This past Sunday was our Graduate Recognition Sunday. We had the privilege of highlighting the excellent work of 12 incredible students. What a treat it is to celebrate the hard work of bright young people as they prepare to move into the next phase of God’s big plan for them. This past Sunday was also the first Sunday of a new teaching series called, Generations. For the next few weeks, we’re going to be talking about whole generations of people each week and what they need to be doing that is unique to their generation to be an active part of the advance of the kingdom of God in their current place of life. This week, since it was Grad Sunday, we started with Generation Z. Tune in for this one and all the rest to find what your generation needs to hear about following Jesus well.
“If only they understood!” I want you to think for just a second about the last time you thought something like that and what age you were when you thought it. If you have lived through multiple generations, I suspect you’ve thought it more than once and in more than one generation. And, no matter which generation you happened to be in when you thought it, you were absolutely convinced your frustration and exasperation were completely justified. But let me add one more challenge to this. If you’re from an older generation—let’s say older Generation X, Boomers, and Builders—it’s really tempting to look back at folks from a younger generation—perhaps your kids or grandkids—who are thinking this and laugh at them as silly because of course you understand them. You’ve been them. It’s you and your situation that they need to try to understand, not the other way around.
But it is incredibly easy for us to forget what life was like when we were in a younger generation. We forget about the kinds of pressures and struggles we faced. We see through a nostalgia-fogged lens that makes it deceptively difficult to really remember what it was like. And, given how much the world changes from one generation to the next—and especially in the past couple of generations—we really don’t understand where they are and what they are going through quite so well as we’d like to think we do. No, every generation is different. Every generation has challenges to following Jesus faithfully that are unique to that generation. Some patterns certainly repeat, but the ways they manifest themselves varies enough to make it more challenging than it should be to understand how best to overcome them. The counsel for one generation is not the counsel another generation necessarily needs to hear.
This morning, we are kicking off a brand-new teaching series called, Generations. This is a series I’ve been looking forward to for quite some time. It’s one I’ve been planning to write for at least a couple of years, but something has presented itself as more pressing every time I’ve tried. Now it is finally time to tackle it head on. For the next few weeks, I want to speak primarily to only a fraction of the room each morning. Because each generation is different, what they need to hear from the Scriptures and the kind of counsel they need when it comes to following Jesus faithfully in their generation are different as well. Rather than avoiding or minimizing these differences, for the next few weeks, I want to lean into them together, bringing attention to them as we go. I also want to set before you one thing each different generation needs to make a priority in their efforts to follow Jesus faithfully. This doesn’t mean the other generations don’t also need to heed the same counsel, but because their place in life is different, so also will their primary challenges be.
Well, with today’s being our graduate recognition Sunday, I thought we would begin by talking right to those very graduates. This morning, I want to take a few minutes together to have a conversation with and about Generation Z. While there is some variance in thinking here, Generation Z is generally defined as kids who were born from 1995 through about 2010. They are, very broadly speaking, the children of Generation X. Millennials are just starting to have kids, and their kids, born after 2010, are going to be called Generation Alpha. It’s all neat and tidy unless you’re a generational mutt like me and have kids who were born in more than one generation. I have an old Z and two baby Alphas. Go figure.
In any event, kids from Generation Z are first and foremost digital natives. They grew up with a device in their hand. They’ve never really known a world without smartphones and tablets. The reason you call your grandkids when your device won’t work is because technology is simply the water in which they swim. It’s as natural to them as using a phonebook once was for you. Kids from Generation Z have grown up in a world of contrasts. On the one hand, they’ve never known a world that was broadly considered safe. On the other hand, we take so many steps to ensure their safety that many of them don’t know how to handle an unsafe situation in the first place. They tend to be a very high anxiety generation. They place a huge premium on privacy and independence, but also highly value relationships. They are very worried about the future, but are also one of the most entrepreneurial generations we’ve seen in a long time. They live and breathe diversity and tend to be very progressive in their thinking, but they are also desperate to fit in and can be incredibly judgmental toward those who don’t. And God is already using many of them in powerful ways to advance His kingdom.
