NOTE 1: This is the 2nd installment of a new series, “Younger Evangelicals and the Culture Wars.” See here for the 1st one.
NOTE 2: Some of the material below appears in the chapter “Cultural Irrelevance” in my book on cynicism within and toward the church.
“Not Your Aunt Gertrude’s Church“
This is from a church ad I saw on a prominent billboard in north Atlanta. In other words: cool, young suburban church.
There is another sign I started seeing on a regular basis. Scripted in Old English font on mud-stained, white-washed plywood, it read—
“Mount Hermon Baptist Church, Est. 1848”
In other words: outdated, out-of-touch church.
I have spent 7 years as a college minister to Millennials. These 7 years were split up by a 2-year stint in a markedly different ministry context. Overnight, I went from ministering to 20somethings to 70somethings. I became the interim pastor of Mount Hermon Baptist Church.
The sounds of worship changed from those of djembes and acoustic guitars to those of a piano and organ. Reasons for missing ministry events changed from watching American Idol or The Office to arthritis pain and daylight savings time (when it made evening too dark for safe driving).
Aunt Gertrude would have been right at home in our church.
My family and I fell in love Aunt Gertrude.
When I told them I was leaving to lead a large college ministry (my most painful ministry experience), they encouraged me to go and serve those Millennials since they themselves were just a “washed-up bunch of old folks.”
Why would they assume they are just a “washed-up bunch of old folks?” Maybe because young suburban churches hang signs that say things like, “Not your Aunt Gertrude’s church.”
Generational Superiority Complex? “They don’t get me”
As someone who has worked among Millennials, believe me, I have been deeply pained by how ineffective the church has been at reaching them. The stories are so disheartening. But as someone who has emotionally and spiritually invested so much in reaching younger Christians, I want to prod and poke around a bit in such a way that perhaps we younger folks can see some of the nuances that complicate our complaints.
There is a strong sense in the more youthful demographic of believers that older generations in the church “don’t ‘get’ us.” And it’s true.
But we don’t really “get” them either.
I was pleased to read Rachel Held Evans’ exhortation to listen to others’ stories so that issues like homosexuality would not be so faceless. Among the stories we should be hearing, though (and I am sure Rachel would agree), are those of our older generations. How well do Millenials understand the daily pressures and trials of a 47-yr old divorcee with teenagers and ailing parents? How often do we take the time to listen to the sobering tales of the fading number of vets from WWII? Considering the feverish concerns over dating and sexuality, how regularly are we seeking the counsel of a couple whose marriage has already lasted decades longer than Millennials have been alive? Social context (including where we hang out) shapes us quite a bit—how often do we venture out of coffee shops, campuses, and lively bars into hospitals, nursing homes, or even into well-worn living rooms where you can hear the soothing tick-tocking of an old clock?
It’s painfully true: older generations of believers really don’t understand younger Christians and their concerns and angst. But younger Christians don’t get them either.
Jamie Smith has wondered if some sort of “generational blackmail” is underway. I don’t think it is that extensive, but I do think most young generations are a little guilty of a generational superiority complex. Think of my generation: Gen-X. Do you hear the scandalous, threatening ring to that enigmatic, iconic letter, “X”? Older generations watched us grow in dread and fascination… what type of future will they bring? How will the world change when these Gen-Xers get their hands on the reigns of society’s future? We were ready for our role of making a cultural splash. Michael Stipe was singing of the end of the world and we all felt fine….
And now, our hair is thinning, we’re driving minivans and SUVs through elementary school drop-off lanes, we’re changing diapers, and trying to figure out how to pay mortgages and school loans.
It is really easy to bash the “family values” platform when you have no family of your own… yet. Every young generation becomes eventually becomes the older generation, and along with that slow aging comes the painful awareness that we do not quite “get” them. And it hurts… because they are our children. And we want to know them… and to protect them.
The Ecclesiology of the Culture Wars
We will be looking more closely at some of the critical issues at stake in these culture wars that, unfortunately, defined the public interface of our previous generation of Christian leaders. For these opening posts, however, I am interested in the issue of ecclesiology:
- how is the church effected when younger Christians seem more at odds with older Christians than secular culture when it comes to politically-charged moral issues?
- How does it affect the church when we lay down the arms of a previous generation’s anti-culture weaponry and then take up new ones arrayed inwardly against other Christians?
For most human societies it is incumbent on the younger generations to understand and respect older generations. But when we are young, we want to reverse that trend. Biblically speaking, there is a strong motif of inter-generational discourse that leads to the wider health of the community. Babes and infants declare praise (Mt 21:6; cf. Ps 8.2), the younger was privileged over the older in patriarchal narratives (Gen 11-50). But “honor thy father and mother” made it into the Decalogue, and the kingdom of Israel was violently divided because young Rehoboam took the counsel of his peers rather than the counsel of the old men (1 Kgs 12:8). Older and younger generations have so much to learn from the other. We just need to get them all together for story-exchange. Where can that happen?
At church on Sunday mornings is a good place to start.
[By the way, I am pleased to report that Mount Hermon has a wonderful young pastor, and they are all learning and growing a lot together. If you are in Durham, NC, you should check them out. They will love on you.]