‘Like Jesus with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, so the church must become the travelling companions of young people.’
Since a young age, these powerful words of Pope John Paul II have shaped Nqobile Ngcobo’s journey, discipling and inspiring a generation of young people to serve God, love others, and change the world around them. Before joining the Mergon Foundation team as the SA relationship manager, Nqobile served as the director of strategy & product for the sub-Saharan Africa region of Alpha International, a ministry partner of Mergon Foundation. In this capacity, she traversed Africa, engaging with diverse audiences and cultures, sharing on the importance and joy of investing in today’s youth.
These experiences provided Nqobile with profound insights into the unique characteristics of Gen Z – the generation born between the mid-1990s and the early 2010s. Through this candid conversation, she shares her perspectives on what sets this generation apart and how they are not only poised to express the gospel through their distinctive lens but also to take it further in Africa.
Nqobile, you mentioned that since the age of 22, when you started volunteering at your church for youth ministry, this idea of being a ‘travelling companion to young people’ has deeply resonated with you. Can you tell us more about this?
For me, it speaks to the importance of relational ministry – journeying alongside young people, committed to walk the long road, no matter how long and hard the road is. When they stray, we as leaders model consistency. When they doubt or disagree, we create a safe environment to wrestle through those differences. Relational ministry is understanding we can’t open people’s spiritual eyes, but we can walk alongside them, sharing truth and scripture like Jesus did on the Emmaus road, until they recognise Him for themselves.
With this in mind, are there unique realities we need to consider when relating to Gen Z?
‘I’ve heard it said that the difference between millennials and Gen Z can be likened to the contrast between Harry Potter and the Hunger Games. Millennials grew up being told that they were, like Harry Potter, the heroes of their own story. To a degree and for a certain amount of time, their world supported this narrative. Then 9/11 and a global recession happened, and their world began to crumble – leaving them with a sense of disillusionment.
Gen Z, on the other hand, was born into a digital and global world, with a constant window into the brokenness and injustice of this world. Their formative years included a global pandemic and lockdown, which exposed our economic fragility and human vulnerability. They see the world for what it is. And yet, they have a deep sense of responsibility to address these wrongs, believing that it’s up to them to bring about the change they want to see.
In this way, they can connect with the idea of Jesus as a disruptor. Throughout the scriptures, Jesus constantly challenged the status quo, going to the margins and breaking religious molds. The authentic, unpolished, and bold depiction of Jesus aligns with a generation hungry for truth and genuine experiences. It’s exciting to think what appeals most to this generation is not a refined or sugar-coated gospel, but rather the honest and unfiltered person of Christ – actively involved in the world, genuine, relevant, and meeting people right where they truly need it.
As we know, Gen Z is the first ‘digital native’ generation. How has this changed the way we relate to young people and build true community?
For young people today, there’s very little difference between online and in-person communities. The relationships they form in digital spaces, be it through WhatsApp groups or gaming apps, are just as significant as those forged face-to-face. In discipling them, we need to be open to various approaches, understanding that discipleship can take diverse forms, even including online.
Take, for example, a local church congregant who came to faith through Alpha online and later invited his ‘friend’ in Lebanon to join the course, solely through a gaming app. These connections are real, challenging our traditional views – not only of sharing the gospel but of building community.
We have the opportunity to reshape discipleship, not just through big broadcast messages on social media, but by creating smaller, tailored spaces where young people in our ministry can engage authentically. What’s better than having 2000 followers is 30 engaged followers, ministered to and actively discipled through content that directly addresses what they’re curious about or wrestling through.
In a world where young people are digitally linked but paradoxically distant, these platforms serve as powerful tools to meet their deep need for belonging. Not by relying solely on them but by leveraging them, we can guide young people towards the ultimate goal – drawing young people into faith communities where they can grow in Christ and with one another.
What excites you about this generation and particularly in Africa?
We must never underestimate the youth’s power to change the status quo and be used by God. Daniel was 17 when called, Joseph was 18, Mary 14. The list goes on. Imagine the impact we could have if we truly sowed into the lives of a few – especially when considering the strengths of this generation.
Gen Z brings a kind of pragmatism and realism to the table, due to their early exposure to information and life’s challenges. But this also translates into a hunger for something real and enduring which, when found, they will embrace wholeheartedly. They are smart and independent, able to navigate digital spaces confidently, that has produced a kind of ‘pioneering spirit’ that the gospel has always thrived on. And they are fun and creative, inviting new, diverse and innovative forms of gospel expression across the world.
Considering Africa, being the youngest continent, there’s a lot to be excited about. Economists talk about the ‘economic dividend’ in Africa, anticipating the continent’s future youth bulge, and the potential challenges this bears on employment. What if we saw it as a ‘faith dividend’? Imagine investing in young people so deeply that, as this bulge happens, a groundswell of people emerges who know Jesus, have real faith, and are actively shaping society towards its flourishing. Imagine a generation so grounded in Jesus that they tip the scales from hopelessness to hopefulness.
Imagine that. A hope-full generation. I think it’s nothing short of what God has in store for Gen Z – in Africa and beyond.
Alpha is a series of interactive sessions designed to start an open and honest conversation around some of the big questions of life. The Alpha Youth series, a core part of this ministry, invites young people to explore together timeless questions about life, faith and God for their generation.