Jeffrey Arnett is perhaps America's most respected scholar of "emerging adulthood." He identifies five major characteristics:
One important caveat: not every American 20-something is like this. In fact, many emerging adults have been reared into a world vastly different than the self-esteem culture. Some gravitate, instead, toward an Augustinian perception of the self and find their own contemporaries annoying. (But this is not the place to examine every exception among iGens.)
Storming the Castle
My own experiences teaching iGens, listening to iGens, and reading the papers and journals of iGens have confirmed that most iGens reside behind a carapace of protection nothing short of a castle wall. Older models of evangelism aimed for people to receive God's grace in Christ by making them aware of their profound and utter sinfulness—indeed, that they were themselves sinners by nature. But a different model might be in order to "reach" iGens. This generation may need to be wooed to the castle door, the way Paul wooed the Athenians on the Areopagus, before they will hear the gospel.
If we begin with an assault on a human's worth, Mr. Rogers' gospel of self-acceptance will come to their rescue. If we begin by claiming that all humans are depraved, Sesame Street's gospel of universal acceptance will make its defense. If we question the self's disposition, we will find that the gospel of self-esteem has created a bunker deep enough and a wall thick enough that deflection and absorption are instinctive responses. It might work to reach some iGens, but not most.
So Long, Sin!
When I saw the title of Alan Mann's book Atonement for a Sinless Society, I knew he was onto something. The intent of evangelism that focuses on preaching the law and God's holiness, wrapping those two elements into a vision of God's wrath and hell, is to stimulate a cry for salvation out of a sense of guilt over who we are and what we have done. This model still works for some. But it may not be the wisest model for iGens.
One of the most insightful elements of Mann's book is whether iGens feel guilt. For a person to feel guilty, that person must have a sense of morality. But morality requires a potent sense of what is right and wrong, and it needs a powerful sense of what is true and false. Contemporary culture does not provide the average iGen with a profound grasp of what is right and wrong apart from the conviction that assaulting the self is clearly wrong.
Yet deciding to stake one's life on Jesus and the cross requires a sense that we are wrong, that we need Jesus, and that his saving death and resurrection can become effective. Mann claims that iGens are neither moral nor amoral. Instead, because of trends like the self-esteem movement and the impact of relativism, he concludes that iGens are pre-moral. Mann suggests that they do not feel guilt as much as they feel shame for not achieving what they are designed to accomplish.
This realization has helped me see that Jesus is the place to begin with iGens. In fact, we can make this more precise: Jesus as lived out by a credible witness or through a community that makes Jesus real. This is not Jesus as revealed by institutional religion or churches, but Jesus seen in the lives of genuine compassion and commitment to something that transcends the superficiality of modern and postmodern culture.
The Jesus Kingdom
If this generation likes Jesus, and if iGens have the chutzpah to think they are like Jesus, then let's start with Jesus. We sometimes forget that the earliest Christian gospeling was telling the story of Israel's history (Peter on Pentecost) or acknowledging God's presence in the world (Paul in Athens) so that it led to the story of Jesus.
Sometimes we forget that the first four books of the New Testament are called "gospels" because they are just that. The earliest Christian preaching, the early narratives about Jesus, grew and grew until they became the four Gospels.
Nothing in my experience mesmerizes iGens like the kingdom vision of Jesus. One approach I use is to move through the Gospel of Luke. I begin with the preliminary expectations of Mary, Zechariah, and John the Baptist. I then focus on what Jesus wanted to bring about on earth (Luke 4:16-30; 6:20-26, and 7:18-23). Then I observe that Jesus knew the cross was the way to that kingdom (9:18-27). We move from there into the cross and resurrection, and then emerge on the other side of Easter with Pentecost and the apostolic church community (Acts 2:42-47).
A Compelling Vision
Anyone who vividly sketches a community marked by justice, love, peace, and holiness has a message iGens want to hear. The self hidden behind the castle wall is now interested. And I have found that the self-in-a-castle feels shame about systemic sin, and their sensitivity to things like AIDS, poverty, and racism leads them inevitably to recognize the sin in each person. At some point in this movement to the castle door, the iGen will realize that systemic sin is linked to personal sin. Suddenly he or she feels accountable to God.
The life Jesus lived, the life that made his kingdom vision so appealing and so potently penetrating, was the life that ended up on a cross as an atoning sacrifice. The story of Jesus, the only story the church has ever told, is the same story told by Paul, and Peter, and John, and the writer of Hebrews. It is a story of the Incarnate Son of God who sketched a vision of a kingdom that God wants for the earth ("your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven") and who made that kingdom possible by willingly surrendering himself on the cross for others. And it was the life of a body that came back to life on Easter to empower us to new life as the new creation.
Adapted from our sister publication Leadership journal, © 2009 Christianity Today International. For more articles like this, visit www.Leadershipjournal.net.
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