Scott Gress, M.Div.,
is Coaching Consultant to the Florida-Georgia District
of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, and
Director of Coaching, Transforming Churches Network.
Jesus sent out the Twelve and said to them, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16 niv). This passage speaks to the nature of the disciples being bearers of the good news of our salvation in Jesus Christ—the point being that temptation, persecution, and vulnerability will come upon those who are engaged in the mission of Jesus. Therefore shrewdness, wisdom or cunning are called for.
Yet there is an additional emphasis. One who is sent with the good news is to use the wisdom of the Scriptures as well as God’s First Article gifts to be wise or cunning or shrewd not only in what you share but how you share it. What we share does not change. God’s mission is clear. He has been relentless to save the world since the fall and the promise of a Savior in Genesis 3. God says that He “loves the world” and wills “all to be saved” through Jesus Christ (John 3:16 and 1 Timothy 2:4). Miraculously He chooses to use sinful people to deliver this salvation through the means of grace. There is no “Plan B.”
So in light of God’s love and in honor of God’s will, how we share this Good News requires us to be shrewdly aware of the receiver and how one is perceived and received in the interpersonal exchange. One representing Christ ought never be one who is manipulative but rather sensitive to the other in the love of Christ. One is to be wise in avoiding the traps and pitfalls of communication so that Law and Gospel may rightly be applied in communicating the Good News. The audience for this communication to whom we deliver the Good News is the “world” but it also includes Generation X.
Generation Xers were born between the early 1960s and the early 1980s, depending on whose timeline you use, and they have a number of interesting characterizations.
Professor Christine Henseler summarizes Gen X as “a generation whose worldview is based on change, on the need to combat corruption, dictatorships, abuse, aids, a generation in search of human dignity and individual freedom, the need for stability, love, tolerance, and human rights for all.”1 Judy Isaksen adds that, “compared with previous generations, Generation X represents a more apparently heterogeneous generation, openly acknowledging and embracing social diversity in terms of such characteristics as race, class, religion, ethnicity, culture, language, gender identity, and sexual orientation.”2
One of my non-lcms colleagues, a Christian leader who is solidly within this generation, defines his generation as one that grew up bombarded with multimedia, advertising and television. He speaks of how this exposure to life and consumerism brought a sense of skepticism about products and services and therefore an aversion to being told something or sold something for fear of being manipulated.3
When interviewing a close friend and non-Christian Gen Xer, I was told that through television and technology, Gen Xers see the whole world as a place to explore. That would include not only its cultures and foods but also its religions. That means, she said, that Gen Xers are adventurers and explorers who try things out and experiment, including narcissism, self-fulfillment, and self-gratification. In terms of religion, she added that Gen Xers are typically very turned off toward those who think they know it all or have all the answers. They are much more open to those who espouse deep spirituality rather than loyalty to religious dogma. While certainly not indicative of all Gen Xers, her experience took her to Catholic grade school for three years during which she was baptized at a school chapel. She said she hated it. In exploring how it happened she said it was because of the imposing influence of her grandmother.4
These interviews and statements are confirmed by Tom Beaudoin’s book, Virtual Faith. From his research four themes underpin Gen X’s theology:
1. All institutions are suspect—especially organized religion—hypocrisy (so they take religion into their own hands)
2. Personal experience is everything
3. Suffering is spiritual
4. Ambiguity is a central element of faith—they embrace doubt5
If the above characteristics of Gen Xers are even partially true, it is easy to see how a typical Gen Xer might be turned off toward organized religion or any religious view that touts exclusivity. Certainly the “scandal of particularity” or the doctrine that God’s love is extended to the world in Christ alone is offensive. Yet having God’s promises we are not without hope, and we pray we would be “shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves.” So, what does this mean?
Self Awareness and Self Management
As we go about the task of bringing the Good News to Generation X, one would be well advised to recognize that generalizations can be dangerous. Some in Generation X may not represent the characteristics of the generation as a whole. Therefore assumptions about people can be wrong, and the “wise as a serpent” approach takes each encounter and relationship one by one. We will be sensitive in dialogue with the other—“in humility consider others better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3)—seeking to love them deeply (Romans 13:8; 1 Peter 1:22; 1John 4:17).