That’s all a bit about who Generation Z is, but the question I really want to answer with you this morning, though, is what this Generation needs to know so their faith journey can become everything it is intended to be. Let me answer that question for you in one word, and then we’ll unpack it together. Generation Z more than anything else needs to follow. For you where you are in your life right now, who you are following with your life is the single most important thing for you to get right. Everything else you encounter and experience over the course of the rest of your life will necessarily be subsequent to that and build on that. To help you understand why this is so significant for you to get right, let me tell you a bit of a story. If you have a copy of the Scriptures handy, find your way to Luke 9. We’ll spend most of our time there this morning.
Each of the Gospel authors—but especially Matthew, Mark, and Luke—tell the same basic story about Jesus’ life and ministry, but in slightly different ways. The differences were the result of a number of factors including who their target audience was and what was the exact purpose of their writing. A fairly casual and careless reading might make it seem like they simply couldn’t agree on when Jesus said certain things, but the truth is that Jesus likely repeated Himself often so His disciples would better remember the most important things He said. In spite of the minor differences (and even the bigger ones) the basic contours of the story are roughly the same. And one of things they all agree on is that somewhere toward the middle of His ministry, Jesus took the disciples on a bit of a retreat. Things had been heating up between Him and the religious leaders of the Jews. At the same time, word of His miracles, both of healing and over the natural world, were prompting more and more people to ask some important questions about who exactly this strange rabbi really was.
Luke tells us that after one particularly powerful miracle in which Jesus took a young boy’s lunch and used it to feed something like 15,000 people, Jesus got the guys by themselves and asked them a really significant question: Who do you say that I am? In other words, after everything you’ve seen and with all the rumors swirling around about me, who do you think that I am? In a truly powerful moment, Peter looked Him straight in the eye and said, “God’s Messiah.” This was no light declaration on Peter’s part. There was a whole mountain of meaning behind those two words and everybody sitting around that circle knew it. But the meaning the disciples associated with Jesus’ being the Messiah was not the same thing Jesus wanted them to be thinking about it. For them, His being the Messiah meant He was going to be the conquering king who finally overthrew the Romans and led Israel to once again be the strong, independent nation she had been when David was king. What Jesus meant by claiming that title was something very different from that. And so—Luke 9:21—“he strictly warned and instructed them to tell this to no one, saying, ‘It is necessary that the Son of Man suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, be killed, and be raised the third day.’”
Now, we know from Mark and Matthew’s retellings that Peter in particular didn’t take that response from Jesus very well. He pulled Jesus aside and tried to convince Him to drop the crazy talk. Jesus, for His part, publicly called Peter out for being a tool of Satan in that moment. It was pretty high drama. Jesus wasn’t the kind of Messiah they expected Him to be. And because He wasn’t the kind of Messiah they expected Him to be, following Him as His disciples wasn’t going to look like what disciples following some other rabbi usually looked like.
Jesus then started painting a picture of what following Him was going to look like once the world knew who He was. Listen to this from Luke 9:23:” Then he said to them, ‘If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me will save it. For what does it benefit someone if he gains the whole world, and yet loses or forfeits himself?’”
So, what’s Jesus saying here? Why did this matter, and why did it matter now? The way of life Jesus was inviting His disciples to take up—the way of life He is inviting you to take up—isn’t easy. Later He would be incredibly specific in telling them to count the cost before signing on the dotted line. Not all that long after this moment, when Jesus had turned His attention squarely toward Jerusalem and the end waiting for Him there, Luke tells us that three different young men came applying to be counted among His disciples. All three had a reason they couldn’t drop everything and follow Him right then, though, and He sent all three of them away. Gets you all geared up to follow Him yourself, doesn’t it? The way of Jesus isn’t easy. No one wanted more for us to be clear on that fact than He did. But Peter and the other guys weren’t thinking that. When they confessed Jesus as Messiah, they all figured they were in for a cakewalk into power, position, and prestige. We know that because multiple times after this moment they came to Him asking for positions of power when He finally took over or else arguing among themselves over who would be the greatest once He was finally seated on the throne. They didn’t get it.
