Image by Mohamed Chermiti (Pixabay)
Jesus asked crestfallen Peter for a third time, “Do you love me?” That question also happens to be the heart cry of Gen Z Americans who currently range from middle school to early career.
During this rapidly developing period in their lives, we might expect our youth to ask different questions, the same ones previous generations have asked: Where do I come from? Where am I going? What is my purpose?
Yet, if we listen closely, the question they ask most often and in innumerable ways is: “Do you love me?” Every other question comes in a distant second.
Maybe that should not come as a surprise. We have become aware that history’s most technologically connected generation paradoxically shows signs of being the most disconnected from personal relationships.
It’s not that this generation lacks face-to-face human contact. It’s that the ubiquitous microchip technology shapes their understanding of reality. It simultaneously connects them online while tending to disconnect them from one another.
Look at how many people stare at their phones with that checked-out blank look reserved primarily for telephone conversations in the past. Our bodies are present, but our minds are in the ether.
This generation is the first where there is no real distinction between their online and offline worlds.
I recently observed three high school students sitting together for forty-five minutes in a diner before school. They hardly talked and rarely looked up from their phones.
Yet, they spoke with one another (and others) on their phones for the entire breakfast! There is no distinction between online and offline. It’s a seamless reality.
As for younger children, why come home from school and go out to play when video games offer much greater flashes of excitement?
For that matter, why go to school at all? We can create virtual classrooms, as we discovered during COVID. As a result of so many staying home most of the day, marketers created fashion lines of pajama bottoms now worn even in public.
But are there downsides of isolation and loneliness to such hyper-connectivity?
Technology Has a Price
We have yet to understand the impact such technology will have on our youth’s social patterns, brain development, and ability to “adult.”
Indeed, they have the advantage of being technology natives, but is there a dark side that makes Gen Z the “loneliest generation” who feel isolated and unloved?
Why is this generation struggling with increased mental health issues? Why have depression, anxiety, addiction, and suicide rates skyrocketed among teens? Is it COVID, or did the lockdown and masks only serve to accelerate the disconnection already being felt? Researchers are seeing a connection between social media involvement and mental health issues, particularly in teens, as their identities are forming.
By the time we have answers to these questions concerning the downsides of technology, our youth will be adults.
It should be evident that the internet cannot love. People love. People empathize. People care. Online friends are not fully friends. Even those we know offline can seem strangely different online.
What the internet does well is to provide an impersonal platform, particularly for social media, on which we can project slivers of our disembodied personalities. Sophisticated algorithms predict and determine our behaviors, making us target practice for laser-focused marketing. No wonder we don’t feel the love.
We should not be surprised that such forces tear at our humanity, leaving disincarnate digitally connected souls. It primarily affects our youth, hindering their ability to learn how to navigate life’s paths that require essential people skills. How many teens experience the end of a dating relationship by receiving a text?
Sadly, we have become too familiar with data showing increased suicide, addiction, and isolation of this most connected generation.
We do not need Pew Research to convince us that this situation is not good. We can see the devastation with our own eyes if we stop looking at our phones for a little while and look around at the techno-zombies of all ages that have invaded our world.
Our smartphones are anything but that. One upside is that we can quickly access vast information and have the world’s information in our pockets. But are we simultaneously losing the ability to think critically about all that information?
Is it possible to have too much information where we lose the ability to sort fact from opinion, or where we no longer study and learn from history but freely rewrite it?
Our worldviews are increasingly shaped by memes, TikTok, and Instagram videos. We respond to ever-increasing real-world complexities with callow platitudes and funny dances.
The causes are far more complex than the invention of the smartphone or even the internet. But it would be difficult to deny that this technology plays a leading role in how we relate to one another, communicate, and think.
Technology Changes Relationships
Technology changes relationships. The printing press took power from the educated elites in the church and government and put it into the hands of the masses. The automobile created suburbia and fundamentally changed how we live and work. Television changed how we gain information, elect presidential candidates, and spend leisure time.
And the microchip gave us affordable computers, the internet, smartphones, and globalization. There are positive advantages that come with technological advances, but they undeniably change how we relate. Not all of those changes are beneficial.
The transformations brought by computers, particularly smartphones and the internet, are far more significant than a sudden increase in knowledge at our fingertips.
This technology influences how we talk with one another. Texts get right to the point and avoid the social niceties required in telephone calls. We can analyze more data than the human brain can hold (think complex algorithms). Technology sits at the heart of much of our entertainment experiences (think video games and Instagram reels).
Technology also provides new lenses through which we see the world. And arguably, the most significant impact on our worldview is the internet’s ability to shift time and space. We can communicate with anyone anywhere around the world whenever we want, irrespective of time and place.
Though we exist in different time zones, we have become used to different ways of communicating across time and place. Like streaming videos, we can pause our lives until others respond at their leisure, time zones away. It’s not much different from recording a show to watch later or zipping through a YouTube video.
Time didn’t change. Our relationship to time and one another did. The time gap, in most cases, no longer matters. We have learned to start and stop our communications and relationships, putting them on hold for a time and then seamlessly picking them up again. It has made our lives a tangled communication matrix that our brains must learn to keep sorted.
This first generation of global technology pilgrims has to navigate the New World and continually adapt or die. Overstatement?
Look what happens when teens whose social networks exist primarily on social media suddenly find themselves “ghosted” by their friends. For many, it’s the end of their lives. And for some, tragically, it is literally life-ending.
