Gen Z (b. 1996-2012) is being raised and educated in a culture of fear. This is the result of many factors. We live in a post-9/11 world, marked by ongoing wars and terrorism, an economic recession, and 24/7 coverage of global, domestic, and personal tensions, trauma, and anger streaming into our lives via our smartphones. Many adults have succumbed to the perspective that the world is an uncertain, dangerous, and scary place. As a result, we work diligently to protect the young people in our lives. We monitor them via video feed throughout their infancy and track them by GPS when they get older. We feed them organic food, buckle them into every seat they sit on, give them helmets and knee pads, and keep them in safe, enclosed spaces. We discourage them from doing anything dangerous or risky, citing the great harm that could befall them. They listen as we talk to one another in frightened or angry tones about what is happening in the world or with our neighbors. They see what we post on social media. They get the message repeatedly that the world is a scary and unsafe place.
In a world perceived as dangerous and uncertain, safety has become the priority. This has had some positive results. Jean Twenge reports in her book, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—And Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, that there are several positive indicators of increased physical safety for kids and teens today. Homicide rates, sexual assault and rape, and alcohol consumption have all been on the decline. However, there are some other troubling statistics emerging. Depression, anxiety, and suicide among young people are on the rise. In fact, some experts believe that Gen Z is on the verge of a mental health crisis.
Twenge explains how we have not only focused on physical safety for young people today, but also on emotional safety. We have taught them to be tolerant and that they should never be made to feel uncomfortable emotionally. As a result, many do not know how to handle criticism, conflict, or even conversation about tough issues in a healthy and constructive manner. Instead, many young people see words and social interactions as potentially dangerous and harmful.
The emphasis on physical and emotional safety is promoting an aversion to any kind of risk or danger. We neglect to teach and model that it is in failing and experiencing pain that we realize how strong and resilient we are. Healthy conflict, disagreement, and dialogue are where we learn new things, gain diverse insights, and deepen our understanding of ourselves, others, and important issues. It is only through getting hurt that we can ever truly learn the beauty and power of forgiveness and healing. So, while safety is important, it can also be dangerous. Too much safety can strip young people (and the rest of us!) of desperately needed confidence, resilience, perspective, and hope.
So, how can we encourage young people in our lives to avoid the inherent risks of too much safety?
The following is a guest post by Dr. David Geisler, President, Norm Geisler International Ministries and an Adjunct Professor at Southern Evangelical Seminary.
I remember that day! I was sitting on a bench at the student center watching others go to and from class and suddenly I started to cry. It became very clear to me at that moment that if any of these students didn’t accept Jesus Christ sometime in their brief life, their destiny would be finalized! By then it would matter little how well they did on their exams, or what kind of success they saw in their careers. Without Christ, they would all be separated from God for eternity.
Fortunately, witnessing back then seemed easier. There was a certain respect for the Bible, and students were open to hearing about Jesus. I remember reading a gospel booklet to a student in their dorm during that same time period, and the listener prayed to receive Christ that very day! Sadly, that kind of approach doesn’t seem to work anymore.
Why is that? Put succinctly, the gospel remains simple, getting to the gospel is not. Consider for example how many today view morality as a personal preference, like ice cream flavors. Some may prefer chocolate, others may prefer vanilla, but who can really say which one is better! That’s how some view moral choices. Yet reducing morality to a mere personal preferences makes many in our culture tone deaf to hearing the gospel message and blind to seeing it’s relevance to their life in any way!
Today, if we are going to effectively communicate the truth of the Christian message, simply repeating old formulas is not enough. We have to rethink our approach to witnessing, and include something else, called “pre-evangelism.” Pre-evangelism is tilling the soil of their hearts and minds, removing the rocks and obstacles of disbelief, helping them to see how lost they are. After all, it’s hard for them to see their need for savior, when they don’t believe they have any sins to forgive!
One day a student said to me, “Why can’t God just let me into Heaven?” It was clear to me that in his question, his view of himself and of God was skewed. So many young people today will say that they believe in God, but then tend to overestimate their own righteousness, and underestimate God’s holiness. These distortions in their beliefs make cultivating good soil for the gospel to flourish in their lives a much greater challenge (See Matthew 13:19-23).
This means at times, we may have to help others see the world through a biblical lens, before they can see any truth in the Christian message! Unfortunately however statistics show that we are failing this task! Today, 25% of Americans have no religious affiliation, and 45% of these are millennials! Now helping others to see through a biblical lens means practically that we start by helping our non-believing friends recognize the distortions in their beliefs. The truth is that many have deceived themselves and believe they can explain moral goodness in general without reference to a belief in God! Other who say they believe in God may deceive themselves by overvaluing their own moral goodness, as well as undervaluing God’s moral standards or believe somehow that God grades on a curve. Some have even allowed certain distortions in their perception of God’s nature to develop a crippling undervaluation of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. But if these distortions can be identified and removed, many will be more receptive to hearing about the Savior.
Last summer while training in Italy I had a conversation with a young skeptic. His question to me was this: “How can you believe the Bible when it was written by so many different people, who were imperfect?” Now, the truth I wanted him to understand is this: if God can do the big miracle, then He can do the little miracle.
Here was my question: “Would you agree that if there is a God who created the universe, then He’s powerful enough to ensure that what He wants to communicate to us reaches us, even through imperfect people?” His response to me was revealing. He said, “I see how that would make it less problematic.” He came to his own, unforced conclusion, a conclusion that he could not deny.
This illustration demonstrates the value at times of changing our old witnessing paradigm, and “allow others to surface the truth for themselves by asking them probing and thought-provoking questions.” (See our book Conversational Evangelism to learn this art!) Very rarely today can we simply just tell people the truth directly. Most non-Christians are even offended when we try to “share with them” where they are wrong. They see our approach as downright offensive, maybe even evil for pushing our “truth!” So we must remember that even if we know what truth to communicate to people today, based on the questions and concerns they have, we still need to discern what’s really the best way for them to “see this truth for themselves.” This too is an important factor to keep in mind in reaching millennials today. Like the men of Issachar in 1 Chronicles 12:32, we too need to better understand the times in which we live, and know what we should do!
To better understand this pre-evangelism paradigm, check out our book, Conversational Evangelism and our web-sites (www.ngim.org/speaking and www.conversationalevangelism.com and www.conversationalanswers.com) and our new channel www.vimeo.com/davidgeisler.
Dr. Jolene Erlacher is a wife, mommy, author, speaker, college instructor and coffee drinker who is passionate about empowering the next generation of leaders for effective service!