Ministry to Gen Z + Millennials: Randy Duncan and John Rathje

The first wave of Gen Z is finishing up their first year of college, making the college campus an interesting blend of Millennials and Gen Z students. Particularly on a Christian campus, how do we engage with these students in a meaningful way that points toward God? For this episode, we’re at our sister campus in Ann Arbor, joined by campus pastor Randy Duncan and dean of students John Rathje to talk about building authentic connections with students in a way that makes ministry impactful.

Guest Appearances

  • Randy Duncan — campus pastor at Concordia University Ann Arbor
  • John Rathje — dean of students at Concordia University Ann Arbor

Key Topics

  • Who is Gen Z? Are there key differences between this generation and Millennials? Does ministry to these young people need to be approached differently in order to be effective?
  • Rathje and Duncan share thoughts on how the Church has to change—not in theology or message but in how the message is communicated.
  • How do we become relatable to younger generations? Rathje and Duncan share some personal examples of how they have changed their approach in order to connect with students on campus.
  • Gen Z and Millennials aren’t looking for a cool factor in community; they’re looking for real, authentic connections.
  • Meet young people where they are, be approachable. Let them know that they won’t be blown out of the water if they confess a struggle.
  • Belonging matters—Gen Z and Millennials need to know that they belong first before they can be expected to believe.
  • Honest questions and honest doubts create honest faith. It’s easy to get scared of honest conversations, but Jesus invited the skeptic, the outsider. The Church must follow the example of Jesus in order to reach people, particularly Gen Z and Millennials.

Are you a Millennial or Gen Z? What are your thoughts on Duncan and Rathje’s approach to connecting with your generation? Or, if you’re in ministry, did any of their thoughts and advice resonate with you? We’d love to hear your thoughts. Find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to share your feedback on this episode.

Episode transcript

Randy Duncan:  What I also found is Jesus is pretty irresistible if he’s presented – if we get out of the way – presented for who he is, through the Gospels and you see this change happening when they actually… “Oh, this is him? The guy that stands up against the religious system for a woman caught in adultery, that’s Jesus.” When we have that honesty, it’s not that [this generation is] antagonistic, they just don’t know.

Angelina: Welcome back to the Living Uncommon podcast. We are back in Wisconsin after spending some time in Ann Arbor, and we have a very special new host with us today which we’re super excited to introduce to you guys. So, it’s still me and Michael, but now we also have Dan Baker on the microphone. Welcome, Dan.

Dan: Thanks. Thanks for having me. Thanks for inviting me.

Michael: Dan’s gonna fill the role of basically the curmudgeonly old man on our podcast. He doesn’t want to even be added on to this podcast. He wants to be edited out. He’s kind of a grump overall.

Dan: It’s true that I am the oldest person in the office, actually, the department. That does give me a little bit of authority, I think, on almost every topic.

Angelina: Absolutely. Final word.

Michael: So, tell us about yourself. Start way, way back.

Angelina: What was your first word as a child?

Michael: What’s your first memory?

Dan: So, I grew up in Wisconsin. I grew up in kind of the farmlands of southeastern Wisconsin, in a farm town, although, we were not farmers. I’m a twin. I grew up using plural pronouns my entire life because my brother and I were only a couple minutes apart, and we’re super close, and we spent every minute of every day of our entire lives together.

Angelina: I didn’t know you were a twin!

Dan: I am, yeah. Often, when I talk about my past, especially, I’ll say “we.” It’s a habit. He’s a librarian.

Angelina: Are you guys identical?

Dan: We’re not technically identical. We do look a lot a like.

Angelina: So, there aren’t days where it’s not been Dan at work.

Dan: No. People do still get us mixed up. It’s funny. I will sometimes meet people that he knows, and they’ll always just assume that I’m him. I mean, it’s always fun. So, I grew up down just south of Lake Geneva in that area. I’ve lived in Milwaukee now for 17 years. We live in the Walker’s Point neighborhood. We’ve lived there basically the entire time. So, we just had the opportunity to buy a little shed from the Walker’s Point neighborhood. Been there ever since.

Michael: What is Walker’s Point, for those of us not from Wisconsin?

Dan: For the non-Wisconsin people. . . I don’t know. Milwaukee’s not very big. It has a very small downtown. So, just south of downtown is this area called the Third Ward, which was the old warehousing, Meatpacking District kind of place. Then, the next neighborhood to the south of that is called Walker’s Point. Walker’s Point technically was a whole separate town back in the old times and slowly got annexed by Milwaukee. It was the first, I think, addition to Milwaukee, so, it’s a very old neighborhood. It’s a neighborhood of immigrants. So, it’s been kind of, you know, German, Polish kind of, all the way up until modern time. Now, it’s almost all Hispanic immigrants from the various Central and South American countries. There’s a big Puerto Rican and Mexican community right there in Walker’s Point. We’re surrounded by a lot of great Mexican restaurants.

Michael: What’s your favorite Mexican dish that’s by you?

