Ten years ago, the first CROSS conference kicked off in Louisville, Kentucky. About 3,500 students were there.
The next year, attendance dropped to 2,200.
“We lost a lot of money on each conference,” CROSS director Matt Schmucker said. “My board was looking at me, saying, ‘How long do you plan to keep losing money here?’”
Another nonprofit leader warned him that culture had moved into a “post-conference era.”
But Schmucker and his team didn’t give up. They adjusted the dates, the pricing, and the length of the conference. They prayed.
At CROSS CON21 / Photo by Karl Magnuson
This year, CROSS sold out. More than 10,500 people—mostly between the ages of 18 and 25—will gather next week in Louisville to hear John Piper, David Platt, Trip Lee, and others talk about the gospel.
“This conference will make you think differently about America’s youth,” said Schmucker, who loves to watch attendees, Bibles open, taking notes and asking good questions. “What I see at CROSS and what you see on Instagram are two very different things.”
The Gospel Coalition asked CROSS speaker and Reaching and Teaching International Ministries president Ryan Robertson how Gen Z thinks differently about missions than previous generations, if it’s possible to be a social media missionary, and what areas of the world Gen Z wants to evangelize.
From your vantage point as the leader of a missions organization, how do you think Gen Z looks different from previous generations?
Younger millennials and Gen Z seem to be looking to CROSS as a rallying point.
In general, the churches represented at CROSS have been influenced by leaders like John Piper, Mark Dever, and David Platt. For the past decade and a half, their pastors have been equipped by institutions like TGC and T4G [Together for the Gospel].
So in many ways, I’m not surprised that this generation, which grew up in those churches, wants to be involved in missions. While many Gen Zers are less biblically literate than previous generations, others are more informed theologically than their parents or grandparents were at this age.
I’m excited because, if you look at history, the great century of missions was not driven by student conferences but by faithful pastors in their local churches and really good stories being told of what God was doing around the world. I think those things are coming together again, with the added element of a convening power to get 10,000 students in a room together.
Another difference is the ubiquity of technology. How do you see screens affecting this next generation of missionaries?
There are pros and cons. One of the pros is that our ability to tell stories across the world has improved. Missionaries used to have to get on a boat and come back home to tell a story. Now they can Zoom people live or send a video to explain what is going on.
At CROSS CON21 / Photo by Karl Magnuson
Along those same lines, you can easily go onto Netflix and watch a show from another culture. That’s new. This generation is exposed to the world through media in a way other generations weren’t—or at least, it was more difficult.
I’m meeting a lot of students who are interested in certain places around the world because when they were younger, some type of digital output exposed them to a foreign culture. I’m seeing that especially for Japan. And I get it—I fell in love with India by watching Bollywood films.
That’s hopeful. On the other hand, I’m concerned with the amount of media Gen Z is consuming and what that means for missionaries on the field. It’s harder for them to give their absolute attention to their task. As much as I’m thankful for Netflix providing cultural onramps, I’m worried about it as an escape hatch for missionaries who are tired and struggling to learn a language.
I am also really nervous about how accessible digital porn is. I’m concerned that addiction to pornography is disqualifying tens of thousands of potential missionaries today. I’m worried that bad digital habits in America will come with missionaries overseas. I want to encourage churches to ask questions about that while discipling and vetting prospective missionaries.
What about young people who might want to be missionaries on social media?
You can be an evangelist wherever you are, sharing the gospel whenever you have the opportunity.
My concern for folks trying to be online evangelists is that you aren’t engaging people in their full personhood. One of the most helpful books I’ve read is Samuel James’s Digital Liturgies. He talks about how we project ourselves in a different way online. People project what they want you to see—and of course, you’re doing the same thing.
At CROSS CON21 / Photo by Karl Magnuson
It’s really difficult to push through with the gospel message when you don’t know who you’re talking to.
The goal of every missionary should be establishing a church where there isn’t one or strengthening an existing church when necessary—and churches are made up of image-bearers gathered together in the flesh, not digitally.
Collin Hansen and Jonathan Leeman’s Rediscover Church is maybe the most important book this generation needs to read to understand the importance of being together. I am encouraged that CROSS is gathering so many people in person. And they’re coming in groups. You don’t see many individual attendees off by themselves. They really do value being together.
What do you make of the larger numbers this year?
I’m curious if this is going to be a leading indicator for the next decade in mission sending. Will we see double the interest? I hope so.
Is it pent-up demand from COVID? I don’t think so.
I am encouraged and hopeful that there are this many students interested in theologically robust conversations about missions and discipleship. I think that’s going to translate to a different quality of missionary on the field.
I hear stories all over the world of well-intentioned missionaries who didn’t know much about the local church, who picked up a 9Marks resource and now say, “I wish I had known this 15 to 20 years ago.” These students are being exposed to good theology in their formative years, and that will transform how they go overseas.
The popularity of missionaries seems to have declined in recent decades. Especially today, the idea of trying to convince someone to accept your religious beliefs seems archaic and oppressive. Do you think Gen Z is worried about that?
From a broadly evangelical perspective, it’s true that the mass appeal of missions has gone down. We’re hearing a lot of those concerns from those with different theological convictions than we have.
We always have to be careful to properly convey biblical truths in culturally understandable ways but not to apologize for biblical convictions.
CROSS CON21 / Photo by Karl Magnuson
Aubrey Sequeira, who was born and raised in India and now pastors a church in Abu Dhabi, has been clear that we should not forsake biblical categories for the sake of cultural categories. I’ve also learned a great deal by listening to Harshit Singh, who will be speaking at CROSS, and observing the carefulness with which he prepares pastors theologically.
This is a generation willing to learn from Aubrey and Harshit—that’s new, and it’s helpful in addressing the cultural concerns of Westerners about sending missionaries.
What areas of the world is Gen Z interested in evangelizing?
We’re seeing interest in global cities in Japan and southeast Asia—our growth there has exploded in recent years. We’re also seeing another generation interested in going to the hardest places in the world to take the gospel where it isn’t known, and we’re grateful for the efforts of our friends at Radius International who are preparing some of our missionaries to do just that. We’re starting to see more students engaging with post-secular, anti-Christian Europe.
One area that I’m concerned about being neglected because it’s already “Christian” is the Global South. However, in much of Africa and Latin America, we are seeing the fruit of bad theology brought by previous missionaries peddling the health and wealth heresy.
CROSS CON21 bookstore / Photo by Karl Magnuson
Pastors there are asking for theological training and education. So we are trying to start conversations with the 20-to-25-year-old who is not sure about church planting but has enrolled in seminary. We want to say, “Hey, there are a lot of PhDs in America. What if you teach somewhere else?”
What if this generation can be part of helping to reestablish good theological hubs around the world and then transfer them in the right way to local churches and national pastors who can steward them well? What if this generation can ask, “How can we help?”
Having a servant-hearted generation now could be hugely effective. And I’m hopeful.
What’s the best advice you have for younger missionaries?
Over the last generation and into this one, we’ve seen an urgency to go overseas because of the lost. That is a good urge, but it does not trump the need for preparation. We’ve seen a lot of missionaries coming off the field quicker than they needed to because they didn’t have a good theological underpinning or weren’t centered in the local church.
At Reaching and Teaching, we aren’t telling young people to stay or to go. We want them to yield to their churches. If your pastors say they don’t think this is what you should be doing, be willing to listen to them. We live in an individualistic culture in terms of decision making. We want young people to lean into counsel instead.
We can always trust the Lord that there will be a remnant he’s going to be using to spread his glory. We have to trust the Lord in it all.