Faith in the Digital Age: Understanding Gen Z

‘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.

Pursuing solutions for sustainable change

‘Beneath a culture’s surface lies much that shapes it, often unspoken perspectives and mindsets that influence our behaviour. There is an art to understanding how these underlying dynamics give meaning and direction to our lives.’

Charmaine Smith (Mergon Foundation forum member and founding director of Infundo Consulting) spoke to this idea during last month’s gathering with a handful of global peer foundations. Sharing from their own career and ministry experiences, she and others explored the unique nuances of funding within the African context. Charmaine specifically spoke to the value of systems thinking, explaining:

‘I see myself as a generalist working between things, rather than an expert who works within things, which has prompted me to adopt a lifelong learning approach that often asks the question, ‘Why do people think and act the way they do?’’ When we omit to consider the factors that shape behaviour we will assume our strategies will work, only to discover later that nothing has changed or we have created resistance through ineffective management of our intervention.’

‘The understanding of intergenerational trauma transfer and the study of epigenetics sheds light on the difficulties of bringing change when the past shapes not just culture, and perspective, but even the DNA which connects past generations to how people experience life and behave. In the context of Africa with 1500 different languages and with an average age of 19 the considerations of working in Africa must take this all into account.’

In her journey, she discovered systems thinking as a comprehensive and robust way of understanding human behaviour. Systems thinking, she explained, offers a wider range of choices when working with people, because it takes the interdependency of our actions into account: ‘There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution when thinking systemically, because the choices we make will have an impact on the whole system, through its people. We can rather think of our decisions as a set of iterative decision-making points. As systems are impacted and shift through our presence and action, decisions need to be attuned to this shift and adjust accordingly.’

‘Dr Wayne Dyer said, ‘When you change the way you look at things; the things you look at, change.’’

‘What I have come to believe,’ Charmaine continued, ‘is that if we want to develop true partnerships with lasting social impact, we will need to think systemically, going beyond our cultural biases and assumptions to embrace a more holistic perspective on the problems we seek to solve and people we seek to understand.’

Embracing complexity

She referenced author Michael Goodman, emphasising that the discipline of systems thinking is more than just a set of diagnostic tools and methodologies – it is an underlying philosophy:

‘Systems thinking’, writes Goodman, ‘is a sensitivity to the circular nature of the world we live in; an awareness of the role of structure in creating the conditions we face; a recognition that there are powerful laws of systems operating that we are unaware of; a realisation that there are consequences to our actions that we are oblivious to.’

Charmaine explained that when we think in systems, we are comfortable to work at the pace of the system, embracing the complexity that goes hand in hand with growing healthy communities. ‘We think more broadly around our solutions,’ she said, ‘considering the long-term impact of our decisions and the inherent causalities of the events that have gone before us.’

‘When it comes to social impact, this holistic approach enables us to move away from top-down funding models that sustain donor dependence and overlook the intrinsic value and dignity of the communities they serve. Instead, we consider how to learn from one another, and thus reshape the traditional paradigm into a relationship of equal value and partnership,’ said Charmaine.

Working consciously with power dynamics

Charmaine noted that when a community’s system operates differently than ours, the (often unconscious) temptation is to perceive it as dysfunctional. ‘However,’ she shared, ‘I’ve always found that when you stop to consider the system, there is no dysfunction; all systems are in flow.’

‘Through my experience, I’ve learned that coming into a new community requires humility. It’s important not to presume we have all the answers or are starting something brand new. God has been working in that community long before our arrival. As community builders, our role is to figure out where He’s been working and to get behind it. This takes humility – a kind of ruthless curiosity to listen, learn – and un-learn old ways.’

‘When we enter the room, we need to ask ourselves, what comes with us? Do we come with a humble attitude, or do we feel burdened to have all the answers? Do we talk first, or do we speak last? What is most important to us – the relationships or the project deliverables?  How could some of our perspectives be at odds with the system we are working in? How does our entry into the system impact in ways which may not be overtly obvious to us; and what do we need to do, to give up, or shift in us, in order to find a new flow within this system?’

‘As funders and stewards of capital, it’s important to recognise the position of perceived power we inevitably carry – and we need to intentionally posture ourselves for relationship to re-balance these power dynamics.’ She added, ‘In my experience, I’ve found that vulnerability goes far – being honest about my own setbacks and disappointments has often invited others to be real about theirs, which then allows us to address the realities and challenges on the ground with honest and more effective solutions.’

Going deep before going wide

Building authentic relationships takes time, a commodity often scarce in the fast-paced world of funding and project implementation. Charmaine noted, however, that relational integrity is the most critical aspect of any systems thinking worldview: ‘The complexity of people working together on a project, across different sectors and organisations, can be as complex as working with the community itself,’ she said. ‘It’s critical, therefore, to have the right people in the right positions, including those who work ‘between’ the elements of the project and act as ‘catalytic nodes’ that influence and collaborate with other stakeholders.’

‘When you take a systems thinking approach to community development, you let the community lead and move at the speed of trust. When the project emphasises depth, characterised by strong relationships and community ownership, it establishes a unique ‘heartbeat’ that can potentially yield significant impact. Only when there is a new flow at depth, can you consider scaling certain projects over time.’

She concluded: ‘Being a systems thinker demands curiosity, compassion and humility. In the world of social impact, where cross-sector collaboration is essential, it asks all of us to adopt a learning posture—listening, asking questions, and discovering solutions we might have otherwise overlooked, only made possible by viewing things through the lens of another culture or community. Africa is beautiful in all its diversity and complexity. May we continue to serve its people with solutions that are as beautiful, diverse, and complex as Africa itself.’

Through Infundo Consulting, Charmaine works extensively with communities and their leaders, corporate partners, government departments and other relevant bodies, focussing on systems thinking for sustainable change. Infundo has been able to position the confluence of social and business impact within their model of change; where through the interconnectedness of seemingly opposing agendas – that of business and social needs – they have created a new status quo of shared value within a system which can sustain both.