Dan: I mean, honestly, I judge a Mexican restaurant by how good the salsa is. I don’t know why. I just, you know, it’s kind of my go-to thing. If it’s flavorful salsa then…

Michael: I remember when I lived in Minneapolis. I lived next to a grocery store, a Mexican grocery store. Then, there was a laundromat. The laundromat, I don’t know if it was connected to the… because it was connected to a grocery store or not, there’d be a woman that would sell elote. So, that’s the roasted corn with mayonnaise, and spicy seasoning, and different things on it, cotija cheese. It was amazing. It was just a woman at the laundromat. So, you go in the laundromat and just pick it up from her. She’d have a little hotbox kind of thing, and it was great.

Angelina: So, did you do your laundry and eat your food?

Michael: Yeah.

Angelina: What a great combination. So, Dan, what are your feelings about being a part of the Living Uncommon podcast?

Dan: I’m excited. I listen to podcasts all the time, so, I’ve not had an opportunity to be on one. So, yeah, I’m pretty excited about it. I think you guys are doing a great job.

Michael: Thanks, Dan.

Dan: I’ll try my best to replace Tim.

Michael: And, by the way, Tim, if you’re listening, we miss you. Tim is in the middle of Michigan, in the small town, and he is now a…he has a congregation. He’s a minister. So, he’s doing that full-time. So, go get ‘em, Tim! Anyway, we have a great podcast today.

Angelina: A few weeks ago, we were over at our sister campus in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and we talked with some of the faculty about different research areas and topics that they’re dealing with over there. The first episode that we’re gonna share with you guys, today, is a conversation that we had with the dean of students and campus pastor over there about the Gen Z and Millennial generations and what it looks like to be in ministry with those students, some of the challenges, some of the opportunities. Let’s listen in.

Michael: All right. Welcome back, everybody. We are live on campus in Ann Arbor. We’re not really live because this is recorded. We are joined here by two great men of faith and a big part of the culture here at Concordia University Ann Arbor, Randy Duncan and John Rathje. So, we want to start talking about your faith backgrounds. So, you’re both involved in ministry, and have kind of an interesting route to ministry from what I know about your backgrounds. Maybe we could start with Randy—talk a little bit about your faith walk, and then, how that, if it eventually evolved into kind of a calling and a ministry.

Randy: I grew up in southwest Detroit, city boy, born and raised and southwest Detroit. There’s no south Detroit. Journey had it wrong. I grew up in a loving family, but we weren’t really Christian at all, didn’t go to church, and it wasn’t until just prior to my my senior year in high school where I gave any consideration really to being a fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ. It was after a good friend of mine was murdered and sent me on a journey with a youth leader who worked with my father at a General Motors plant. Everybody in Detroit works with either General Motors, Ford, or Chrysler, but, he worked with my father. It was a youth leader in a parish by our house, and he just came alongside and shared the gospel with me. I was looking to Judaism from my family past. I looked into different religions. They all seemed to be talking about Jesus in some way or another, and I mentioned to them, “Everybody’s talking about Jesus.” He says, “Well, why don’t you see what Jesus has to say about Jesus. Open up the book of John for me.” Jesus is the way, the truth, and the light. My life was changed.

I ended up coming here. This is my alma mater. I came here because I wanted to know a little bit more about this Jesus, and it was close University. So, I ended up coming here. A lot of my spiritual formation happened here, and I was probably one of the most reluctant pastors around because… I don’t know if you’ve ever done this before…you don’t want to ask God what he wants because you really want to do it, and then you’re not going to be an active disobedience because you can claim ignorance. I didn’t want to pray about this. It was…just sainted last year, Dr. Hecker, who came alongside me and said, “Hey, Randy. Have you ever prayed about becoming a pastor?” I told God, you know, send me to Africa. I’ll do whatever, but I just don’t want to be a pastor because I thought you had to be born with a collar on, and I had history, and I don’t come from a dynasty of Lutheran pastors. We weren’t even hardly Christians in my family. So, I thought I wasn’t pastor quality. But, I prayed about it and ended up telling my… she was about to be my fiance, “How do you how do you feel about being married to a pastor?” She said, “This isn’t getting weird or anything. We’re talking about you, right?” “Yeah, no,it’s me.” “Oh, it’s you. I’d follow you wherever.” So, I ended up going to Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne and became a pastor, and a missionary, and did mission work in North America and Africa. I ended up coming back to my alma mater here, and now, campus pastor.

Michael: Why the LCMS? Why drew you to want to be involved with this particular synod?

Randy: It was because it was an LCMS church that youth leader worked at. So, that was my first imprinting. Then, later, you know, it was a decision. I liked the theology, and I loved the theology. Sometimes, you’re working with humans. So, I heard somebody once say, “The church, it’s kind of like Noah’s Ark. If it wasn’t for the storm on the outside, you couldn’t stand the stink on the inside.” What I also found through the church is my mom. I really feel an obligation…even more than an obligation, a privilege, to get back to it because this is where I really came to know Jesus. So, I want to help bring renewal and want to connect people with Jesus. The LCMS has really supported me to be able to do that.

Michael: John, how about you? Your background, your faith walk, and how you came to where you are today?

