and truthful about what we believe. For example, to better engage Muslim communities, InterVarsity created Peace Feasts, but the principles and practices can be used with almost any community.

Generation to Generation 

At every stage of the pipeline, InterVarsity has developed tools and processes to help students take the next step of faith and grow in their leadership. This was true of my own experience as an InterVarsity student. Staff and student leaders invested in me as a young Christian, particularly through a Bible study in Mark. As I studied Scripture, my burden to reach other students on campus grew. By my junior year, I began reaching out to other students on campus. I joined the student leadership team in my chapter, received training, and applied what I learned in my outreach on campus. 

I’m hopeful, encouraged, and excited about this generation of student leaders. When they meet Jesus in Scripture and when they experience his presence in their lives, they’re eager, faithful, and responsible.

Every generation has faced challenges to following Jesus. When InterVarsity was founded, it was the realities of WWII. In the mid-60s and early 70s, it was counterculture. In the 80s and 90s, it was growing materialism and secularization. This generation is no different. But what God shows us, generation after generation, is that he calls each generation of students to trust him, to follow him, and to proclaim him wherever they go. 

Will you help connect high school seniors with InterVarsity chapters when they arrive on campus? If you’re a pastor, parent, or church leader, make sure the high school seniors in your church know where they can find an InterVarsity community on their campus.

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