By Jake Dell
Is Generation Z destined to restore the mainline Protestant church to biblical faithfulness?
Many of them think so, thanks to one Redeemed Zoomer, a popular YouTube personality with over 115,000 followers.
Redeemed Zoomer is the YouTube handle (@redeemedzoomer6053) for a “a regular gen Z (zoomer) who was raised in a very secular progressive culture.” He writes, “I am a Presbyterian, part of the PCUSA (Presbyterian Church USA), but I completely oppose the theological liberalism and progressivism that has hijacked it. I have made it my mission to restore it.”
One of the things that sets Redeemed Zoomer apart is his penchant for performing theologically sophisticated monologues, often while playing Minecraft. He has a YouTube following of over 115K subscribers who are rallying to his idea to “take back” the mainline churches. It’s called “Operation Reconquista.” He has also sent his take on the 95 Theses to every PCUSA church in the country.
I recently spoke with Redeemed Zoomer (by Zoom) and agreed to become a sort of Gen X chaplain-adviser to the Discord server (with over 1,000 members, mostly under 30) that he’s set up.
There, he has organized Gen Zs from the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and a few others, including the Anglican Church of Canada and the Church of England.
Redeemed Zoomer has partnered with The Fellowship Community, and from what he told me that community has adopted “reconquista” as a strategy. According to its website, The Fellowship Community seeks to “reclaim a covenanted biblical community” within the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Since I am an Episcopal priest, Redeemed Zoomer put me in the #Episcopal chat on his Discord server. There, I’ve encountered an earnest and theologically sophisticated group of Gen Zs ranging in age from 15 to 29, which probably makes the older among them younger Millennials.
One of them posted recently:
I am 24, so Gen Z, and was recently confirmed into the Church. The only people who I believe will be left in TEC [The Episcopal Church] in the coming decades will be a few of us willing to take charge. There won’t be many, but they will likely be traditional, since the Episcopal Church is unable to keep young people despite being so progressive. If we do the reconquista right, we can turn it back and grow it in the proper direction again.
The Episcopal group on Discord has undertaken to follow Redeemed Zoomer’s lead and is working on its own version of “95 Theses” for the Episcopal Church. The group calls itself Episcopal Fellowship for Renewal.
Plague and revival go together and Gen Z has already experienced both. The Asbury Revival went viral via TikTok, which became Gen Z’s go-to for connection during the lockdowns. Thus, one way to interpret what’s happening here is to frame it in terms of the pandemic: “A generation stamped by COVID takes on church reform.”
But I think the bigger story here is Boomers refusing to see the reality of their five-decade failure to safeguard “the faith once delivered,” and the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the mainline denominations they inherited. Significant resentment is directed at them from Millennials and Gen Z. We have all seen the “OK Boomer,” “BoomerCon,” and “Die Boomer” memes.
As a Gen Xer, I have often wondered what the point of my generation was. Too young to be Boomers, we grew up on their cultural hand-me-downs: The Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island reruns. (Star Wars and Indiana Jones definitely belong to us, however.) But a generation that knows how to dial a rotary phone may be just the bridge these Gen Z exiles need to help them return to their ancestral churches.
Perhaps we can play the part of Ezra, since we remember something of what the Church is supposed to be like, to these latter-day Nehemiahs who have come to rebuild.
Thus, I offer to Gen Z my how-to guide for restoring faithfulness to mainline churches — according to the whole of catholic faith and witness — based on 30 years of trying to do just that. Consider it an inheritance from this Gen Xer. It comes with my prayers for their success.
Three things to know
- It’s hard. You’ll feel sidelined and alone. You’ll wonder why you’re doing it. You’ll often think of those who have left to join or start other denominations and you’ll wonder if you should too.
- There are things you can’t say. It’s true your witness is compromised. You’re in the minority and you need to know your place. You won’t be sought out for preferment. There is no inside track for you. The important committees and big churches are (for the most part) off-limits to you.