John: Sure, well, I appreciate you asking because it’s a testimony, I think, to a number of people who really played into that and fed into that. Out of high school, I was in the Army, and the Army Reserves, and attending college. I wasn’t sure what to do with my life, and then, because of relationships in my life, I thought it was really important to get a job as fast as I could, which I hear in somewhat echoed and some students here on campus actually. The quickest route, I thought, at the time, was education. I couldn’t transfer into one of the Concordia’s at that time, but I found out I could start attending Concordia Ann Arbor no matter where I was going, in this area, and get a colloquy. In those days, to be a that teacher, you had to attend the University and take theology classes.

This is really pivotal because the first class I had actually, and we share this, was the sainted Dr. Jacob Heckard. In that class studying New Testament, he just kept asking, “Well, what do we do with God’s Word when it says this, or this, or this?” That really challenged me to take it seriously. I grew up in Saginaw, Michigan with my father and mother. My mother is a retired Lutheran school teacher, actually, and so I grew up connected to the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. My father was very socially active in the local community, an elder at the congregation at different times, but he saw this love of God actually being lived out, not just something in your head, but a part of your lifestyle. So, I grew up with that in my home, and we’d have a variety of people come to visit or have dinner with. So, when Dr. Heckert said that, it really challenged me to think about ‘how am I going to take that personally to show that in my life?’

From there, I started teaching, and I saw people continuing to ask deeper questions, and it forced me to think through the deeper questions. After being a teacher for five years, and then 12 years with a congregation and a variety of roles, mostly as director of counseling families, those kinds of things, during that time, then, I finished a degree in the counseling and psychology through Michigan State University and became a private practice therapist. So, all of that converged, I want to say, and as a what’s called a second career for me, it was probably about the fourth career to be a Lutheran pastor. I attended Concordia Seminary down in St. Louis, and I just graduated from there and ordained in 2008. So, it’s only been 11 years that I’ve been an ordained pastor. While I was there, and then shortly after, I served as the 17th pastor of Christ in the City of Lutheran Church, a mission plant and restart, where we were working with college students and helping to rebuild the inner city of St. Louis. What was amazing is to watch how God could use all of those background pieces to really demonstrate his love as you’re living it every day, and that just shaped me in who I was. So, from there, then, this position here became available, and it seemed like this was a good fit.

Michael: That’s great, thank you.

Angelina: So, what does it look like now? You guys both come from a background of ministry, and you’re now on a college campus where there’s sort of, probably, for the most part, a very specific demographic that you’re serving. What does that look like in the day-to-day work?

You know, a lot of people have conversations about the pros and cons of Millennials, and, you know, the downfalls of Gen Z, and what does that look like to interact with these generations on a college campus?

Randy: Well, for me, my background had been doing missionary work, so my first call out of seminary was actually to start a mission society to reach Muslim people. So, I started that. We’re working cross-culturally. I spent time in Africa, the church planting too. Coming here, I really felt that I’m going to be working with a lot of Lutheran’s and other Christians, but, this is a mission field. So, that was a prime motivation to coming here. Being able to come alongside students that know Christ and help them to know more fully, to make it more fully known to this world. There’s many that, you know, what thrills me is coming alongside students, and Gen Z, and Millennials that don’t know anything really about the faith, they’re pretty much biblically illiterate. Which, to me, kind of thrills me because you don’t have to unlearn stuff. Sometimes, that’s even harder. They’re just like a knife. I never heard this before in my life, and so I have the opportunity, I know John does too, with teaching. So, I teach six credits in the theology department, and I really want to focus on the core classes. These are new students coming in, and to really introduce them to the author, and really connect them so it’s not just aiming at the head, but we’re really aiming at the heart too.

I think, reaching this generation, you got to do that. If it’s sterile, it’s not gonna work, it’s got to be organic, it’s gotta be relational, it’s got to be authentic. What you see is what you get. Now, leading chapels as this campus pastor, I want to present the message in a way that’s meaningful. It’s great that Moses made it through the Red Sea, but how are we gonna make it through Monday? How are we gonna make it through the semester? The same God that lead Moses through there, that’s the same guy that’s here. No matter what we face, he’s there. I approach it more missional than the opportunities throughout the day, and training leaders, or development things like that.

John: Well, Randy, you’ve been a great inspiration for me and many others. How you just care for people no matter where they are, and that idea of transparency is so crucial for Gen Z. Even just your preaching about your life. I think that’s the thing that really inspires me to be here is that it’s not by accident that God draws each person here, This concept of a God who loves us so much that he would not only send His only Son, but he would take our burden in our pain, and he calls us to trust him. What does that look like in our lives each day?

I have a chance, as a Dean of Students, which is a unique call because it functions of quite a bit in the realm of how to live on campus, what you do or don’t do. From a pastoral perspective, from the grace of God, thinking about how Jesus Christ actually comes to make us whole, to take our pain, and our burden, and walk with us through all of that, this moment, whatever it is we’re experiencing is not the end. To me, that’s exciting that there’s a God that we can trust because he’s proven he’s trustworthy. Each day, I have conversations with students around the campus, in my office, with my staff, with other faculty, with administrators, with people off campus, about this God who was involved in our whole person restoration, not only now as part of the kingdom of God, but eternally, then even after life.

