The first step a young man takes toward a woman who he thinks might be his future is delicate. The operative words seem to be "sensitive" and "careful" and "first impressions matter." As in love, so in "gospeling" (or evangelism). When Peter preached at Pentecost, he opened his sermon with a time-honored citation of Scripture and then sketched, in third person, what had happened to Jesus. Only then did he zero in on his audience: "and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death" (Acts 2:23). When Paul got behind the dais on the Areopagus, he opened with one of the most seeker-sensitive sermons in history: "Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious" (17:22). With that opening Paul paved a way to warn the Greeks of the coming judgment. These examples show that biblical evangelism is marked by both boldness and sensitivity to audience.
Teaching twenty-somethings for nearly 15 years has made me acutely aware of a significant trend. It has everything to do with what to assume when it comes to evangelism.
Emerging adults (those between 18 and 30) form a generation that is largely insensitive to the potency of God's holiness, and are therefore insensitive to the magnificence of his grace, the shocking nature of his love, and that gratitude forms the core of the Christian life. Some today complain about these matters. But I doubt very much that ramping up moral exhortations and warning about an endless hell are the proper places to begin with emerging adults. Paul was sensitive to his audience; we need to be as well.
Self in a castle
The typical emerging adult, if I can capture the trend in one expression, is a "self in a castle." That is to say, the "self" is protected from the onslaughts of those who will attack it. I suspect that this is something unique in history. Never has a generation been more in tune with the self and more protective of the self. How did we get here? What led to the self-in-a-castle condition among this generation, whom I call the iGens?
First, Mr. Rogers. I have no desire to blame Mr. Rogers; I like Fred Rogers and his image-of-God set loose in helping young children understand who they are. But Mr. Rogers, for all his good, gave to the current generation a free-standing consciousness that daily says, "I am okay." Whether the current generation watched him or not is hardly the point; he's in the air because of a trend that has been riding the airwaves since the 1960s.
Second, Sesame Street. Played out daily for this generation was a show that baptized diversity, sanctified difference, and affirmed the radical uniqueness of every person—regardless of their color, beliefs, or personalities. If Mr. Rogers indoctrinated a generation to believe"I'm okay," Sesame Street focused on "We are all okay." Once again, even if current iGens did not directly watch Sesame Street, the themes of the show express a movement that gets at the central attribute of iGens.
Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street are early examples of the self-esteem movement. Jean Twenge's book Generation Me is an excellent treatment of this issue; her subtitle opens the windows on the movement: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable than Ever Before. She ought to know; she's one of them.