Within this rapidly secularizing culture, the church struggles to maintain its relevancy. Seismic shifts in moral, social and spiritual patterns among emerging generations occur at unprecedented levels in society and the church. Among Millennials and Gen Zs, individualism and consumerism dominate their thinking and inform their behaviour; they base their choices on feelings and experiences rather than on principles or values. As Spiritempowered Pentecostal leaders, we must offer new venues to experience authentic spirituality that fosters Christ-centred discipleship. To lead “Pentecostally,” leaders must make new opportunities for people to encounter Jesus and experience the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. To create these new opportunities, I propose four ways Pentecostal leaders can impact emerging generations: (1) find our prophetic voice in a post-Christian culture; (2) cultivate a fresh Jesus encounter; (3) discover how to lead inter-generationally; and (4) prioritize the presence of the Holy Spirit.
1. Finding our prophetic voice in a post-Christian culture
According to the Barna Group, our culture has seen a steady secularization for decades. Tracking individuals reporting atheist or agnostic beliefs, Barna shows the nature of the increase among these belief systems per the various generations: Traditionalists (1925-1945) 28 per cent, Baby Boomers (1946-1964) 35 per cent, Generation X (1965-1981) 40 per cent, and Millennials (1982-2000) 48 per cent.1 In Meet Generation Z, James Emery White argues that as these rates continue to accelerate, a new macro-social era is dawning that will significantly affect family and faith.2 First, the family no longer defines itself along traditional roles but includes diverse, intersectional frameworks such as male with male, female with female, children with surrogates, multiple parents, polygamy and polyamorous unions. Second, White sees a transition occurring around the belief and practice of faith. Described as the “rise of the nones,” this group identifies as having no religious affiliation and has recently emerged as the fastest growing “religious” group.3 According to Pew Research, religiously unaffiliated people concentrate more among young generations than any other age group.4 A sobering statistic is 70 per cent—the number of Christian young adults who exit the church after high school graduation.5 To emphasize the point, White states that four Christians leave the faith for every soul won to Christ.6 With such an exodus of young adults leaving the church comes a widespread “memory loss” of biblical values and worldviews.7
Within this post-Christian context, Pentecostal leaders cannot hide in the shadows decrying a godless generation. Either we publicly confront the culture with conviction and passion through God’s revealed Word, or we risk social irrelevancy. To stand against this rising tide of secularism, White argues that we can no longer couch our prophetic voice in religious jargon or outmoded language; it must become “convictional in nature, clear in its message, substantive in its content, and bold in its challenge.”8 When biblical truth communicates relevantly and respectfully, this creates space for open dialogue and thoughtful contemplation. Instead of allowing social media and celebrity voices to go unchecked in the public sphere, the church must present God’s Word with clarity and confidence. Moral liberties and tolerant attitudes may prevail, but the Word of God remains living and active; the Word still penetrates and judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Pentecostal leaders can speak to this generation with grace and truth, giving them a fresh understanding of the gospel and new spaces to encounter the revealed Word of God.9
2. Cultivating a fresh Jesus encounter
As a renewal movement, Pentecostalism finds itself uniquely positioned to reach across all generations by cultivating fresh encounters with Jesus. This experience of encountering Jesus has defined the Pentecostal Movement since its inception in the early 20th century. When describing the outbreak of revival at Azusa Street, William Seymour declares, “we have a living Christ among us.”10 According to Grant Wacker, when early Pentecostals worshipped, they had one goal: to make Jesus’s presence real.11 When Aimee Semple McPherson preached her “foursquare” sermons, she urged people to seek a personal experience with Jesus.12 Encountering Jesus remains the heart and soul of the faith, the basis for personal testimony, and the source of power to serve and witness.
Despite the groundswell of religious disaffiliation among emerging generations, experiencing Jesus still matters. In Faith for Exiles, David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock state that when young people experience intimacy with Jesus, they will more likely have a resilient faith.13 Those in emerging generations describe their intimacy with Jesus in two ways: feeling close (proximity) and connected (conversational), with prayer as a vibrant part of their relationship. Unfortunately, many churches fail to give young people opportunities to encounter Christ personally. Instead, they promote Jesus as their “cool BFF” who helps you “live your best life” and is co-branded with other cultural attractions.14 As Pentecostal leaders, we must challenge our Millennials and Gen Zs to undertake a radical adventure with Jesus. We must “dare” them to walk with Christ and “get their hands dirty” through missional service.