Doing this requires one to be self-aware, which involves our own deep inner work. What do I really believe? What does God really think of me? What do I really think of others? Do I view them through God’s eyes or in some other way? Do I lose myself in Christ (Galatians 2:20), and am I able to lose myself in serving others? Or is there something else going on? Is my self-esteem riding on this conversation? What about this person is related to myself? What is going on inside of me as I seek to engage in dialogue with others? What is my real motivation to engage people with the Gospel of Jesus? Those Gen Xers who encounter us will likely excuse our weaknesses but will detect our incongruences or inauthentic behavior very quickly. Not surprisingly then, how much we are self-aware and how we self-manage goes to our credibility or integrity. This in the end can only come from who we are in Christ as His baptized believers, which shapes our hearts and our relationships with Generation Xers.
There are many potential pitfalls in speaking with anyone about faith or religion. If someone is aligned with the characteristics of Gen X, then there is much to disagree with theologically and biblically. One could exhaust the time confronting them with facts and truths from the Scriptures, and one would likely be justified and correct in all that was said. Yet if merely “telling” them truth ends the relationship and closes their ears to further dialogue, then one who is “wise as a serpent” will consider other ways. Rather than merely provide correction, the goal is to be a tool in God’s hand to transform their “hearts and minds” that they also be “in Christ Jesus” (cf. Acts 9:15, 2 Corinthians 4:7). Far from avoiding the law, which can harden their hearts, it is being wise to seek a way to be fully heard and understood (Acts 17:22ff.).
Another pitfall is that if this generation is suspicious of advertising and sensitive to acceptance and diversity, then they will resent being treated as a spiritual consumer. To Gen Xers, it’s not about the music or the product but the authenticity. It’s not about who is right and who is wrong but who is real. If we approach outreach to 21st century America by treating people as consumers of spiritual goods and services—which smacks of marketing or packaging—then what are they to conclude but that the Church is the same as everything else? That may not be our intent, but that may be how we are perceived. If for Gen Xers institutions are suspect, their curiosity to explore Christianity may very well have a short life. In fact they may write off any potential relationship with us shortly after we exchange names because they may lump us in with other previous experiences and exchanges.
This is not to say that we have to compromise what we believe or even give tacit approval of what Gen Xers say they believe or think. Yet it is important that first the relationship be in a place where a true exchange of ideas can occur and where both sides can be heard.
As we grew up we were told what to do. We went to school and were told what to do and what to study. We went to work and were told when and how to work. We went to church and were also told what was right and wrong and were told the truths of God’s Word. We live in a “telling” society. Telling is such a common experience that when we became parents and teachers and church workers, telling became the default mode of communicating and helping people. That is not a bad thing. Telling is often the only way new information is received. We go to authorities for their expertise in the law and taxes and plumbing and car repair and we are gladly “told.” We even pay for it! Yet if “telling” someone what is right and wrong and true or not true shuts down the dialogue or alienates someone or cuts the relationship short before the message is fully heard, then what alternative do we have? It might seem there are few. If someone does not know his or her sin and does not know the love of God in Jesus Christ, then it seems obvious in a “telling” culture that telling someone is the logical choice. Yet God sometimes communicates in other styles with us sinners who are often slow to hear.
Right after the fall into sin, God seeks Adam and Eve in the garden and calls, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). God says to Cain, “Why are you angry?” and “Where is your brother Abel?” (Genesis 4:6, 9). Certainly God knew the answers to these questions, but God asks these questions for the hearer’s benefit rather than to simply gain information or make a point. These questions serve a higher purpose: to raise awareness in Adam and Cain about what has happened so they understand the seriousness of what they have done. Such probing fits within the broader category of preaching the Law so that the hearer can come to an awareness of his sin and guilt.
Jesus often used questions as a rhetorical device to teach and engage those hearing Him. In Luke 10 Jesus answered a question with a question: “On one occasion an expert in the Law stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ ‘What is written in the Law?’ he replied. ‘How do you read it?’” in Luke 9 Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with Him. He asked them the question, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” Then Jesus had a follow-up question after their answers. “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” This was a means to teach and also a means to get people to think. It was not manipulative, but rather it was a helpful way to guide them through the thinking process and to own their answers.
Educators recognize this as the Socratic method, an ancient and common teaching practice. The philosopher Socrates engaged in dialogue and took the position of student while putting the other person in the position of teacher by asking them questions. In this way, Socrates got them thinking and exploring.
In this subordinate role, Socrates was affirming the “student,” and so they were more open to dialogue and would more readily engage.
This mode of asking questions as demonstrated by God and found in Socrates is different from the “telling” mode so familiar to us and our society. And Socratic questioning is in keeping with a newer helping skill called “coaching.” We typically regard “coaching” as it relates to sports coaches, voice coaches, or other types of skills coaches. Yet coaching as a helping skill has important differences. It is my specialty or niche as I serve congregations, pastors and others.
