Josh Chen serves as a missions director for Cru and is passionate about helping young people experience the goodness of the gospel. He leads a team in Portland, Oregon, with his wife, Wendy.
Barna: In your work with Millennials and Gen Z teens, what have you observed about how they think about sharing faith?
Josh: Each generation must discover the gospel afresh for itself. What sounded like good news to previous generations often sounds like mediocre news to younger generations.
How older Christians explain the gospel often attempts to answer questions Millennials and teens just aren’t asking. Previous generations asked questions like “How do I get to heaven?” or “What do I do with my guilt?” while younger generations ask entirely different questions, like “What does it mean for me to thrive as a human being?”
A couple of factors influence this shift. One is anxiety. Millennials and Gen Z have higher levels of anxiety than any other generation. According to Dr. Betsy Nesbit, such high levels of anxiety put them in a constant state of “fight or flight”—and as a result, young people have a hard time thinking too far in the future. Like a hiker in front of a bear who’s not thinking about that project due next week or their plans for retirement, for many young people questions like “What happens after I die?” simply aren’t relevant. Yet.
A second reason they are asking different questions is that Western culture is slowly making a shift from a guilt-and-innocence culture to a shame-and-honor culture. The difference between shame and guilt is subtle yet profound. If you make a mistake in a guilt culture, it’s just that: a mistake. If you make a mistake in a shame culture, you are the mistake.
A shame culture asks different questions from a guilt culture— and the gospel speaks differently to a shame culture than it does to a guilt culture. Teens and young adults are asking where they belong, how they are significant, how to deal with anxiety, what to do with their loneliness.
If our gospel can’t answer those questions, it doesn’t feel like good news. On the other hand, if it does answer those longings, they will be much more likely to receive it—and share with others how God has impacted their lives.
Barna: How can church leaders help remove barriers so that young people can consider and share the gospel?
Josh: Church leaders need to release the assumption that the gospel that was good news to older generations is the entirety of the gospel. Have we been presenting the message of Jesus in its biblical and historical fullness? Arguably not. The gospel is robust enough to be good news to every generation.
If our only understanding or expression of salvation is what happens after we die, then our message will not be perceived as relevant to most younger people. But when Jesus talks about being saved in the Gospels, he frequently is talking about right now, not the “after you die” that characterizes some older generations’ gospel presentations. It’s notable that the Greek word for the word “saved” is the word sozo, which does means to be saved, but also means to become whole. What I find fascinating is that when Jesus says, “Your faith has saved you,” the word is sozo— and when he heals someone and says, “Your faith has made you well,” the word is also sozo. This is a balanced, full understanding of what the good news is doing.
For Millennials and Gen Z, the good news of the gospel is that salvation is not only for later, it is something that is happening now—without diminishing the importance of “later.” Jesus wants us to experience wholeness now—physically, spiritually, emotionally and relationally. So when it comes to their felt needs, we need to offer young people more than just platitudes or future promises. We need to walk them through the hard work of spiritual formation and an invitation to experience the power of the Holy Spirit. Right now.
Similar is the topic of sin. If the young are increasingly shaped by a shame culture, then when we talk about sin and how God hates it, we inadvertently communicate that they are unwanted or rejected by God. This could not be further from the truth. It’s important that we reframe sin for this generation in a way that is theologically correct, but also that proactively communicates God’s love for people. God hates sin because he loves us so much that he can’t stand to see us finding “life” where there is no life. This explanation provokes the question from someone who hears it: “If there is no life in the things I do, then where is there life?” That’s a good-news question, and it flies with young people
For teens and young adults, compassion—not judgment—is the starting place of the gospel.
If we are serious about reaching new generations, we need to be willing to challenge our assumptions about what the gospel is. We also need to engage people out of compassion and love rather than judgment, because it is the kindness of the Lord that leads to repentance. If we can communicate and reflect a Jesus who loves them and meets their greatest felt needs, I believe many young people will decide to follow Jesus—and share a vibrant faith with coming generations.
Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.
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