Technology changes relationships, and Gen Z must cut paths through the overgrown jungles of our increasingly globalized world. Is it any wonder that they can become disoriented and depressed, not always fully connected to others offline, and left feeling isolated and unloved?
Do You Love Me?
We come back to Jesus and Peter as recorded in the twenty-first chapter of John’s Gospel. Peter experienced the lowest point of his life when denying Jesus three times before His crucifixion (and this after correctly and supernaturally identifying Jesus as the Messiah).
Having denied Jesus, Peter wept (Luke 22:62). Talk about feeling isolated and unloved. Jesus is the source of love (1 John 4:19). We are made in God’s image, created to love and be loved and to be connected to Him and one another through Jesus. Peter felt the depressive and lonely weight of his denials and disconnection from Jesus.
After His resurrection, Jesus reconnects Peter by having him affirm His love (John 21) — “Do you love me?” Peter is taken back by the Lord repeating the question three times, but in the process, the Lord also affirms His love for Peter, restoring him to his life’s purpose — “Feed my sheep.”
It is no wonder we feel isolated, depressed, anxious, and ultimately unloved when disconnected from God and others.
In this increasingly frenetic and disconnected world, we try to fill that love in many and varied ways, often to our destruction. Our helpful technology has the downside of amplifying our human-to-human disconnection, leaving us feeling isolated and unloved.
It’s as if we are starved of relational nutrition and try to satisfy our hunger with massive amounts of sugar. We can ride the sugar high at first, but the inevitable comatose crash will come sooner or later.
Our first globalized, digital natives have been feasting on social media candy. So, when the inevitable drop comes in their spiritual blood sugar, is it any wonder that their most important question is, “Do you love me?” They are starving for love.
They are looking for Jesus.
Finding Jesus in the Church, Outside the Building
God calls people to Himself through many circumstances in numerous ways. Many seek Him driven by curiosity and searching for purpose and direction. Where do I come? Where am I going? What is my purpose? These are the most important questions of previous generations.
But technology has changed how we relate to one another, and it has created a globalized and interconnected world without the barriers of time and space.
Our world changed quickly, and we did not have time to adjust. While becoming more connected, we have become more disoriented and isolated. No wonder the primary question of Gen Z cuts to the relational core — “Am I loved?”
God shows His love for us by rescuing us through Jesus (Romans 5:8). But He has poured that love into His people and put it on display through the church to the world (John 13:25).
This generation seeks this authentic love that nourishes the soul and revives starving hearts. “Do you love me?” has become a more critical question for them than those of meaning and purpose for prior generations. Gen Z is love-driven, not purpose-driven.
Increasingly, people have looked at the church and have become disenchanted and angry. Gen Z is the first generation that doesn’t look at the church through angry filters, not because the church has changed its reputation, but because they regard the church as irrelevant. It is not on their radar.
They do not spend their youthful energy railing against a system they neither understand nor believe to be relevant. They are looking for love but not looking to find it in the church.
Critically, that does not mean this generation has abandoned God. Nor as a generation have they completely abandoned the church. They have just abandoned the building as a representation of an institution that appears irrelevant, hypocritical, and in their eyes, unloving.
You will hear people say that they are “spiritual but not religious.” That is another way of saying they are trying to connect to God but have no place for irrelevant institutions, practices, and traditions. They are nonetheless looking for love.
I paraphrase what one Gen Z person recently told me, “My generation does not understand Sunday church. It does not understand going to church on one day of the week. To my generation, we are the church all week long.” What he is saying is thoroughly biblical, the church is not something we go to, but it is who we are.
Gen Z believers are increasingly gathering together in smaller communities of fellow believers who live their faith together with a passionate love for Jesus. They do not invite their friends to church, but they invite the church to their friends. They gather in more organic, relational-rich ways than is common among traditional church groups.
Yet as these next-generation believers emerge, they seem to possess three characteristics no matter where they meet or how often: a passionate love for Jesus, a hunger for His Word, and a boldness in His Spirit.
But they possess much more than these characteristics. What binds these varied groups together is a deep and authentic love not just for Jesus but also for one another.
This tech-savvy and media-jaded generation quickly sniffs out inauthentic people and messages. Yet, Jesus is drawing them through His love on display in His people. They are not looking for perfection in those believers. They are looking for authenticity.
As Gen Z grows, we see increasing numbers of these organic communities birthed by God’s Spirit. These communities are also starting to find others who walk together with Jesus in His love. They are finding Jesus in His church, but not in a building.
The church needs to hear this heart cry for authentic love. We try to attract youth with programs, activities, gatherings, and youth groups, but we are not making disciples who know and love Jesus. Abundant data shows that when our youth leave for college, they increasingly leave behind the faith of their parents.
If you don’t believe that the disconnect side-effect of technology negatively impacts our youth’s spiritual lives as they find the church more irrelevant, please consider this question: During youth group, are your students looking at their phones? And if not, is that because you had to ban those phones from the meeting to keep their attention?
For Gen Z, no barrier exists between online and offline. They are left to pilot through uncharted territory in a brave new world of globalization. But while they are increasingly connected online, they are simultaneously lonely and feeling unloved.
They want to know, “Do you love me?”
We cannot answer that question apart from the authentic love of Jesus on display in His people. The Spirit is calling this generation together in organic, interconnected, and loving communities of fellow believers. They are not going to church. They are the church.