Turning Generation Z Into Faith-Filled Leaders

Culture is constantly changing ,but there are principles of truth that never change. It is those principles which the Imago Dei Leadership Forum seeks to empower young people with so they can be leaders who influence culture. 

John Murray, founder and president of Imago Dei Leadership Forum, joins The Daily Signal podcast to offer advice on how we can bridge cultural divides in our nation and train the next generation to be thoughtful leaders who live out their faith. Read the lightly edited transcript, posted below, or listen on the podcast:

Virginia Allen: I am joined by John Murray, author, speaker, and the founder and president of the Imago Dei Leadership Forum, an organization that is changing the lives of young people by empowering them to be thoughtful leaders who live out their faith.

John, thank you so much for joining me.

John Murray: Thank you for having me, Virginia. It’s great to be here.

Allen: The mission of the Imago Dei Leadership Forum is to raise up a generation of young people that view themselves and others as leaders who are image-bearers of God. 

John, you all seek to accomplish this mission through a fellowship program for eighth-grade students and a powerful curriculum that can be used by schools, churches, or family, as well as through lectures and other resources. And we will talk a bit more about that in a moment but I want to begin by asking you to explain more about the mission of the organization and why you founded Imago Dei.

Murray: That’s a great question. Well, I had been teaching a leadership class at my school in the D.C. area for a couple of years, as our graduates left eighth grade and went out into different schools in the D.C. area, both public and private. And I developed a leadership retreat where we went down into D.C., and stayed in D.C., and met with different leaders, both in politics and the media and civil rights.

Then we also did an end-of-the-year retreat before the students graduated in Gettysburg, just to talk through the challenges and fears and excitements they were going to face as they went into high school the next year.

Fast forward to July 2014, I came to St. Louis and brought my family to lead a multiracial school, a K through sixth grade, one night before Ferguson.

So after Ferguson happened and all the events began to unfold, I realized that I had a lot to learn to lead a school that was one-third African Americans.

One of the lessons I quickly learned from friends of mine in St. Louis was just the need to better facilitate personal relationships between the white and black parents in our school community so they could understand and learn from each other’s perspectives, especially just for a lot of our white parents to understand the racism that a number of our African American parents had faced in St. Louis for many years.

After seeing the power of these relationships and conversations at the parent level, I decided to develop a leadership forum for our alumni and other students in the community to affirm both their identity and faith in Jesus, and learn more of the importance of loving others different from themselves as image-bearers of God, both in history and today.

So that was kind of the genesis of my program when I came here and implemented it to reach a racially, socioeconomically, and denominationally diverse group of students.

Allen: That is so critical, and obviously such a need in our current culture.

What is the advice that you give to parents, young people, and educators who come to you and want to know how do we engage in those conversations with people that are of different backgrounds, look different than us, and maybe live out their faith differently?

Murray: That’s great. And that’s really what I try to model just in my leadership forum is I talk about this with other school communities and parents.

The Imago Dei Fellows Meet with with Fox News Anchor Shannon Bream. Photo: J. Murray.

[The] first group that I led had 20 students, and I choose eighth grade because I feel like this is a really pivotal age as they’re preparing to go into high school, as they start to own their faith and are still going from concrete thinking to critical thinking, and their emotional and social development, they’re still open to engaging.

So we met for 10 nights on Sunday nights over the course of a spring semester, for 10 weeks, I should say, culminated with a weeklong combined trip to Gettysburg and D.C.

What was so neat as I walked them through the curriculum that I had put together on “Who am I?”—asking a lot of questions, it was very question-based, you know, “How does the media influence me? What is my identity? Where did I come from? Where does my creativity come from? How should I view others? How should I not view others?”

Bringing diverse kids together and hearing their perspectives on going through these questions was just really powerful for kids to understand how people may think about things differently than they do, or how things may impact them differently than they do, whether it’s in the mediaor the books they read and so forth.

So, to me, that is what’s so powerful is talking about the challenging issues of our day in a racially diverse group to understand one another, so they can treat each other well, even if they may not always agree with one another. I think this is preparing them to be leaders in their schools, particularly in just such a hyper-partisan, polarized country that we find ourselves in now.