I agree with you, Randy. I think that the draw for me was that there are plenty of people on our campus who really don’t know that kind of love. So, if we can walk alongside and demonstrate that, and really care for them as a whole person, to me, that’s a powerful witness. It’s out of that that they know we care that then they know who cares, you know?

Michael: So, I’m curious, John. With your background in psychology and counseling therapy, generation z, I’ve seen reports put out by different institute’s, that they have a high level of anxiety, a high level of concern about even practical matters. I think they said that one of the primary motivators for generation z, the other things like money and security, they don’t consider themselves adults until they cannot actually afford their own house. It’s not 18, it’s once you move out and you can start making a living. Talk to me a little bit about that and how you’re ministering to meet this anxiety. Jesus tells us not to sometimes worry as much about those things, but, how do you help them?

John: Well, first, please understand that I think it’s human, just in how we’re made, that this side of the fall of mankind back in Genesis 3, that we’re going to be wrestling with security and safety issues with anxiety until Christ returns or calls us home. So, the sense of building security and peace is shown in relationship as well as in the context we create. So, for instance, out of my office, I work with the Campus Safety Department, and unless safety as a campus is there, then we really increase that anxiety that people come with. So, parents also carry some of that anxiety and that need. Speaking into all of those contexts, of faculty and others, we want to make sure it’s a safe campus. So, that’s a piece of it, the practical side of it. I’d also say this, as opposed to our sister campus at CUW, with the career engagement, the career services that we have on campus, we want them to be experiential. Also, in my office, we look at the whole person development. Not that the career folks at CUW don’t, it’s intentional here, is my point. So, we can help students learn right away that we care about you and your impact in this world, and that includes making a wage that you can live on or more. Having the experiences and the connections you need so you can have that Concordia confidence that’s needed to step out and really impact this world with Jesus love, that’s where we’re going. So, I think, practically contextually, there are some pieces there that we have to be very deliberate about as a university. I would also say, personally, when we’re honest with students, when we sit down with them, when we talk with them, when we’re speaking publicly, when we write things, when we publish things, this podcast, are we willing to be honest about who we are? I think that invites them in to trust and also decreases some of that distance that can be what accentuates that anxiety that students can feel.

Angelina: As you’re engaging with students on a daily basis, what are some of the challenges that come up? I’m assuming that there probably are challenges, or when you have hard conversations with students whether it’s about their experience here at Concordia, or their faith journey, you know, what does that look like? What are those challenges that come up?

John: Sometimes, we may have some similar conversations, but I’m guessing they are a little bit different. Some of those conversations for me, as a Dean of Students, it’s not always their choice. So, I’ll just be blunt about that. Sometimes, I invite them in because they’ve stepped out of bounds of what it means to live as a healthy community, to be safe as a community. To me, that’s a context for a bigger conversation than where are you going, why are you doing this, how does this impact your team, or your suitemate, or roommate, or your significant other? What does that look like for you? In addition to that, I would say, conversations when students have some type of need, or crisis, is often the context to be able to say, “Who can meet that need in the ultimate sense?” Often, when a student comes in, I’ll ask them how they’re doing and how I can help, but, the third question of how can this be transforming or helping you in the future, and part of that, how can I pray for you? I believe in a God who cares what does that mean for you?

Those kinds of pieces really make a difference.

I’ll also say that talking with students, when we’re just walking around campus, I live on campus. I have an incredible privilege in doing that. So, sitting on my porch and offering coffee to students, or walking back after a long day and just talking about how the day went, that also, I think, adds to that connection. That can bring hope or life beyond whatever they are experiencing in that moment.

Randy: A lot is just really meeting them where they’re at and being available, being approachable, authentic. I think what speaks to that generation a lot is casual too, that they know that they can come to you and they’re not going to be blown out of the water if they tell you, “Hey, I’m struggling with sexual sin, I’m struggling with some massive depression. Can we talk? Can we pray? I’m struggling in this area, I’m struggling with my parents.” To be able to come alongside them, because everything is spiritual, you remind them that God’s never gonna waste any of your pain. Whatever, God’s gonna use it in some way, it’s almost like this little work, it’s pretty crappy at the moment, but then, he’s gonna use it as fertilizer. He’s gonna produce something beautiful to grow out of this. I think, what’s violet for me as a campus pastor, just to be approachable. Whether they’re, you know, lifelong Lutheran’s, or they’re not even Christian at all, but, there’s something that they see that is real. It’s a great opportunity to bring Christ into this who says, “Come to me all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” So, keep buying them back to Jesus.

Angelina: I’m really interested in, you know, you talked about being approachable, and it seems like that lays a foundation of trust, and it gets these students to be able to say, “Hey, I can trust Randy. I’m gonna go to him with this.” What are some practical ways that you make yourself approachable, and really, what does that actually look like to be that?

