Scot McKnight, professor of Religious Studies at North Park University in Chicago, characterizes the contemporary young adult (18-30) as a ‘self in a castle.’ (Leadership Journal, Summer 2009) What he means by that is that the ‘self’ is protected from the onslaughts of those who attack it. This protection of the self, he believes, is due to being raised on Mr Rogers Neighborhood (‘I am okay’), and Sesame Street (‘We are all okay’). These two television shows are early examples of the self-esteem movement.
He quotes Jean Twenge, a professor of sociology at San Diego State University, in her book Generation Me: Why Today’s Young People Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – And More Miserable then Ever. “The individual has always come first, and feeling good about yourself has always been a primary virtue….This culture of self-esteem has also raised expectations of personal accomplishment, in some cases so high that depression and anxiety accompany iGens like their iPods….GenMe is not self-absorbed, we’re self-important.”
How do you reach people who have protected themselves against anything that might question their self-sufficiency and self-esteem? Most young adults have no sense of personal guilt or sinfulness. Contemporary culture does not provide a sense of what is right and wrong. Everyone is entitled to their own choices – what is right for them. There is no objective standard. The holiness of God is not real for them.
We saw something of this in the recent discussion of the candidacy of Judge Sotomoyor for the U.S. Supreme Court. She was questioned whether she could adhere to the rule of law and not be swayed by her sympathy, gender, or ethnicity. Justice is supposed to be blind. Yet all those arguments were being made by white men. History indicates that many white men have been biased on the bench against women and minorities. No person can be absolutely objective. We are all biased, even prejudiced, to certain degree, no matter how hard we claim to be objective. Young people see this, and apply it to their own lives. They question whether others know what is best for them. They have to make up their own minds. This makes preaching the Gospel a real challenge. How can we communicate, what we consider to be God’s Word, to a generation that questions our interpretation. Preachers, or lay witnesses, are not held in awe by youth today. They are looking for authenticity, not authoritarian pronouncements.
Scot McKnight suggests we present the life and words of Jesus rather than our own interpretation. IGens are turned off by the institutional church, but are turned on by Jesus. This means getting back to the first-century form of evangelism – telling people about Jesus. The four Gospels do that very well. All we have to do is share our experience of inter-acting with the Gospels. The Sermon on the Mount is as far from the hypocritical as you can get. It penetrates the defenses, even of the self in a castle. The New Testament points us to the vision of the kingdom of God Jesus came to proclaim, to inaugurate and to invite others to enter.
“I’m OK, and You’re OK” is nothing new. Learning that we can only be truly OK through the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus takes time, friendship, and the consideration of many questions. It won’t be accomplished by attempting a frontal assault of the castle. When I was starting out in the ministry I learned from John Stott an object lesson for communicating the Gospel to children. It was called Heart Castle. This is how it went.
Once upon a time there was a King who lived in a castle. He was proud and selfish. If people didn’t do exactly what he wished he was highly offended. His name was King Self and he lived in Heart Castle. One morning he received a notice that another king, whom King Self was frightened of, intended to invade his country. He decided to build another wall around his castle to protect himself. Two days later he saw a great cloud of dust on the horizon, and thought it was the invading king, so he built yet another wall around his castle to protect himself. Some times later the invading king really did arrive. He had no army. He came humbly on foot and alone. He was most attractive, and as soon as he saw Heart Castle he loved it. His name was King Jesus. He knocked at the outer gate of Heart Castle.
Each wall of Heart Castle had a name. The first wall was Ignorance. The captain at the gate was Captain “I don’t know.” He said, “I don’t know any reason why you should come into Heart Castle.” King Jesus told him a story. “Once upon a time there was a gang of fierce robbers, and they lived together in a cave. From time to time they came out of the cave and attacked and robbed passing travelers. Their names were Selfishness, Bad-Temper, Unkindness, Cruelty, Jealousy, Pride and Deceitfulness. The cave in which they live is your heart and mine (see Mark 7:21). All these things are in your heart and the only person who can keep these robbers in order is King Jesus.” The captain replied: “King Jesus I do know why you should come into Heart Castle.” And he opened to the door to let King Jesus in.
The second wall was named Indifference. The captain at the gate was Captain “I don’t care.” He said, “I don’t care whether you knock or whether you don’t knock, I won’t let you in.” King Jesus told him the story of his coming to earth, to teach the way, the truth and the fullness of life, to heal the sick, feed the hungry, give hope to the poor, and to suffer and die so that we might be forgiven. After listening to his story Captain I don’t care said, “King Jesus I do care. I’m sorry I have neglected you. Thank you for dying for me on the Cross. Please come in.”
The third wall was named Procrastination. The captain at the gate was Captain “Put it off.” He said, “I’d like you to come into Heart Castle, but not now.” King Jesus told him about the people who had plenty of opportunities in life to follow him but they put if off until later. They never did open the door to his presence. When they came to the end of their lives their hearts had been so hardened that they could not open the door of their heart, and they died in despair. Captain put it off decided to open the door right then before he changed his mind.
King Jesus knocked on the door of Heart Castle itself. Now the name of the Porter was Will. Will looked out of the window, and when he saw King Jesus he said, “What a wonderful person. I should love to have him in Heart Castle. So he ran to open the door. But King Self from his throne said, Will, I forbid you to open that door.” Will was a weak fellow, but somehow his glimpse of King Jesus had given him unusual courage, and he replied, “King Self, I have served you all my life. You have been a bad master. You have promised contentment, happiness and peace of mind, but you have never given them to me. I wish to change my master. I know I need King Jesus. I care that he should die for me upon the Cross. I shall not put it off any longer. And before King Self could stop him, he had run down the stairs, thrown open the door, and invited King Jesus to come in. And when King Jesus comes in there is only one place for him – on the throne. King Self was banished and Heart Castle became the happiest place in the country.
“I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hear my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” (Revelation 3:20)