There is a generational divide within the church today that rivals the generational divide of the 1960’s – but it is of an altogether different sort. This time, the young don’t want to reject the old; they want to embrace them.
But somehow, the hugs aren’t happening.
There is much that could be said about the interplay within the church between the generations. Listen in on the older crowd, and many conversations focus on how they are genuinely puzzled as to why their churches are dominated by an aging demographic and continue to shrivel in size. This is often accompanied with laments about the younger generation: their clothes, their piercings, their tattoos, their music, their values and their technology. Throw in a good dose of how little the younger people honor them, and you have a common script.
Listen in on the younger crowd and you hear about outdated music, being kept out of leadership, a lack of missional energy (or simply misplaced missional energy), too much focus on issues such as abortion or homosexuality instead of social justice, and…well, you get the point.
In many ways, these are trivial divides and, if conversation were to ensue, easily addressed. In fact, the script is written largely because the two sides aren’t talking that much, which means understanding is lacking.
Which brings up the larger issue: where the two ships are passing in the night.
As I travel around the world, there is a growing dynamic that is becoming increasingly clear. I hear younger people express a deep and sincere hunger for mentoring accompanied by a thirst for wisdom. Calling, vocation, spiritual formation…they yearn for someone older and wiser to pour into their lives. Young couples long for older couples to help them navigate the path of relationship and children.
Yet few if any of the younger crowd have such people in their life.
Their sense of things? Either such mentors do not exist, do not have the time, or do not have the desire. It is not because they reject the wisdom or counsel of their elders. Only a few believe that because someone is over fifty they are suspect, or that if you don’t have the latest iPad you are somehow unable to offer anything of relevance to life as it’s lived in the real world.
The irony is that older generations are wondering why young people don’t acknowledge their accumulation of years and let them make a contribution. Most would be honored to be invited to a Starbucks for a relaxed conversation. They wouldn’t be focused on giving you advice on how to dress or whether your taste in music is theirs – you might even be surprised at what they have on their iPhone (and that they have one!). They would be more interested in listening to you and your story, and if asked, sharing the life-lessons they wished someone had passed on to them.
And that is the great tragedy. Younger people want to interact with those beyond them in years for counsel and wisdom; older people would like to be valued and stand ready to pour into someone who is just beginning life’s great dramas.
I have some ideas.
First, for the younger crowd: those older than you have no idea you are interested in what they have to offer you. They don’t offer themselves to you because they don’t think you see value in what they might have to give. So take the initiative. Don’t wait on them - seek them out. Most would sincerely welcome, and be flattered by, such an invitation.
Now for those a bit older, my counsel runs a bit further (because you are, after all, the one who is supposed to be the more mature): first things first. Stop fighting the young on trivial matters. Veteran pastor Gordon MacDonald, falling into the older category himself, once said that those who resist changing something like the music need to ask themselves this question: “In fifteen years, are you going to be in heaven or retired in Florida?” His point: if you’re not the future of the church, don’t try and determine the future of the church. Every church has to attract younger attenders, else it will die a slow but sure death. If you can’t guarantee that you are that future, then get behind what it takes for the church to have one.
And don’t retire. If you are in your sixties, you probably have twenty-five good years left in you. How are you going to spend them? Whatever you do, don’t sit back and give in to a consumer mentality that measures everything by what it does for you. What about investing yourself in leadership, in service, and perhaps most strategically, in mentoring the next generation? Not every ministry is going to suit you (you probably shouldn’t try and join the band as it performs Coldplay, unless you want to look ridiculous), but the church desperately needs your investment and leadership.
Finally, pass the baton. Make yourself available to pour into young Christians, young couples and young leaders. Offer yourself as a small group leader; take that young person out to lunch; offer to work with high school or college students. Build some relationships with those young couples dropping off their kids at the nursery.
And here’s a real radical thought that I heard about recently (added just for fun): What if an aging church filled with people in their sixties and seventies and shrinking steadily in size decided to sell their property, take that money and give it to a young and growing church, and then invest themselves in that church as active members with a view toward mentoring the young. Imagine 50 or 100 new small group leaders, teachers, ministry leaders, working with twenty and thirtysomething adults.
I will speak for my church: if Meck had even 25 such people join with our church – people who were mature in Christ and willing to support the mission and vision and values (and yes, wear ear-plugs on the weekends) – and give of themselves to the thousands of people who attend in their twenties and thirties, our church would collectively rise and give more honor to those individuals than they could take in.
Why? Because there is a genuine hunger for it.
Two generations. Often two churches.
How cool would it be if they became one?
James Emery White
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About Dr. James Emery White
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
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