What the Asbury outpouring can teach local church leaders about reaching Gen Z.

This past February, you likely heard about what was happening on the campus of Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky, as they were experiencing a powerful move of God! There was international media coverage from all the major networks along with viral social media exposure, and people were very intrigued (including me). I believe the openness of people (especially younger people) that we’ve seen at Asbury points to a deep hunger for God and for meaning from both believers and unbelievers alike, and it is important that church leaders - especially church communicators - take note.

I followed along pretty closely since the Asbury outpouring (call it what you want) started and even debated taking a day off work to go down to Wilmore, during that first weekend, but it didn’t happen. In hindsight, I wish I had. I’ve been able to catch up with a few people who did go, and their personal experiences align so closely with many stories that came out of Asbury via social media testimonials, podcasts and articles. It seems that what God did and continues to do is so specific and timely for where we are culturally and what matters to upcoming generations.

A regular challenge for church leaders is connecting with and raising up leaders and followers of Jesus in younger generations. Kids these days! Am I right?! Ha! In this digital age, it is especially challenging as the primary generations represented in church leadership are not “digital natives.” The impact technology has had on culture is hard to quantify, but the gap between digital natives (younger Millennials, Gen Z and younger) and digital immigrants (older Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, etc.) is significant.

The Asbury outpouring was a unique opportunity to see how younger generations (particularly Gen Z and Gen Alpha) are interacting with faith, community and church. Current church leaders should be paying attention, learning and adjusting so they can connect with and raise up the next generation of leaders to reach more people for Jesus.

Three themes that stand out specific to how younger people are connecting with God, one another and church are: Simplicity, Unity and Humility (and, I’m certain this list isn’t exhaustive).

Peaceful Simplicity

What happened at Asbury was not flashy and had little to no production value. The stage was poorly lit, the sound system wasn’t high-end and the worship leaders and speakers were more spontaneous in their approach. 

This experience was about spiritually hungry people with the simple expectation to meet with God. By every account, the atmosphere was marked not by exceptionalism but by an overwhelming peace and rest more than anything … sounds like Philippians 4:7!

There has been a reemergence of simple/micro church models and an embrace of ancient liturgical practices among many younger believers in recent years. This trend points to a desire for something more communal, formative and stable that doesn’t try to keep up with the cultural Jones. This generation seems to be longing for a transforming alternative to their lived reality of constant overstimulation, comparison and consumerism that has become a recipe for so much anxiety and isolation.

So, what does it look like in your context to simplify in an effort to facilitate a community marked by peace, relationship and spiritual formation? Is there anything that has become central to your ministry strategy that isn’t actually essential to or helpful for reaching people?

Unity, Diversity and Reconciliation

There have been many stories coming out of Asbury around unity, diversity and reconciliation … accounts of broken marriages restored, splintered friendships reconciled and prejudices confessed leading to unity among diversity. The worship leaders and speakers have included people from multiple ethnicities, nationalities, denominations and expressions.

We live in a world that is increasingly divided. Just jump online and state an opinion publicly about the most inane subject, and you’ll get roasted, blocked and canceled by somebody! This is the milieu that Gen Z and younger were born into, and it’s created deep fear that often leads to division.

The Gospel offers unity that people are desperate for but don’t know how to experience or find.. At Asbury, the Holy Spirit showed up and brought about this unity and reconciliation that so many are hungry for.

How can you prioritize leading the way in pursuing unity, diversity and reconciliation as a central component of your discipleship?

Humble Leadership

In a conversation with Mark Sayers on the Rebuilders podcast, Pete Greig, reflecting on his time spent at Asbury during the outpouring said, “It’s being led by humble leaders, and we’re so used to narcissistic leaders that when we see humble leadership, we assume there’s no leadership.”

There is an increasing distrust of leadership and organized religion for many reasons today. The rise and fall of many prominent Christian leaders and pastors have made headlines. Many are skeptical about the motives behind a lot of growth, a large platform, the fame or yes, even the fortune.

Perhaps the most distinctive part of the Asbury outpouring was the humble leadership involved. There was criticism from the evangelical world because of the decision not to livestream the entirety of the events. Instead, they just posted the one-hour chapel services that happen three times per week. In fact, they consistently asked people not to livestream! They were actively resisting the urge to make this something of celebrity and brand-building.

Asbury’s president, Dr. Kevin Brown, steadily refused the urge to bring attention to Asbury or himself. He celebrated and elevated the hundreds of volunteers and students who hosted, sacrificed and made room for the Holy Spirit to work. He deflected attention and removed himself to allow the students to lead out.

Asbury’s leadership made room for others to lead and for the Holy Spirit to move, and the result was that Jesus became the center of attention!

How can your church begin to prioritize shared leadership? Where can you elevate others and give more space for the Holy Spirit to move?

What does it mean?

Referring back to the Rebuilders podcast, they summarized it perfectly by saying that what happened at Asbury seemed so punctiliar (or relating to a point of time). God brought peace to an anxious generation, unity to a divided generation and humble leadership for a generation distrusting leadership.

Students at Asbury have given church leaders a glimpse into what matters to them, and it’s also pointing toward the ways God is moving in this generation. Stories of outpourings like this that are continually popping up around the world, and it certainly seems like God is doing something new in the hearts of so many.

May we have the humility to move out of the way, the courage to step out of our comfort and the willingness to surrender our preferences so we can be receptive to how God is moving!

Church leader, what you are doing matters. We are cheering for you and praying for you!