Written by Alex Street 

“We don’t just want your attention, we want you to be authentic!”

I had been doing some research on young adult ministry in the church and this sentence, proclaimed by a young adult with conviction in his voice, clarified everything for me. Youth and young adults today want authentic relationships. Unfortunately, this is a rare commodity in a world thriving on attention rather than authenticity.

To understand that, let’s take a closer look at the journey of someone in Generation Z. These are today’s teens: born between 1995-2010, 8-22 years old currently. They are about 15 per cent of Canada and 26 per cent of the U.S. population.  

They are often referred to as the “iGeneration,” “Digital Natives,” or my personal favourite, “Screenagers,” because smartphones have existed for almost all of their lives. Not to mention their habit of spending an average of four hours a day in front of a screen, and growing up in a world in which most of the people around them are doing the same thing.  

This simply means that Gen Z has always felt connected to the entire world and have always been competing for attention—not just on their social media profiles working for likes, comments, shares, and reposts, but at the dinner table, in the living room, out with their friends, in the cafeteria. Everywhere they go it is between their face and the phone you hold. It is no wonder we think they are desperate for attention.

Consider how it feels when you want to talk to someone and they pause to answer a text from someone else, or hear the ping of an email and their attention moves away from you for just a second. It’s not the fact that you lost their attention that hurts, it’s the apparent lack of authenticity—are you here with me, or are you there with them? Do you even see me?

I’m finding that although it may seem like teens today are striving for attention at any cost, they are in fact seeking authenticity. They are desperate for someone to see them and help them see.

When Jesus was walking through the streets, there were hundreds of people crowding around him. I can almost hear the people shouting, “Jesus! Teacher! Rabbi!! Look here, come here!” In one particular story, a woman reached out from the crowd and touched just the hem of His robe and was then healed of her 12-year sickness. Jesus could have kept moving, but instead He stopped, looked at her, called her daughter and gave her courage to live in new freedom.

There is a difference between attention and authenticity, and Jesus didn’t just give the people attention but shared authentic relational space with them.

When I asked one young adult recently what he meant by authentic relationship he compared it to punk rock and pop music. Top 40 pop music is catchy and has something to offer, but it’s made to make money. Punk music is grungy, rough, messy, and can’t be manufactured or else it has lost its very essence. In a world of young people seeking authenticity, we are left wondering how to deliver what they need when it can’t be reduced to an event, a program, or an app.  

Our response to this culture requires two steps, following in the way of Jesus—pause, then see. Pause, stop what you’re doing, put down your phone for long enough to listen. Then see, tell them what you see, and encourage them to step forward in confidence. In a world of addictions, apps, and attention-seeking, may you go and be one of the few authentic people in a teenager’s life.