The gut plays a very important role in the day-to-day life of those born after 1980. For one, these generations are obsessed with food, with every second meal being posted on Instagram and every second TV show relating to food.
But the gut also plays a powerful role in the initial reaction to any given situation. The initial gut reaction often controls the emotions and determines the response that follows, even directing the ongoing course of action.
We see it in evangelism when we mention that Jesus is the one and only way to God (John 14:6). The hearer’s gut reaction is: “That can’t be right! It just feels wrong.” The question that soon follows is: “Does that mean that all the other religions in the world are wrong?” When we reply “yes”, the offense of our response can be felt.
Sadly we also see it in our churches amongst Christians. When we teach on some of those (supposedly) trickier passages, such as God’s good design for human sexuality and the role of men and women, the initial gut reaction is often anything but positive. It’s not that congregations want to openly rebel against God’s word, it’s just that “it doesn’t feel right”.
This is the tricky thing about the gut reaction. It’s a reaction! It can’t be helped. It’s what people feel and experience, and these are such important drivers for millennials. So here are some helpful ways forward for our evangelism and our churches.
Firstly, we need to help people diagnose where their gut reactions are coming from. For most, they think what they feel is natural. For them, if it feels wrong it is wrong. What we need to teach them, however, is that their reactions are not natural or neutral, but are culturally formed. They are a product of their time and culture. And this time and culture, like all the ones before, are fallen and marred with sin.
In our evangelism, often it’s as simple as asking them why they feel the way they do. In my experience, most people I ask don’t know how to answer that question. At this point I sometimes use the ‘Disney lie’ as an example. For most born post-1980, the air they breathe is that “you can be whatever you want to be”. And when I simply say to the person I’m evangelising, “you can’t”, that instantly that doesn’t feel right to them. But that’s the point. As an example, I point out that I’m 6”3’: no matter how hard I try, I’ll probably never be able to be a great jockey!
People can be so offended initially by the message of the gospel that they tune out for the rest of the conversation. Yet the answer is not to withhold the proclamation of the gospel. Rather, helping them diagnose their initial reactions can clear the way for further gospel proclamation. And make sure you don’t forget the punchline!
Helping fellow Christians diagnose their gut reactions is just as helpful, if not more so. I’ve spent a lot of time with 15-35-year-olds, and for most of them experience is a powerful thing. This can leave them confused as to why, at times, God’s word says one thing while they feel another thing. They know that God’s word is good, and they hold to the authority of Scripture, yet it doesn’t feel right.
Of course we need to teach our people the doctrine of total depravity: our whole being and world is affected by sin and the fall, including how we feel. However, I’ve also found that helping them understand that their gut feelings are not natural, but are actually a result of sin and cultural formation, is quite liberating. It gives them a reason for why they feel the way they do.
But after helping people diagnose why some of their gut reactions don’t align with God’s word, we want to help them get their gut reactions right! We want our people (and ourselves!) to so know and love the word of God, that when the world screams its philosophy at us, our guts will be aching with how wrong it is (Acts 17:16).
For those amongst us who are leaders and teachers, this means watching our own life and doctrine closely; if we are not firmly grounded in the Scriptures we may follow our own gut reactions, risking our own salvation and that of our hearers (1 Tim 4:16). And we must preach and teach on those so-called difficult passages. I am shocked by those who decide not to teach on a specific passage, such as 1 Timothy 2, 1 Corinthians 6:9, or 1 Corinthians 11, because of their fear of people’s reactions and getting them offside. Some have decided to skip a particular chapter while doing a sermon series through a book—or avoid that book altogether! But how can we expect people to have a right and godly gut reaction to God’s good word when we don’t teach it to them?
For all of us, aligning our gut reactions with God’s word means meditating on it day and night (Ps 1:2) and remembering that it is a good word. In a world that screams lies at us constantly, we must be immersed in the word of God so that he is the one shaping our thoughts and behaviours. Then, instead of shrinking back from proclaiming Christ, scared of what others will think, we will be bold in telling them of the great salvation they need in Jesus. Why? Because once our guts are aligned with God, we cannot help but speak of what we have heard in the gospel (Acts 4:20).
Rightly understanding the gospel will cause our hearts to bleed for those who are deceived by the world and are sheep without a shepherd. Of course evangelism will often be hard, but if we are convinced that their thinking is wrong, and that they are facing eternal damnation without the forgiveness of sins found in Jesus, then we will risk offense and rejection so that some might be saved (1 Cor 9:22).
 In the contexts I have been in, generally people hold to Scripture as the final authority. If that is not the case in your context, then you will need to help people see how God has spoken sufficiently and authoritatively in the Scriptures.