As generations of young people emerge who are more different than ever imagined, how should our presentation of God’s grace change? Millennials (those born 1981–96) are assuming leadership. Gen Z (born 1997–2012) is entering the workforce. The youngest of those from Generation Alpha (about 2013–25) are upon the age of accountability. They are the new mission field.
From Guilt to Shame
One of my hypotheses is that evangelists of the future will shift from presenting grace through a guilt framework to a shame framework. Guilt is, “I did something bad.” Shame is, “I am bad.” While guilt is about behavior, shame is fundamentally an identity problem, and identity is all the rage. The best book I’ve read on shame is Shame & Graceby Lewis B. Smedes. He was a renowned ethicist and theologian at Fuller Theological Seminary. He described shame like this:
Shame is a very heavy feeling. It is a feeling that we do not measure up and maybe never will. . . . It comes when no one else is looking at you but yourself and what you see is a phony, a coward, a bore, a failure, a person whose nose is too big and whose legs are too bony, or a mother who is incompetent at mothering. . . . Shame prone people discount their positives, magnify their flaws, judge themselves by undefined ideals, translate criticism of what they do into judgment of who they are, and read their own shame into other people’s minds.
This sounds all too familiar. I hear it often in conversations with young people in my community.
Did you ever wonder why everyone is getting T-shirts printed with “You are enough” on them? It’s the shame epidemic. People don’t experience guilt like they once did. It is a society that doesn’t acknowledge personal sinfulness. This makes preaching today different than when my dad was preaching 30 years ago. The appeal then was weighted heavily on personal responsibility. It was more punitive. The preacher would point to a shared regard for Christian law: “You see how we have all transgressed this command? That’s sin. We fall short of the standard, but Jesus has justified us.” I would suggest that this approach isn’t as effective anymore. Most young people are wrestling with shame, not guilt.
The Two Ways Shame Processes Sin
When young adults experience the inevitable effects of sin in life, their reflex isn’t to assume, “I did something wrong.” They process sin in two antithetical ways. The first is to take it way too personal. Did you screw up a romantic relationship? Did you get fired? Does your body look bad? Is the money you make corrupting you? Are you neglecting family for work? Did your application get rejected? Are you being bullied? Whatever it is that has gone wrong, it’s because you aren’t good enough. You were told all your life that people can achieve whatever they set their mind to, but for some reason you can’t. You were told how loved everyone is, but no one seems to notice you. You look at the highlight-reel lives of everyone on social media, but clearly you are doing something wrong.
The other way to process sin is to totally depersonalize it . . . to blame your brokenness on institutional trauma, an unhealthy childhood, oppressive societal norms, or toxic religion. For what it’s worth, these are all very real. However, the pendulum has swung too far. This has become a totalizing narrative that has diminished personal sin and replaced it with the helpless-victim mindset. Once I see myself as a helpless victim of uncontrollable forces in society, I no longer need to take responsibility for my own sin.
This is why penal substitution atonement theories have fallen out of favor. It’s why the critical theories getting traction these days accentuate systemic and institutional oppression. It’s why there is such a frenzy for justice work from secular people. People work for justice to tamp down their shame and signal their goodness. Feminist Elizabeth Nolan Brown cites psychological research showing much of the outrage and energy around justice “is often a function of self-interest, wielded to assuage feelings of personal culpability for societal harms or reinforce one’s own status as a Very Good Person” (from “Moral Outrage Is Self-Serving,” reason.com, March 1, 2017).
In a 2015 article at ChristianityToday.com, Andy Crouch argued that people are forming their morals, not based on a coherent assessment of what is right or wrong, but rather based on inclusion and exclusion.
“What will get me included?” “What will get me excluded?” “What will get me celebrated?” “What will get me canceled?” These are the questions driving our moral convictions today. The rub here is obvious. Christian morality does not prioritize inclusion but assumes exclusion. We are left with tribal wars over who is more shameful. “If you want to fit in with our tribe, you must accept our beliefs and speech patterns, and you must heap shame on our shared enemies! The very shame you hoped to escape by joining us, you must weaponize against thosepeople!”
To escape shame, you must weaponize it against others? What a disintegrating, soul-sucking, hypocritical way of life. No wonder my generation is struggling. Statistically, young people are more anxious and depressed than previous generations. They are lonelier, more antisocial, and more despairing. They are extending adolescence further. They are more untrusting. They are more confused about purpose and identity. And they have this low-boil-seething-rage against all the institutions that failed them.
From Justification to Regeneration and Sanctification
The solution, I think, could be to platform what we have long relegated when preaching grace. The solution to guilt (“I did something bad”) is justification. Our evangelism appeals have long been weighted toward this. However, the solution to shame (“I am bad”) is the second part of grace’s double cure—regeneration and sanctification. As I see it, most churches relegate regeneration and sanctification to the stuff we talk about after converts move into “discipleship.” This should change.
If justification reckons with guilt and behavior, regeneration reckons with shame and identity. When you are regenerated, you emerge from the waters of baptism with a new identity: dead to sin, alive to God in Christ, risen to walk in newness of life. Sin no longer exercises dominion over you! The identity transformation that happens is one that is received by grace, not achieved through effort. This is a relief for those convinced they are failures. Ponder this: We believe that people can experience an instantaneous, metaphysical, inner change to the very essence of their soul (regeneration) that cures the sickness of sin and launches a lifelong process of healing (sanctification).
Sanctification is critical to this evangelistic appeal as well because it casts a vision of the horizon of human possibility. When we look at the saints before us, we see how years of faithfulness can transform someone into a person of love.
This is why I beg the young people in our church to ditch the worship of celebrities for the admiration of saints. We let celebrities set our horizons for everything from the inconsequential (like fashion and lingo) to the meaningful (like morality, politics, sexuality, and money). What a tragedy when we have heroes like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Corrie Ten Boom, Festo Kivengere, Dorothy Day, Desmond Tutu, Pandita Ramabai, and Mother Teresa to admire.