We often tend to approach issues and decisions from a single perspective. As a helping skill, coaching poses questions to help people reflect on life choices in ways they have not considered. Along the way the “coachee” experiences new or renewed awareness or discoveries and then, based upon those new insights and additional questions from the coach, makes intentional decisions or choices. These insights can occur when another person comes along side and asks some different questions from the questions the “coachee’ has been asking—and this can prompt a new perspective and additional insights. This “ah-ha” experience is common in the classroom for students as they wrestle with a new concept, and it can be the same with those wrestling with their sin, the truths of the Bible, and the promised Savior Jesus.
Coming along side someone as a “coach” with a “coach approach” can be a helpful way to engage someone as a thinking partner. In this way one helps them explore what they truly believe, even to the point of knowing their sin and sinful nature and their need for a Savior in Jesus Christ. Please do not misunderstand: this is not like a lawyer or interrogator manipulating the conversation. It is a genuine dialogue of interest, curiosity and questions, a dialogue that avoids the default mode of “telling.”
Let’s contrast these modes for the Gen Xer. In the one scenario, the witness to Jesus Christ correctly proclaims scriptural facts about God’s Law and Gospel as the truth it is. Yet the Gen Xer dismisses this proclamation and its orthodox content about Jesus largely because the Gen Xer regards the proclaimer as a know-it-all who has something to sell. Thus they reject the proclaimer and neglect the Savior, having never really wrestled with sin and grace.
Another option is to go in with a “coach approach,” asking the sort of Socratic questions we find in the Gospels and Paul’s letters. Ask them about themselves. Ask them about their hopes and dreams, their background and their experience with spirituality and religion. Ask them what they believe. Consider yourself an interviewer seeking to get to know them on a deeper level. Be curious and be interested. Often they will ask you what you believe, and you can answer—and, I would suggest,—succinctly and joyfully.
A similar dialogue continues with the Gen Xer whose imposing grandmother insisted she be baptized as a first grader at her Catholic school. As we continue to talk, she has shared about her fear of God and of hell, which would have probably never happened with another approach. Eventually she asked me what I believed. She persisted in asking me until I gave a short few statements. I admitted my falling short of God’s standards of perfection but that through Christ, who was my stand-in on the cross, I was completely forgiven, not due to my own goodness but because of what Jesus has done for me and for all people. Her reply? “I don’t believe that.” I was sad, but with this relationship the dialogue continues and now I know where the “starting line” is for her. We continue to talk regularly, and taking a coach approach is affirming for her while she also knows that is not what I believe. Is that not what God wants from us? To bear witness to what we believe about Him and His Son Jesus Christ, while persisting in relationships in spite of where they are or what they believe?
In a relationship with another, different Gen Xer where this coach approach was used, thankfully another outcome occurred. By God’s grace—and interestingly also with the influence of her grandmother—she came to the place where she confessed that this Good News in Jesus Christ was also for her. Praise God!
Now What? Some Questions to Ponder
1. Who in your personal web of relationships is a Gen Xer? How might or might not they represent the typical Gen Xer?
2. How clear and congruent are you within yourself about what you believe, why you believe it, and how you behave and interact with people as a result?
3. How can you shift from “telling” to more “asking” and coaching?
4. What kind of questions can you ask that communicate your genuine care, interest, and curiosity as opposed to looking like an interrogator?
5. What service activities is your school or church doing for others where you could invite Gen Xers to participate even as non-members (or non-Christians) and in so doing capitalize on the philanthropic nature of Gen Xers? How can you introduce them to other Christians and engage in more dialogue during those activities?
Our society in so many ways mirrors the characteristics of Gen Xers: embracing diversity in beliefs, tolerance toward other views, skepticism of religion, and even being critical of Christianity.6 With this in mind, how might you grow in being “wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove?”
1. Henseler, C. (2013). Generation X goes global: Mapping a youth culture in motion. New York: Routledge.
2. Isaksen, Judy L. (2002). Generation X. St. James Encyclopedia of Pop Culture.
3. C. Hall, personal communication, Sept 26, 2014.
4. A. Gray, personal communication, Nov 4, 2014.
5. Beaudoin, T. (1998). Virtual faith: The irreverent spiritual quest of generation X. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
6. Kinnaman, D., & Lyons, G. (2007). Unchristian: What a new generation really thinks about Christianity—and why it matters. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.