Randy: For me, it’s being transparent. I remember going to seminary, and I was told, “When you talk about the law, or you talk about sin, don’t use ‘we’ use ‘you.’” They want a pastor to be kind of separate, to be able to speak into that kind of authority. I remember hearing squeeze me, you know, excuse me, what did I think. That is how Jesus even acted. He said to his friends, my soul is sorrowful. Even unto death, bidding a struggle. So, I think, it’s being transparent. You know, I mean, I struggle. There’s days where I’m going, “Okay Jesus, where are you?” Things are happening in my life, and like, I am also saying, “But, God is so good, he’s so faithful, and he’s got a great track record with me.” So, I think, it’s the willingness to say, you know, we all struggle. Don’t feel like, if you have doubts, that you can’t have faith in anything.

I think what this generation really wants is honesty, you’re okay to be honest about the situations that were we’re in. What I found is, if we can actually get them to have honest questions, honest doubts, it will produce honest faith. It will lend itself. You gotta be honest about it. I think the church, sometimes, is insecure because they’re afraid of honest dialogue. We don’t have to be afraid of that, and Jesus invited dialogue, and he invited the skeptic, and invited the hurting, and the outsider. So, for me, they know that I’m not going to speak down at them, and they can admit whatever they’re going through, and we’re gonna pray through it. I’m here for them. I’ve also walked through it. They’re not going through something that others haven’t gone through. Sometimes, when you’re in depression, you think, “I’m all alone. Nobody has ever gone through this stuff.” But, we have to let them know, oh, no, you’re not alone. We’re in. We’re in this. I’m like Henry now and use that term “wounded healer.” I’m just a wounded healer. I just know where the source is for strength and for peace. For you, it’s in Jesus Christ.

Michael: I like this idea of God being there even in the dark times, anything with the Bible, and they often think about God is light, and bringing light. You also, in Moses, received the commandments. There’s a shrouded in a cloud, and God appears in the darkness too. He’s still there.

As I think about these conversations you’re having, it’s often, I mean, it’s incredibly personal with these students. You get to know them, their needs, it’s intimate. At the same time, these students are coming at life, and lots of life issues, from a cultural vantage point that’s not what it used to be, right? It’s different. It’s not Christian in a lot of ways. How do you bridge that? How do you take, particularly, generation z, how do you bridge a gap in, you know, what is truth? What is right and wrong? Or, is that gap exaggerated? Are you seeing that it’s, maybe, stereotyping generation z in a certain way? What has your experience been with that?

John: I would say, I see trends moving toward what you’re talking about at a general level. Of course, there are exceptions. I would also say that, here on this campus, we can have students from a variety of backgrounds, as we mentioned, so, some of our students don’t maybe fit the Gen Z mold that’s being touted or looked at, right? They might have grown up in a much older generational kind of event. So, we have a variety of students, but, you’re saying, how do we bridge that? I would say a couple of things. One, as Randy said so well, being honest and talking about the realities of life. I think, identity and significance. This idea of purpose in life. What do you want to do?

If anything, I see a rise in students DIY generation. They’ll figure it out. They may need support. Or, they’re feeling the pressure to figure it out and they don’t know how, but there’s a desire. Of course, we’re speaking in generalities. So, if I can play into that when a student comes in… I know when I look at scripture, for me, personally, my own journey…. so, it wasn’t always with the church…this idea of safety, love, and belonging, or acceptance, are really core to who we are as human beings. Jesus came and answered all of those. So, if we talk about identity and purpose, I think we’re beginning to enter into that and bridge some of those. To be honest, I still see the old adage that they don’t know what you care until they know you care. However, you’ve heard that, maybe, in the past. So, as Randy said, just being honest and spending time, going into their world, listening, being available, open-door policy. I know Randy has, it’s just beautiful, really matters.

Randy: I think, with this generation, first, they need to know that they belong before they can believe, for many of them. So, they’ve accepted that you belong, you’re one of us. We’re not hoping you jump through enough hoops and then you can become one, no, you’re one of us right now. We’re all on this journey together. In this faith journey, we’re in different places. Yours is a little different than mine. What I also found is Jesus is pretty irresistible if he’s presented. If we get out of the way, and presented for who he is, through the Gospels and you see this change happening when they actually… “Oh, this is him? The guy that stands up against the religious system for a woman caught in adultery, that’s Jesus.” Jesus, who was holiness incarnate, yet he’s the first one invited to parties. Jesus, who makes the first six-pack at the wedding at Cana, ceremonial jars of water. He’s providing joy. I think they’ve looked at us in the past, and they look at our practice, and, you know, many ways Christians themselves have a greatest reason for receiving Jesus. They’re also the biggest excuse for rejecting them. I think, a lot of it’s because we’re not going to be honest and say we all struggle. What, I think, when we have that honesty, that what I found is, it’s not that they’re antagonistic, they just don’t know. They’re living in a culture that’s saying, well, there’s a variety of different ways. I said, “Well, what other way would you want to be? What other way would you want to go than with Christ?”

John: Can I add something to that? I like what you said, Randy. If we can present the Jesus Christ of the grace of God without, and what an expectation of biblical knowledge, you know, or Church knowledge, or worship liturgy knowledge, I think that’ll go a long way because it’s not always there. I mean, that’s what we’re seeing and learning. The wider divide… you were mentioning, Michael.

