Back in the late 80s, as a child of about 11, I was complaining to my parents one day about the distance I had to walk to catch a bus for school. In response, my dad told me how he used to walk every day to school, which was more than 5 km away! His point of course was that I had it much easier.

All of us will have our own stories of feeling the generation gap as we grew up. We had our outlook on the world and in many ways, it was different from how those older than us saw things. Now, when we try to grapple with the oft-discussed generation gap between us and our students – Gen X, Y, Z, Alpha – it is important to remember how it felt when we were younger.

Let us begin with a quick diagnosis of our ecosystem. India has a college population of 37.4 million as per the database of All India Survey of Higher Education. That is, 37.4 million Gen Z’s, who spend most of their waking hours on mobiles, laptops, and tablets, comfortable in a world of their own yet anchored in virtual connections with a wide global community.

No information is too hard to access anymore, so what happens in London is talked about in Latur and an American celebrity’s tweet about protests in Delhi becomes a strong message affecting diplomatic relationships between countries. The impact of online presence has become even stronger in the post-COVID, college-from-home situation with the exponential increase in screen-time.

We as graduates, live in this same globally-connected world, invariably spending a lot of time on various digital devices. Yet, we also often carry the baggage of our exposure to an older environment that was devoid of such technology. We might be the pioneers in using mobile and other internet-based technologies, but it is Gen Z that was born into this world and are mobile-techno-natives. Though we share the same space, the unique characteristics of the current ecosystem stretches the gap between our generations much wider than the gap we may have experienced with our parents’ generation.

In our ministry, we can see this played out on multiple levels. One of the most common signs could be when we hear an uncle/achayan or akka/didi saying, “This was not how things were done in the EU during our days…” While it is important to appreciate the old ways and learn from them, it is critical to intentionally move forward and look at how we can work together to build bridges so that our universities can be reached. As I was writing this article, I saw the WhatsApp status of a UESI-staff with clips from a recent get-together of some students at his home. They were playing a game that involved various pictures but illustrated God’s Sovereign plans and intent to build us through the phases of life, failures, and unexpected bends. Looking at that combination of games, Biblical principles, and social media message I thought, “that’s the way to go in connecting with this generation.”

In his 1967 Urbana address, Evan Adams referred to three kinds of gaps that youth feel while interacting with adults. That 54-year-old sermon still strikes a chord as we look at today’s mobile-techno-native generation.

The credibility gap: “Can we believe what the adults are saying? Do they know what they’re talking about?” This is not only about the credibility of the gospel. When life throws the hard balls at us how do we respond, does it make sense to respond the way the older generation guides.

The communication gap: “Are you listening?” So often we talk instead of communicating and hear without listening. The youth feel we lack an understanding of their perspective and “just don’t get it”.

The confidence gap: “Can we trust them? They live by double standards.” In a world where hypocrisy and double standards are not only seen but exposed on global platforms and Christian leaders publicly give up their faith, the youth are looking for role models who are authentic and can be trusted for their integrity on all levels, including moral and financial choices.

I decided to list out some practical ways to cover these basic areas of the generational gap.

Be intentional and connect: All of us, can relate to the challenge in connecting between generations, cultures, and communities. We would rather be part of our group and in our comfort zone. I remember attending an evangelistic Christmas program as a young graduate where a friend urged me to talk with the students who had come instead of hanging out with my other grad-friends. From that day on, be it a camp or a program, my principle has been to seek out new faces and initiate conversations, not because that is my instinct, but because I need to be intentional. It helps to remember that while we may worry about being seen as unrelatable, students also worry about whether we will judge them for their approach or outlook. It would not have been an easy road for Paul either, to stop going to the comfort of the Jewish synagogue and visit the lecture hall of Tyrannus at Ephesus (Acts 19:8,9). But, go, he did – for two years. Neither was it natural for Peter, the simpleton fisherman from Galilee to stand up and face a crowd of Jews from across the Roman world on the day of Pentecost. But stand, he did. We are intentional because we have a mission to follow, and a vision to fulfill – to reach the campuses and build disciples for Christ.

Stay relevant: “Mom, you may not understand even if I tell you. Only our generation can understand,” my teen daughter quipped. It reminded me of the need to stay relevant to catch the attention of this generation. We need to work hard and invest time in learning the current trends. It may mean catching up on some basic technologies, learning their lingo, being aware of what is trending, knowing what matters to them. Whether we are having a late-night talk with a student at our home or preparing for a session, let’s be relevant to their culture, to their world.

A student I knew used her creativity even from his school days to try different things even creating a mobile game and setting up a small online business on Christian themes. Students like her, who make this smart and creative generation, will be ready to take the lead or work along with us when we grasp their mission to reach the world through platforms that are most familiar to them such as Instagram or Facebook. Like Paul in his Mars Hill message, we need to learn to be relevant to the audience to catch their attention and influence the student community.

Invest in relationships: The most difficult gap to cross is the “confidence gap”. The best tool for this is to let them see us inside out, which can be done only by investing time and resources in this relationship. One of the things that impacted Timothy was the consistent godly lifestyle he saw in his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois (1 Tim 1:5).

Deep down, students are sensitive and yearning for acceptance. And that is precisely why we should let them see us for who we are – with our struggles, trials, and temptations. Many times, graduates are looked up to as perfect in their spirituality, with impeccable behavior and no real issues to face. We need to instead let them see our vulnerabilities so that they can openly share about their vulnerabilities. I have seen people open up in the comfort of a home or a camp, where there is no constraint of time and no fear of judgment. The long hours and the open homes are worth the lives. Even in today’s world of social media and social distancing, the fact is that the virtual world only leaves you dry and that human connections are what make the difference. May we be able to say like Paul: “Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.” (1 Thess 2:8)

Be grounded in the Scriptures: After all, is said and done, what matters for every generation is the truth, hence “the credibility gap”. The only way to bridge this gap is to go back to the Bible.

God’s Word is our credibility. Isn’t it refreshing to see students and graduates searching Scriptures together to find answers to life’s baffling questions? “Centrality of the Word of God” has always been the defining core value of UESI. Almost all students who attend a discipleship camp talk of the PBS methodology as a major takeaway.

But over the decades we see a steady decline in the attachment to the Scriptures. It could be due to a variety of reasons, one of them being a change of focus. We should be careful not to dilute the Biblical principles for the sake of creativity or for the sake of fitting into generational or cultural contexts. Attaching the students back to the Bible, helping them develop a yearning for the Word, and unravel the Scriptures for themselves is the most important method of all to bridge the gap and reach this generation.

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
(2 Tim 3:16-17)

“Transformed Students Impacting the Campuses and the Nation as Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ”. To achieve this vision, it is paramount that we are generations that walk together, grounded in the truth of Scripture, building one another, and reaching out to the university campuses. “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” (Hebrews 12:1b, 2a). And the “gap” will not be a hindrance anymore.

Leena, works in TCS as Project Manager. She lives with her husband Chanty and daughters Tabitha and Talitha. They love ministering among the university students, and are part of Mumbai EGF”.

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