- These are the people you need to reach. You wear the mantle of the prophet. This term has been overused by the charismatics, and to most people it means “predicting the future,” but the Protestant reformers knew it meant a bold and faithful witness to the Scriptures, spoken to a dying world that needs to hear them. If you’re looking for a mission field, look no further than your own church.
Five steps you can take
- Find friends. There are more of you than you realize. For instance, in the Anglican/Episcopal tradition there are groups like EFAC-USA (I serve on its board), Communion Partners, and The Prayer Book Society. Get on their mailing lists. Ask them if there are any members near you. Call them and meet them for lunch. I did this and drove two hours to visit a minister in Connecticut. He was so glad to realize that he wasn’t alone. Eventually we discovered another fellow up in Massachusetts.
- Don’t leave. This is what reformation looks like. You really don’t have any other choice, because even if you do leave, you’ll find the problems follow you. Jack Waters at The North American Anglican talks about this in his recent post, “Anglicans Shouldn’t Be Building New Colleges.” Speaking of the Anglican Church in North America, he writes, “more of [Episcopal culture] has been inherited than first meets the eye.”
- Enlarge your place. If everyone is welcome, then welcome me and people like me. If you’re in the mainline church, then your side has lost and lost definitively — for the moment. However, in the Episcopal Church we’ve been told by the House of Bishops (one half of the highest authority in our denomination, General Convention) that “[the Communion Partners] are an indispensable part of who we are … Our church needs their witness.”
When I was under fire in my congregation for holding to a traditional definition of marriage, my bishop, Andrew Dietsche, wrote to my wardens and vestry and told them that I represented a “venerable tradition” in the Episcopal Church. Chances are you can find similar statements in your denomination, even if it’s just something as banal as “Everyone is welcome,” or “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.” Well, okay then. Welcome me. Open your hearts and minds to the gospel. If you’re following Step #1, by now you might have enough new friends so that you can start enlarging your place.
- Find your voice. This can be scary, given the threat of being canceled. I’m still scared, even though I’ve survived. The fact is that reformation requires risk, but faith makes us bold. How this looks will be different for different people. Maybe you just need to raise your voice at a vestry or session meeting. Maybe you need to ask questions of candidates for church office. Maybe you should join that search committee that’s calling the next pastor.
Do not discount how important your smaller witness is to those called to make a bigger witness. When I was facing opposition, I was very discouraged. I was talking to my son about it and asked him why he hadn’t joined a local church. He said none of them were “biblical” or “orthodox” enough. I said, “First, that sounds like you’re making an excuse. Second, a church doesn’t have to be perfect for you to join it. Do you realize how encouraged a minister like me would be to have a young person like you join his church and give him your support?”
- Don’t argue. Witness instead. I like to debate. I like to win debates. But we’re not called to debate or dispute the gospel. We are called to proclaim it. I find that the most powerful witness is simply to open the Bible and read it out loud to someone who needs to hear it. For instance, instead of arguing over transgenderism, just read Genesis 1 and 2 out loud. Instead of arguing about same-sex sexual relationships, just read Leviticus 18 and Romans 1 out loud. Now, if you do that, you’ll immediately be attacked and you’ll naturally want to respond in kind. Don’t go there.
Your witness is to whole faith, not a late modern reduction of it. Have they grappled with these passages as well? Of course they have, but not kata holis, according to the whole. What has the Church everywhere and at all times believed? That’s the high ground. Hold it.
Conviction that results in either their condemnation or repentance is not up to you. Understand that God has ordained this encounter from before the world began, and that you, in this moment, are his chosen speaker. This has nothing to do with you. There is power in the Word of God, so get out of the way. Now, later on, if someone comes back to you with a teachable heart, then you can begin to answer their questions, and you’ll make progress.
The problem is that many of us want to start with reasoned explanations. But those will never work on hardened hearts. The Word itself does. Your first task is to read it out loud. The only question you should be answering at this point is, “Do I believe this?” And you reply, “Yes, I do.” There, you’ve done it. You’ve been a witness to the truth.
The Rev. Jake Dell is priest in charge at St. Peter’s Lithgow in the Episcopal Diocese of New York.