Randy: Even the way that we live. I find that my teaching has kind of changed. Now, all the incoming students are Gen Z. It’s largely narrative, the way I teach. Let me tell you a story of David and Bathsheba today, and they’re like, dude, that’s amazing after God’s own heart…He knew God’s heart was forgiving. It’s so new to them, but, I think, we’re almost getting to the point where we’re going back to almost the first century, and let’s just tell the story and not dissect Jesus. Let’s just present who he is as a whole in his life. I’ve seen great things that happen as they hear the narrative.

John: I’ll add to that too, Randy. One of the things that I saw when I was teaching the doctrinal class that we have, that everybody takes that’s kind of built on the story, is asking questions and still going back to making it a narrative presentation. That still works, even though we’re talking about deep theological pieces that can often go over anybody’s head, even mine sometimes. The narrative really works.

Randy: It kind of resonates with them because they can get that, and then you use what they know to tell them what they don’t know a little bit deeper.

Angelina: So, when you mentioned something about posing the question to students saying, “Well, if not Jesus, then what?” When you have those conversations, you know, if you’re in a class setting and you’re talking about something, do you ever have students who are speaking up, maybe pushing back against you? What does it look like to, you know, exist in that tension, especially with the fact that both of our campuses, you know, we are very, clearly, distinctly Lutheran, but our doors are open to anyone. So, what does it look like to live in that kind of, maybe a little bit of, tension sometimes?

Randy: For me, look, teaching some of these core classes where there’s, you have to have three religion courses to graduate, if you’re not going into church work. So, you have everybody coming into these classes, atheists, and they’ll let me know, Muslims. There’s been a few times where the Muslim way was a question, and I know enough Arabic that I was able to respond, which had freaked them out a little bit. So, they gotta watch what they’re saying. To say, “Hey, you know, we can have a discussion.” We do. “Let’s talk about it.” Truth is resilient. We don’t have to be afraid of questions. It’s one of the things that you see with Jesus. I mean, he loved questions. He would ask questions. He would get questions. It’s being able to use that and to have it. It’s not gonna be, I can’t grade you on your faith, but, here are some things with the Christian faith that you need to know. In class, if you got questions, it’s okay to ask them because you’re probably not alone, or I probably ask them myself.

John: Even Jesus’s disciples asked questions. Jesus asked them questions. That’s a great way to do it. It really probes at the heart and what’s going on.

Randy: With the one Muslim student, because I opened up the Quran, and it said that you cannot ask questions of the Prophet. I said, “This is contrast with Jesus who said, ‘bring it.’” As long as it was honest, the only time you didn’t answer was when people were not honest, when there was not an honest question. But, if it was an honest question, he was always willing to answer. He has always shown grace and mercy to people and, kind of, bringing them alongside.

Michael: So, how have you been challenged? How have you felt yourself stretched and growing in your faith as a result of your roles at CUAA? How has this generation, these students, pushed you, made you question things, made you reveal new things in your life? What’s that impact been like?

John: One thing that comes to mind is the disconnect. I’m 56. I have four children. My wife and I are blessed with four children, two granddaughters, and I think about our granddaughters and what they’re experiencing. Of our four children, probably our youngest is the closest to what I’m experiencing, especially with like freshman sophomores coming in, but, there is still a difference. So, part of that is understanding the world from that perspective, and age, and included in that, I would say, is language. That’s the first thing that came to my mind when you said that. Jesus is intentional about the things he says in addition to showing it with the things he does in his love for me and all humanity. What does that mean for the language? That’s where, actually, in my own disconnect, the challenge in that, asking questions becomes a regular habit just to find out and try to figure out, to bridge the gap, let alone what they think about Jesus Christ, or in the world. Sometimes, I’m clueless. That’s part of it. That’s the first thing that comes to mind. I’d say, also, the background I have with or without the Christian Church as a part of my life is not always the experience of the person in front of me. So, there’s a disconnect there, of wanting to get to know them and hear their story. Sometimes, that’s a challenge as well. My own assumptions, you know?

Randy: I think I’ve been blessed by this generation. Growing up a gen xer, you kind of grow up with Christianity…it’s a lot of cliches. You’re like, “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” What the heck does that mean? If you’re on the first floor, that’s a good idea. If you’re on the tenth floor, that’s nothing. It doesn’t make me happy or anything like that, but to go deeper…. No, let’s not give them cliches. Let’s be honest and say, “You know, I don’t know, I wish I could answer that.” It’s also forced me to be a little more honest with myself. Why do I believe what I believe? If we don’t know why we believe what we believe, if somebody just talked you into it, somebody else could talk to you out of it. So, there, I think, when they get it, they get it. It’s real because they’re processing it, they’re trying to figure this out. They’re not just buying it wholesale, they’re just saying, “Why should I believe this?” When you give them enough where they’re receiving it and that change…. one student just said, right before he came here, “I never stepped foot in a church before until Chapel. Please baptize me.” It’s just making attractional. I think I’ve learned a lot from them in the sense of, “Okay, let’s be real, God,” and kind of go back to David and the Psalms, just a lot of struggle. There’s always a great resolution in the Psalms. Okay, God, you’re on the throne. Everything’s gonna be okay.