“As Spirit-empowered Pentecostal leaders, we must offer new venues to experience authentic spirituality that fosters Christ-centred discipleship. To lead ‘Pentecostally,’ leaders must make new opportunities for people to encounter Jesus and experience the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.”
3. Discovering how to lead inter-generationally
The challenge for Pentecostal leaders, especially those who serve in more traditional, multi-generational churches, requires moving away from the generational silos where ministry occurs according to age groups. In Speaking across Generations, Darrell Hall states that many churches have removed children and youth from the main service and have given them their own uniquely designed age-specific programs. Although well-intentioned, these siloed approaches stratify the church, with entire age groupings excluded from corporate worship.15 These ministry models have only amplified generational differences and impeded church revitalization. Rather than a siloed approach, integrating people creates new opportunities for shared experiences, relationship-building, and inter-generational mentorship.
As a pastor currently serving in a 40-year-old multigenerational church, I have also discovered covert voices with hidden agendas operating within the congregation, some well-meaning but others self-serving. These voices, often from the Traditionalist or Boomer camps, intend to maintain the status quo or preserve the traditions of the past. Change has proven difficult for some people, and they have shared their grievances regarding song selections, hymn books, instruments, styles of dress, seating arrangements, Bible versions, communion elements and platform furniture (dare I go on?).
To confront these limiting modernist habits, Pentecostal leaders must challenge those reluctant to change and invite them to interact with younger generations. In Generational IQ, Haydn Shaw tackles Traditionalist and Boomer thinking by addressing their faulty assumptions about the church. Using thought-provoking language, he exhorts older congregrants to: (1) “give your church back to Jesus” (it’s not yours anyway), (2) “cancel your purposeless retirement,” and (3) “find emerging adults and make an impact in their lives.”16 Rather than assuaging outdated attitudes, Shaw urges leaders to challenge older people to shed entitled attitudes and start serving again. Since Millennials and Gen Zs respond well to people who take a genuine interest in them, Shaw encourages retirees to build relationships with younger people to create intergenerational vitality. Elders find new meaning and purpose as mentors and prayer partners, and younger adults feel accepted and respected.
4. Prioritizing the presence of the Holy Spirit
Despite living in a post-Christian context, many within the emergent generations hunger for authentic spirituality, suggesting that Pentecostal leaders may have new opportunities to prioritize the presence of the Holy Spirit.17 In Generation Z: Born for the Storm, Billy Wilson observes Gen Zs expressing a “mammoth desire” to understand and experience the Holy Spirit.18 However, due to their savvy consumerism, they have different approaches to spiritual things. Because Gen Zs are discerning shoppers, they refuse to settle for “second best” or cheap imitations. Astute to marketing tactics, they nix anything appearing counterfeit or carefully packaged, polished or processed. For churches that place show over substance, Gen Zs see fakes and go elsewhere; they crave real encounters.
Recognizing this generational desire for authentic spirituality, Pentecostal leaders may discover an unexpected openness to the presence of the Holy Spirit among their youth and young adults. Despite their screen addictions and social media fixations, Gen Zs and Gen Alphas might show more interest in understanding and experiencing the presence of the Holy Spirit than we think. Rather than leaving them to their Instagram and TikTok obsessions, they might need a personal invitation to a small group or discipleship class to introduce them to the person and work of the Holy Spirit. If we invite them, something might happen.
To lead “Pentecostally” means creating new opportunities for people to encounter Jesus and experience the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. To create these new opportunities, Pentecostal leaders must: (1) find our prophetic voice in a post-Christian culture; (2) cultivate a fresh Jesus encounter; (3) discover how to lead intergenerationally; and (4) prioritize the presence of the Holy Spirit. Emerging generations may leave organized religion, but experiencing Jesus still matters. When we put aside our human agendas and invite the presence of God into our gatherings, young people can experience authentic spirituality and radical transformation. Although we live in a post-Christian culture, applying these principles can create new opportunities for people to encounter Jesus and experience the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.
William Sloos is a DMin student at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, MO, and the lead pastor at Richmond Hill Pentecostal Church in Toronto, Ont.