At the 2018 National Religious Broadcasters Convention, I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. William “Billy” Wilson, the president of Oral Roberts University (ORU) located in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Billy Wilson served on ORU’s Board of Trustees as vice-chairman until his election as the university’s president in June 2013. Not only does Dr. Wilson minister to Generation Z— those born after 1995—on ORU’s campus, he also serves as chairman of Empowered 21, which is a global spirit-filled initiative advancing cross-generational discipleship. Dr. Wilson kindly sat down with me to discuss the blessings and challenges surrounding the rising generation of spirit-filled Believers.
Vicari: ORU has 4,100 students, largely Pentecostals and Charismatics. What are the encouraging trends you see among Generation Z on your campus?
Wilson: There is a mark difference between Gen Z and Millennials. We see it very significantly on campus and I can talk to that in a few moments. As far as spiritual life, most of our students come to ORU serious about their faith and so we have a huge core group that’s very passionate about Jesus. They are trying to figure what their purpose is and what their identity is—identity is a big question for Gen Z—and how do they live out that identity in a world that is getting larger all the time, which makes them sometimes feel smaller all the time. So how do they make a difference in that kind of world?
I find in ministering and preaching to this generation, which I do at chapel on a regular basis, that they really want straight talk, straight answers. They’re a bit tired of fluffy sermons that just make you feel good. They know the Gospel is more than that. So they want the tough questions answered. Actually, the deeper I go in chapel in preaching— I have to educate as I go—but they love that. They love answers to really tough questions in life and what the Bible has to say about the really big issues.
I mean, they liked to be entertained too. They’re a young generation. But I see a deeper hunger for truth in this generation than in generation’s past. So that brings me a lot of hope as a college president that they are going to discover the truth of the Gospel and make a difference in the world.
Vicari: Identity can be a major challenge too. What about the identity crisis of gender and sexuality among younger generations? Are you seeing this type of identity crisis on ORU’s campus at all?
Wilson: Those issues at ORU are not as acute as other campuses. Obviously, the world we live in makes a young person question everything, no matter Christian or non-Christian. Questions of “Who am I?” “What is my identity?” and “Where do I come from?” So, yes, there are students that are questioning [gender identity], but not much. It’s not like some campuses across America. I have a lot of college president friends, so I know this is a big issue.
I think with our students the identity is not “Am I male or female?” or “Am I gay or straight?”—there is some of that—but the big question is “Who has God designed me to be?” and “How do I live that out?” “What steps do I need to take now so I can assure when I’m sixty years old I’m living out that purpose, that identity?”
You have to understand, though the family deterioration problem of past generations has ameliorated a bit, they’re still coming from family situations that make it difficult to have a solid identity. Broken families, single parents, all kinds of situations, and to be honest, more disparate backgrounds with their backgrounds with their parents. It’s not monolithic anymore. What I mean is one parent may come from Africa and the other parent from Alaska. That’s awesome. Gen Z loves diversity and they celebrate diversity like no other generation in history. But it still causes them to pause and ask, “Who am I in this world in which we live?” So yes, we do have issues of identity but mostly of finding their identity in Christ and purpose.
Vicari: Let’s talk more broadly about Generation Z in society. A recent Barna study found Generation Z is more non-religious than any generation before them. Can you share your thoughts on the Barna study?
Wilson: Again, ORU’s core group of students is very committed to faith. Most of them very committed to Christ. And yet, they would tell you that many of their friends would not be that way, especially back home. I think even with those who are committed to Christ, they are much less religious than other generations.
Gen Z rejects labels. They don’t like to be part of being labeled as a group. They would resist the term Evangelical, to a certain degree. They would resist the terms even Pentecostal or Charismatic. So we’ve used new language with this generation that we termed “spirit-empowered.” This is an umbrella term that covers Charismatic, Pentecostal, and anyone in between that believes in the work of the Holy Spirit and the immediacy of God. And that works well because it’s sort of a new term this generation can identify with better. But they don’t like labels and I think that’s one of the reasons why they resist the traditional categories, especially in America. They’re very individualistic. They want to walk out their faith in their way and live that out. So I predict that the Church will be changed by Generation Z more than by any generation in history.
Vicar: For the good?
Wilson: It could be for the good. It could not be for the good. I think court is still out on that question, but I promise you they’re going to change the Church a lot.
Vicari: One major criticism spirit-filled or “spirit-empowered,” as you say, Christians often hear is that we have a lacking understanding of Church history, creeds, and are hyper-focused on emotion. I myself heard these criticism growing up in the Assemblies of God denomination. To some extent, I can now see where the criticisms stem from even if they are sometimes exaggerated. As President of ORU, are incoming spirit-filled students lacking in their understanding of the Gospel when they arrive at college?
Wilson: I teach a class each fall semester called “Spirit-Empowered Living.” We actually have over 700 students in it every year, mostly freshman. In it, we’re laying groundwork—basic understandings of Scripture, what it means to be a Believer, a disciple, to have discipline in your life, and to embrace the work of the Holy Spirit. It’s a real unique journey as a teacher because the class is at so many varied levels. About half of the class come from homeschools, Christian schools, and etcetera. They could almost teach the class. They’re very advanced and very understanding of Christian principles. The other half of the class knows very little. So in many ways I’m breaking new ground with them even when I talk about concepts like Trinity, redemption, and what happened on the Cross, and those kinds of things. Even though they come from Christian families and many of them very large Christian churches, they come without a very deep root. That’s why I say this generation understands this about themselves and they’re tired of sort of the shallow that they’re getting in the American church.