John: That’s kind of a gift to us, right, to be challenged in your row? Absolutely! it is for me. I grew up as a baby boomer, and the veneer is part of what I grew up with. So, I’m constantly blasted at that. It’s good point, Randy.

Randy: Some of these courses they’ve made in the past, this is the theology, all right, all right, great, pass the test, and this generation asks, “Why?” “Well, you’re not supposed to ask that. Just believe it.” “No, why?” Let’s look at the scriptures. Let’s look at theology, and let’s look at apologetics, a variety different things, and this is why. it’s not irrational faith. There’s a reason why we believe what we believe.

Michael: You seem to be comfortable with the role of uncertainty in faith. I think there’s, in a way, uncertainty can be helpful for faith because you don’t make an idol out of certainty, if that makes sense. Can you talk a little bit about that, about how you’ve allowed, maybe allowed is not the right word, but you’ve encouraged people to explore that feeling, that kind of moment in their life where they have that uncertainty, but it’s not derailing you from faith, it’s putting you on the path towards something.

Randy: Well, for me, I think it’s important for us, and for me, to know that God’s got a timetable. We could have bullet points that say, by this point, you should be believing this, and you should be believing this, and you should be here. You see how Jesus worked with the Apostles, and sometimes, he’s saying, “How long are we going to have to put up with you?” “You have little faith.” To realize that we’re all in journey, none of us has arrived, none of us. I’m moving more, hopefully, to the image of Christ, but to be willing to admit that I don’t have all the answers. The Bible is not meant to be just an answer book, right? It’s meant to point to Jesus, a relationship. I wish there was more in the Bible to explain everything. I think what the Bible is meant just so that we seek not just answers, but that we seek Him, to be able to rest in him, even when we don’t have any answers to our questions. I know enough right now that I’m putting all my eggs in Jesus’s basket. That doesn’t mean I have all the answers. They’re sometimes like, “I don’t get that at all.” I’m giving Jesus more than the past because of what he has done and who he’s shown himself to be.

John: The image I have, as you speak that, Randy, is the journey that God has us on. He’s engraved us, Isaiah says, in the palm of his hand. He knows, you know? That’s the picture that comes to my mind is Jesus with the two men on the road to Emmaus after he’s risen from death. He’s already done everything to rescue all of humanity, and answer all of our questions, all the certainties are in Him, yet, these two guys, they’ve seen and heard, and yet they’re still clueless, and they’re asking questions, and God just loves them enough to walk with them personally. Then, he opens their eyes to see him as the answer to all their questions.

Angelina: I think it’s such a beautiful picture of ministry, the way that both of you guys talk about how you’re not talking at these students, I’m doing life with them, and I’m learning from them, and I’m allowing myself to be open to be changed by them and impacted by them. And, even Randy, what you were saying about sitting in seminary school, saying, “You” instead of “We.”

Can you talk a little bit about where you see the church as a whole in relating to this generation?

You know, sometimes, I hear complaints from Millennials and Gen Z that that’s what they’re experiencing, that people aren’t willing to be in life with them, they’re just talking at me and telling me what I need to do versus hearing my questions, or doing life with me. Maybe there’s some fear there in engaging as a leader, or even as a parent. How do I engage with my kid, or my student, or my congregation in a way that’s transparent, and full of honesty, and that it’s not just me talking at you, but we’re in this together? What would you say to someone, regardless of who they are, if they’re feeling that fear of entering into that?

John: Who are your relationships becomes the question. Who are you walking with? In that same vein that, as Randy said, it’s not about a timing that we might want. I have a good friend, he was actually a guy who worked with me down in St. Louis, Missouri before I came here with the inner city work, and we were working with college students. He’s the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod pastor of the fastest growing congregation in the Synod right now down in Mount Dora in Florida, Pastor Zach Zehnder. He has a connection to walk with people, he’s just being real, and it’s, I think, at any age that really draws. Actually, I’m not sure if I answered your question for the church, to be honest and genuine about itself, as Randy’s been talking about, I think, is the lifeblood of the future of the church. Are we willing to walk with people through whatever they have instead of saying, “You have to clean up to be loved by God, or to be a part of this church, or a part of this community of faith, or whatever this is here as a campus,”… you have to look a certain way, or act a certain way. I think to your point, Michael, earlier, that’s what I hear in society over and over again in a commercial istic society. So, this fear of missing out, FOMO, is actually a huge thing that I see among students. Well, actually, I’m here with you right now, so, how can that speak to meeting those needs? I don’t know, Randy, what would you say?