Allen: John, this has been an exciting season for you all. Can you explain what the Imago Dei Leadership Forum has been working on in regards to your new curriculum?

Murray: I’ve … gone full time with this. This past year I got my 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, and through the help of a grant from the Maclellan Foundation, I produced a curriculum that has research that was done by the Barna Group just on the questions I was asking Gen Z students, students ages 13 to 18 at this point, as well as I produce 40 videos that go along with the e-textbook that kids can click on and watch.

So my goal is to get this curriculum into Christian schools all over the country so they can engage in these issues and just see diverse perspectives on how do we engage the culture, but all bringing it back to a biblical worldview of what it means to be an image-bearer of God, and how we should approach one another.

My vision is for schools to emulate what I’m doing, whether it’s in the classroom, an eighth grade classroom, or starting their own leadership group within their school, or maybe partnering with an urban school and bringing together leaders that they would walk through something outside of school so that it would be a resource that can be used in schools across the country.

Obviously, I’m available to train faculty, and come in and lead sessions or speak to students. So the genesis is here in St. Louis, and I do a local leadership group each year, and this is going to be our sixth year. I’m also providing materials to enable schools around the country to do this as well.

Allen: That is so critical, and it’s so practical to have a curriculum that families can take and use, that schools can use in their classrooms. And that’s called “In Whose Image?” Correct?

Murray: Yes.

Allen: OK, great. John, I want to ask, we live in a culture that is constantly changing, and it’s honestly really hard to keep up with sometimes. At Imago Dei, how are you all ensuring that the resources like “In Whose Image?” are staying up to date with the challenges that parents and educators are facing?

Murray: That’s a great question, and that was one of the reasons when I did my grant proposal, was to do this as an e-textbook. There is no hard copy because when I have six, seven videos per chapter, I’m asking questions such as, “Do you know what it means to be an image-bearer of God?” Or, “Do you know what it means how to define you and your life and bring meaning to your life?”

I’m using, a lot of times, movie clips or TV commercials or pop culture to speak into these issues, and teach critical thinking and discernment. But I have the ability, since these are linked to my website, to go in and update these, or there’s a new issue that comes up that I feel like we really need to speak into, then I can do that so it can remain current.

Allen: That’s great. And I think that so many parents today, and even young adults like myself who want to have a family one day, really wrestle with this question of, “How do we raise men and women of integrity when we live in a culture that sometimes undermines traditional values?” What advice do you give to those parents?

Murray: Well, it’s a great challenge, and I think that’s honestly one of the great fears of many parents in our country. What I think is that, obviously, [keep things] age appropriate as you raise your children, just to engage them in things that you feel like they can handle, whether it’s current events or media that’s coming out, whether it’s a Disney movie or a song on the radio that you start engaging them and teaching them critical thinking skills and media discernment.

So you’re not making them fearful to culture or fearful of the media, but really helping them discern what is right and what is wrong. Because that is still like, there’s too much out there, there’s no way we can shield our kids from everything. And if they go over to other friends’ houses, they may be exposed to things, or even in their schools. So it’s just equipping them as they grow up, and they’re ready to take on different issues, just how to speak in these issues. And from my perspective, being a Christian educator, [that] would be from a biblical worldview.

Allen: Yeah, absolutely. And why the name Imago Dei?

Murray: Imago Dei is Latin for Image of God. And when I thought about this leadership forum, and I look at all the challenges that we’re facing currently in this generation—training up Generation Z, whether it’s, like I said, in the media, or with our identity, whether it’s our race, or our gender, where we come from, this goes back to the Declaration of Independence, that we are all created equal, that we are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights.

This is a belief that [has] taken many, many years for different groups to be realized in American history. But as one, if you go back and look at when civil rights were fought—for women, for African Americans, for Native Americans, for the disabled, for [the] mentally ill—the leaders on the forefront of these movements were many a times quoting not only the declaration, but the Bible where it talks about [how] God created us in his image, male and female. Galatians 3:28 talks about whether male, female, basically rich or poor, slave or free, that we are all one in Christ.

So this idea of how we treat one another as image-bearers, and how we view ourselves, because with social media it’s so easy to just have this fear of what other people think of us and having low self-esteem, just helping students understand where their self-worth ultimately comes from.