Vicari: For clergy and lay leaders who see this lacking theological grounding in some Generation Z Christians, how would you encourage them to better disciple those students in their communities?
Wilson: I would really encourage pastors, especially with Generation Z, don’t be afraid to go deep. Don’t be afraid to talk about the deep issues and deep things. The world is going to say, and even some Millennials are going to say, “entertain, entertain, entertain.” But Gen Z is saying, “Don’t entertain me. Help me know how to live.” I think this is a huge positive for Christianity. I think pastors should capitalize on that and answer the hard questions.
I’ll say this, we must find a better way towards discipleship in the local church in America. We have a generation emerging from these churches that really are not deep enough in their faith to handle the tough issues they are facing.
Vicari: I hear you emphasizing a cross-generation mentorship, am I right?
Wilson: In every generation there has been a cry for mentorship. But for Gen Z it is acute. So what I find in this generation, though they are very addicted to technology, a bit relationally awkward, and will sit around a table within three feet of each other and text each other instead of talk, I find when I give them face-to-face time as a mentor, it is huge. The value of that I don’t think can be overestimated in today’s church.
At Oral Roberts University, we see the role of faculty changing in the future. Instead of being dispensers of knowledge and the sage on the stage, we as faculty become the guide by the side. Mentoring will be a huge issue for faculty over the next ten years. We must become better models and better mentors. At ORU we rank eight in the nation in student engagement. We’ve focused on how better the faculty member can engage the student by becoming a personal mentor of theirs, and it is working. Students love that connection and sense that they have someone beside them that’s had some experience, not telling them what to do but helping answer questions they are finding in their life and helping them go forward.
Vicari: You are the chairman of an organized movement of Pentecostals working to do just that, called Empowered 21. Can you tell me more about Empowered 21’s mission and vision?
Wilson: Empowered 21 is sort of a kingdom initiative. We call it a relational network of spirit-empowered Believers around the world who really are focused on the future of spirit-empowered Christianity. Renewalists, Charismatics, Pentecostals—we call them spirit-empowered Believers—now number over 640 million people in the world. It is the fastest part of Christianity, and actually the fastest-growing religious movement, on planet earth right now. But our question has been for the last few years within Empowered 21, “What about the future of that movement?” and “What about the generation coming on?”
We use words like build vocabulary bridges for them. To help them understand and connect with the faith and connect with spirit-filled life. How do we help them understand what it means to be filled with God’s spirit in the twenty-first century? And how do you live that out? So this is an initiative of all over the world on that. We have regional cabinets going on. It’s become very regionalized and they’ve adopted in their regions everything from large conferences to small mentoring gatherings to next Gen gatherings. We have a scholar’s consultation that’s dealing with deep theological subjects that the movement is facing. We also have an evangelists network that’s going on. We have a discipleship task force that’s asking this question, “How do we help disciple the next generation?” So it’s a very dynamic initiative. It’s become the largest relational network in spirit-empowered Christianity’s history.
But the real underlying question is two or three-fold. It’s really about unity, about the Holy Spirit, about the next Generation, and about world evangelization. When you put those four things together you get the heartbeat of Empowered 21, especially focused on intergenerational connection and blessing. We believe Malachi is true, that the heart of the fathers or mothers must turn to the sons or daughters and the heart of the sons or daughters must turn to the fathers or mothers. This is intergeneration connection. Malachi says if this doesn’t happen God will curse the earth. We believe that when it does happen God blesses the earth. So when generations come together we find real favor from God and blessing. We try to facilitate that with Empowered 21.
Vicari: One last question. Although it is in regards to Generation Z, I want to switch focus a little bit. Generation Z is very passionate about social justice issues, which can be wonderful. But while they are passionate about issues like poverty alleviation and racial reconciliation, the Institute on Religion & Democracy sees a lacking passion for persecuted Christian overseas. We want to inject into the very DNA of young Christians care and concern for the Persecuted Church abroad. Do you have any advice on how we can better encourage Gen Z’s advocacy for the persecuted?
Wilson: Yeah. Every year we send out over 500 students in the summertime on mission trips around the world. And we find that with Generation Z when they touch it, feel it, experience it, their experience changes them forever. So when a student goes to the trash dump in Manila, Philippines and meets the child that is living there, you don’t have to try to encourage them to be an advocate. They are going to try to fight poverty the rest of their life and they want to make a difference.
So I would encourage as we are trying to help this new generation understand what it means to be a persecuted Christian, we introduce them more to those who are going through this by a variety of means. Creative media, personal interaction, getting them in situations where they meet those persecuted for the faith, for example. Again, once that happens with Generation Z they’re in. Once they’re in, they’ll use all of their force to try and make a difference. But I think exposure is the key. As long as they live in churches that are comfortable and easy—now, you can get behind the pulpit and tell a story, but that doesn’t quite affect them. They need to touch it, feel it, meet them, and experience the situational moment that persecuted Christians are in. When that happens it’s significant.