Cutting Through the Noise for Gen Z by Ryan Cathers


I don’t know what night of the week your church holds its student ministry, but for us it’s on Wednesday nights. Let me just be honest: I hated Wednesday nights for four years. I hated them! Part of that was because I was using our youth ministry to serve my significance. I had a good heart, but I was off. I thought my job was to build a big ministry. God had to do some things in me. A shift had to take place in my heart. I had to have a change of focus from building a big ministry to building big people.

Here’s what I discovered: If you focus on building big people, you can do a big work, but if you focus on building the crowd, your results will take place by happenstance. God is so good. I think He builds big people even when it’s not our intention. But I tell you what, I really believe the key to an effective youth ministry is to build big students.

Building people is a long-term investment. Ten years from now, what kind of people will our students be? When they’re long out of high school, when they’re long out of our ministry, are they going to be plugged into our church? Are they going to love God?

One of the things I’ve noticed about this generation is that there’s so much noise in their lives, and I mean that literally. There’s very little silence. There are so many voices out there. There are so many ideologies that are accessible to everybody. It’s funny because I’ll interact with young people, and they’ll tell me these theologies or views of God and world philosophies, and I’m like, “That’s crazy! Where did you get that?” And they’ll say, “I watched this person on YouTube.” I’m thinking, “You don’t know anything about this person!” There’s just a lot of noise out there. So how can we cut through the noise? What can we as youth pastors leverage to be heard?

What we realized is that, for us, what’ll help us cut through the noise for our students is to be and to build people who have the power of God in their lives and are willing to interrupt a student’s life with the kingdom of God. They’re willing to think about and pray for a student. They’re looking for opportunities to be salt and light. I know that’s the most basic gospel premise, but that’s how the gospel has advanced for millennia: person-to-person interaction.

One of the things our ministry has decided is to equip students to carry out the work of ministry by cutting through the noise and bringing about the message of Jesus in a contextualized way that sounds good and different. I emphasize those two words because I think it’s not just different — the message of Jesus is not just counter-cultural; it’s not just something that is foreign to the here and now. It’s also good!

I think young people are super spiritual. I think atheism is not the top competitor for Christianity. I think it’s this weird mix of spiritualism that takes what they like about Jesus and throws it into a moral soup.

We’ve lost a lot of ground in our culture over the years. We’re not in a position of power anymore. We’re not in the driver’s seat of influence anymore. I think sometimes we develop a “let’s bemoan all the things we’ve lost” attitude. But let me ask you, if you were a young person, would you want to join that movement or a movement, no matter how wrong it is, that’s taking ground? These students want to change the world. They want to be history-makers. This is why it is critical how we present the gospel message to them. We can’t just be angry about what we’ve lost; we’ve got to move forward, proclaiming and advancing the gospel.

Here’s what that looked like practically for us: We did a series on sex and sexuality recently. We called it “The Revolution,” and through it we said, “Look, here’s what you’re getting if you do things the world’s way: You’re going to get confusion, shame and statistically, death. You’re going to get numbness. This is what you’re going to get.” We challenged them, “Would you be willing to become a revolutionary for the sake of your kids, so that someday you and your friends and your kids could actually say, ‘I’m so glad that we saw the world in a different way’?” We tried to position our argument in that way that acknowledged what we’re saying is not popular. Students were going to have to go against the flow to accomplish it. And from this angle, our series was well-received!

As you consider your student ministry today, I encourage you to find the voice of God for your church. Ask Him how you can best cut through the noise and build your students big. Ask for both different and good ways to communicate gospel truths. The heart with which you share them matters. You’ll have to be careful and wise about what you say, because all this matters when cutting through the noise for this generation. But you can do it, and you can see positive, life-changing results in your students, just as we are in ours!


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