All these things are why I think it’s so important to this—what it means to bear God’s image, not only just in our country’s history, but just in the history of the faith, but in how we should view ourselves and others is hugely important given all of the challenges facing this generation.

Allen: It’s an exciting time for you all. There’s no shortage of issues to engage on. What are your hopes for Imago Dei, let’s say over the course of the next year?

Murray: Well, again, my prayer would be that this could be a resource that would help schools that would want to implement this, whether it’s a Christian school or even a public school that might be instituting a faith-based curriculum to work with their students after school. Again, just looking at these issues of how to view others and ourselves in a healthy way.

Also, this is a great resource, I think, for homeschool families that they can go through with their eighth- or ninth-grader, as well as church youth groups. This is obviously a curriculum that would work well in a Sunday school class or in a Bible study just because it does weave in a biblical worldview as I look at it through all these.

But I also really write this from a perspective that a nonbeliever would hopefully be able to engage with the material because I am quoting a lot of research and statistics. A lot of brain research is just on the impact of [the] heavy media diet on us, and ultraviolet media, or pornographic media, that it does have negative impact, and there are brain differences that we need to know about between boys and girls. You know, just these types of things, but to what a healthy screen life looks like, and a healthy way of treating others.

So again, in looking at part two of my book, which I’m getting ready to launch, it’s called “Hollywood Needs the Apostles’ Creed,” which looks at how the faith is portrayed in the media both positively and unbiblically just to help kids own their faith and understand their faith from a biblical perspective. Then part three is looking at how this belief in image-bearer of God has impacted history, particularly American history.

If you ask me a year from now what I think this would look [like], we’d see people using this curriculum, whether it’s in their schools, or home, or church at youth group, but also preparing for part two and three to come to also speak into these other issues.

It’s looking at, again, affirming a student’s identity, their faith in Christ, and learning the importance of loving others as image-bearers, both in history and today. So it’s kind of multifaceted as I go forward.

Allen: For any young people or parents who might be interested, how can they find out more and apply for the fellowship, or attain some of those resources, the curriculum and so forth?

Murray: Yeah. If you go to my website IDleadershipforum.org, you’ll see just the curriculum resources that we have, as well as opportunities [for] the different topics that I can come speak on, whether it’s a student assembly, or a parent meeting, or a youth or faculty meeting. As well as if they wanted to model a leadership forum in their community after what we’re doing with our forum here in St. Louis, they could do that as well, and I would be happy to equip them with what we do on our leadership retreat and so forth.

Which, going back to one of your original questions of how we’re helping students, speaking to this, is taking them away and really allowing them to bond with one another, and see each other outside of their school environments is huge, and just being a community.

Then hearing from these speakers who are very inspirational, and just hearing their stories of how they’ve faced adversity, whether white or black, male or female, and just how God has used them to glorify him in their areas, whether it’s, like I said, the media or politics or in civil rights has been very powerful.

One of the really neat things we do is we actually get a permit from the National Park Service, and they come and set up a podium and a sound system on the very spot where Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, and we all take turns reading from that speech with everyone around at the Lincoln Memorial. It’s just so powerful.

We’ve done that the last two years now, and just to be able to read that speech together, and on the very spot where he did that, is very meaningful. So it’s just creating those experiences that I think they’ll never forget.

We read the Gettysburg Address on the very site on the cemetery where Lincoln gave it. And you know, he hearkens back to this idea of all being created equal, as we’ve been fighting for these rights in our country for many years.

So I just think that’s part of what … is so important, is just bringing kids together around, ultimately, in our case, the common bond of Christ and learning from each other’s perspectives, but also just learning from history and how we can go back in our schools and be leaders.

Allen: Wow. Well, John, thank you for what you’re doing through Imago Dei to train up young people that are leaders and that are seeking to bridge those cultural divides, and bring unity. And we thank you so much for your time, as well.

Murray: Thank you so much, Virginia. Thanks for giving me [the] opportunity to share about what we’re doing here, and hopefully to really help parents in raising Generation Z, which I think is a fantastic group of students, just to glorify God in all they do.

Allen: Our pleasure.

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