Randy: I think some of it just comes down to love – do you actually love these people? Do love this generation? Do you love your past more than you love these living people, this generation? I’m not called to be a museum director, you know? It’s alive, it’s organic. These are the people that Jesus died for. So, do we love them? Are we willing to risk? To me, how do you spell faith is R-I-S-K, your stepping out. If you love somebody, you might do it in such a boneheaded way. You’re like, “Oh, we want to reach Gen Z,” and, you know, you think the stereotype, this caricature, and you’re trying to do some program, and it just bombs. What I’ve seen with this generation is they can smell a phony a mile away. So, if you actually love them, they’ll chuckle at ya, but they’ll want to be a part of what you’re offering. They’re really searching for that. Many, you know, in our culture, they’re broken families and they need stability, they’re looking for love. If the church is willing to change a little bit and be innovative, not in the message at all, that’s heresy. How do we communicate? It’s about communication. I think we’ve settled in the past for proclamation. As long as what we say is right, it’s good enough. I mean, it’s their fault if they don’t give it. But, in this generation, we have to be about communication. It has to be about others, you know, the receptor oriented. What does it mean to them? How do we communicate to them? If we’re not willing to communicate the gospel, then the church, the campus, is in dire straits because for us, at Concordia, that’s what it’s about. Our scripture on the cornerstone of the chapel is, “Christ first and everything preeminent,” and all things that Christ became an incarnational. He talked about change, God becoming flesh, and dwelling among us entering into our medicine. So, are we willing to change and enter into a mess just because we love and we’re trying to redeem?

Michael: Great. Thank you both very much for this discussion. This was inspirational and encouraging to hear. Do you have any advice to leave us with, the last thought, for anybody who is looking to get into this sort of ministry? If you had any advice, looking back on your own lives, what would you say to somebody who wants to work with this generation in the same capacity that you both do?

John: I’d say, spend time on a campus. You have to walk with people, live among, and listen to really know how to love, to Randy’s last point. So, part of it is being open, right? I don’t know about you, Randy, but I didn’t see myself being on a campus doing campus ministry as a Dean of Students and a Lutheran pastor through the decades, you know? So, I think, part of it, for me, is being open, you know, and then the opportunities arise. Listening and living among, just being there by hanging out. So, if you’re interested in a campus ministry, or a Dean of Students, or administration at a university, there’s formal education. I’d say, more than anything, spend time with college students, see if you’re open to loving them like you talked about, Randy, see what God does in that because he’ll shape you through that journey.

Randy: Loving them, learning from them. One student told me in class, and her dad is a pastor, “My dad, he knows his Bible, but he doesn’t know me.” So, I would say, if you want to reach this generation, you have to know them. Your anthropology needs to be as good as your theology. Spend time, get out of the book, actually talk to some people, hang out at the coffee house, and you’re gonna get a feel for some of what happens here on campus pretty regularly.

Angelina: Well, thank you again so much for being with us.

Randy: Thank you.

John: Thank you for having us.

Michael: Thanks.

Dan: All right, we’re back.

Michael: Reminder, this is Dan’s first podcast. We just gave him the challenge to bring us back. Yeah, we are back.

Dan: We listened to John Rathje and Randy Duncan.

Angelina: You didn’t have the pleasure of being there with us when we were recording it.

Michael: We did have a picture of you sitting in an empty chair.

Angelina: So, did you have any initial thoughts, anything of the conversation that kind of piqued your interest?

Dan: So, my daughter is 16. She’s a Gen Z. So, I’m interested in that generation. And, we’re in marketing, so, we’re always trying to figure out what we can sell to them too. I mean, it was interesting to hear their take on what they think is the best way to minister, authenticity, and transparency, and this idea of “not you, but, we,” “we’re in this together,” and, “it’s all of us.” I thought that was interesting. It was interesting to contrast because, you know, John Rathje did say, you know, that he grew up with the veneer, that kind of fake, well not really fake, but, you know, projection that you put on yourself to try to make yourself seem like you’ve got it all together. He grew up with that as the mindset in ministry. Now, it’s more about being open, being honest about your struggles, being honest about the things that you believe, and not making kids into an apologetics project, but a relational aspect.

Angelina: I was really impressed with even just sitting there talking with them. You could just tell that they had a really deep compassion for that generation. I think, sometimes, when I think about the interactions that I’ve had with my younger brothers who are in that generation, or even just talking to students on campus, they’re really intelligent people. They have really deep thoughts about this kind of stuff, and about faith, and about what’s going on in the world. People, even at a young age, in my experience, are super engaged and want to be engaged. So, it was reassuring to hear the way they approach building relationships with those students.

Michael: As I think about this, I think about Concordia University Ann Arbor. The campus itself is so…campus ministry in Chapel, and all the ways to get involved are so much a part of the lifeblood of CUAA. Honestly, it’s kind of unique, you know? I’ve been to a lot of schools, many of them have been Christian in my life, as far as higher education, and CUAA is really, you know, if you’re a young person that wants to get involved, and volunteer, and have your relationship with Christ be a part of your college experience, it’s pretty impressive. We want to hear from you. We have a couple of different social media accounts, we have a website.

Angelina: You can find us at There are links on there to follow us on social media. We’re on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. You can also find links there to subscribe wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.

Michael: We’ll talk to you next time. Thank you.

This podcast is brought to you by Concordia University Wisconsin and Concordia University Ann Arbor. However, the opinions and views are not meant to be official statements on their behalf.


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