Do you know who else often doesn’t get it? Us. Look around. Think about the state of the culture you are living in at this very moment. You are surrounded by things and people calling you to follow them. This is true outside the church, of course, but it’s too often true inside the church as well. The church is supposed to be Jesus’ primary kingdom advancing institution in this world. And when His followers have gotten it right over the centuries, it has been an incredibly powerful, attractive thing. And I’m not talking about worldly power there. I’m talking about the power to change lives and transform communities; the power to overcome injustices and right moral wrongs; the power to unite otherwise totally divided groups and to love those the world deems most unlovable.
But too often all folks from Generation Z (and all the other generations for that matter) experience is something far less than that. They—perhaps you—experience a church that has taken sides on political questions that committed followers of Jesus can debate in good faith; a church that seeks to alienate and punish its enemies; a church that is more concerned with protecting its institutional power and image than it is loving the least of these in Jesus’ name; a church that keeps wrapping a new covenant lifestyle in old covenant methods and thinking; a church that’s more interested in your liking Jesus than following Him. It’s no wonder so many from Generation Z are walking away; it’s no wonder perhaps that you are considering walking away. You’re just waiting for the freedom to do so—a freedom your forthcoming graduation and entrance into the next phase of your life is going to grant.
We are living in a culture that thinks it has defined Jesus pretty well. So were Peter and the other disciples. They liked Jesus. Theirs was a culture that was primed for Jesus to create a literal army of fans. It was a culture incredibly concerned with liking Jesus…as long as He played by their rules. But He wouldn’t do it. Rather than meeting their expectations, He shattered them. Every time they tried to force Him into a box, He broke it. Whenever they thought they had Him playing by their rules, He changed the whole game. They were aiming for a kingdom, to be sure, but it was only a kingdom they could imagine. Jesus was inviting them into something more if only they would, not like Him, but follow Him. The costs and expectations of such a decision would be enormous, but the result of it would be life. Whoever loses his life because of me will save it.
That is why you follow Jesus. It’s why Jesus called the disciples to follow Him. He wanted for them to experience life—the life that is truly life. He knew it wouldn’t be easy and told them as much. But it would be good. It would be life. Every single other path they might have followed was one that eventually ended in death. All of them. Every single other path you might follow in your life is one that will eventually end in death. And, no, I don’t mean that if you stop following Jesus you’re going to suddenly drop dead somewhere along the way because God decides to get you. That’s not how He works. But if you disconnect your life from the source of life…well…there’s really only one other option.
For you graduates who are preparing to enter a new phase of life—whether that is going to be college, grad school, or a career—you are soon going to find yourselves with more options and independence than you have ever experienced before. You are going to have opportunities to try things you couldn’t have even imagined not all that long ago. You are going to be able to decide the path your life takes from this point forward. You are going to be faced with ideas presented as a direct counter to those you’ve been raised and taught to hold in ways that seem awfully reasonable—even more reasonable perhaps than the faith you’ve been trained in to this point in your life. People around you will be doing, saying, and thinking things that you didn’t even think were possibilities until now. The road you have been taking up until now is going to suddenly fork in more directions than you can count. It’ll be really exciting. It’ll be more than a little scary. You are going to have to decide who or what you are going to follow.
Given the faith background you have, there are two temptations that will be particularly poignant. The first is to turn your back on your faith entirely. And can I be honest with you? This temptation is probably not going to come because you run into some intellectual argument against the faith that you simply can’t defeat. The number of people who abandon their faith for genuine intellectual reasons is vanishingly small. What’s a whole lot more likely is that you enter this new season of life with all of its new lifestyle options, find yourself wanting to sample some of those options, but feeling burdened by what feels like the moral shackles of your faith background. If you could just loosen those shackles up a bit—maybe take them off entirely—you could enjoy trying all of these other things without that burden of guilt hanging over your head all the time. Intellectual arguments just serve as a convenient cover for what’s really going on. And you can take this route, but I’ll just tell you now: the freedom and fun promised by all these other options won’t ever be delivered.
But, come on, you’re not going to abandon your faith just because you want to drink and party and have other sorts of fun now that you’re on your own. That kind of temptation is a little on the nose anyway. This other temptation, though, is a little more subtle. It’s a much more grown-up kind of temptation. On this particular path, you don’t get rid of your faith at all. You wouldn’t dream of it. You just…subdivide your life a bit. Faith and church and Jesus stuff is over on one side, and the rest of your life is over on the other. You have warm, fuzzy feelings about the faith part—you like Jesus just fine—but you’re also pretty willing to do or think or say things that don’t really line up very well with the teachings of Jesus. And, yes, there’s sometimes a bit of tension here, but on most days it’s just what you do. Again, you like Jesus just fine, you just also like some other things too. And that way of life would work just fine if only Jesus would play along with it. But just like He didn’t then, He doesn’t now.
If you are a member of Generation Z, you have a decision to make that’s more important than any other decision you can make. The reason it is so important is that you are in the foundation-building season of life. The decisions you make now will play out over decades. You can decide to like Jesus without really following Him as if you could somehow gain the benefits of following without really going all the way in that direction. Perhaps you’ve seen your parents do something similar. But here’s the thing: If you’re not following Jesus, then you’re not following Jesus. And if you’re not following Jesus, expecting to gain any of the benefits of following Jesus is kind of silly. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Jesus made His position on the matter about as clearly as He could: “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.” Jesus doesn’t want you to merely like Him. He wants you to follow Him. Jesus doesn’t want you to like Him, He wants you to follow Him.
If you’re following Jesus that necessarily means you are not following anything or anyone else—including yourself. What you want gets set to the side. You have to deny yourself. That means you actively say no to the things you want in favor of the things He wants. And we can offer up some big and obvious examples of that, but a list of smaller ones might be more helpful. It means things like refusing to hold a grudge and instead offering forgiveness to that person who hurt you. It means refusing to do anything that diminishes the humanity or the dignity of the people around you, and instead honors them more highly than you honor yourself. It means being gracious with your assumptions even when the other person obviously deserves nothing but cynicism and scorn. It means being willing to operate at someone else’s pace rather than insisting on your own. It means being willing to say no when everything inside of you as well as everyone around you is screaming yes. It means being willing to risk your reputation for the chance at showing love to someone unlovable. It means refusing to say things that aren’t true. Ever. About anything. It means being willing to love when everyone around you is clamoring for hatred. It means being willing to say, “That’s not right,” and stick by that declaration even when you’re going to pay a high social cost for it while nonetheless refusing to show anything but love to the folks who are doing it and making you pay that social cost for refusing. And it means being willing to do these things and pay the price their doing will demand, go to bed sore and tired (even if only emotionally), and get up the next day to do it again. It’s not easy. But if you’ll commit to doing it now, the dividends that will come from it are something you’ll be able to live off of for a very long time. But they’ll only come when you are willing to follow Jesus. Jesus doesn’t want you to like Him, He wants you to follow Him.
So, who are you going to follow? If you are a member of Generation Z, you are likely at a point where you are either just starting to really consider a relationship with Jesus, or else are still fairly new in your relationship with Jesus. There’s no time we tend to see things the most clearly as when we are new to them. You can see things that folks in previous generations can’t. You can recognize blind spots. You understand the heart of the faith better than many. You also bring more passion to the things you do than folks ahead of you. But you’re new to it, and so you need to understand two things: Following Jesus is harder than you think, and you need to commit yourself now more than at any other time in your life to growing in your faith. You are building a foundation now that you will stand on for the rest of your life. If you build it well, it will carry you far into the future. If you build it poorly, it will eventually collapse. And the only way to build it well is to follow. Jesus doesn’t want you to like Him, He wants you to follow Him.
Follow Him when things are easy. Follow Him when things are hard. Follow Him when you are soaring on the emotional heights of a great spiritual success. Follow Him when the road gets long and you’re exhausted and spiritually bruised from the unending stream of battles you’ve been through. Follow Him when your community is going in every direction but Jesus. Follow Him when your community professes to be going faithfully in His direction, is more than a little off-kilter, but isn’t interested in your telling them to get back on track. Follow Him when you’re celebrated for it and when you pay a price for it. Follow Him when it’s inconvenient and is getting irritatingly in the way of your social life. Follow Him when you’re all by yourself and no one is looking over your shoulder. Follow Him because He will lead you to life if you’ll let Him. Just don’t settle for liking Him. That’s not an option He gave us. Jesus doesn’t want you to like Him, He wants you to follow Him. So, follow Him and experience the life that is truly life.