Across the Great Divide
by Rod Mays
I started working with younger men and women (campus ministry) when I was turning fifty. A decade later, I see how this work has transformed my perspective on the church and ministry. I’ve seen the importance of knowing one’s demographic and understanding more about how the individual relates to the whole in today’s cultural environment. I’ve gained a good deal of insight into gender issues and learned a ton about multigenerational interaction. I think I can accurately state that at one time or another, every one of us has been frustrated with the generation just older or younger than ourselves. “Turn up your Beltones!” the younger generation yells. The older generation shouts, “Take those plugs out of your ears!” The solution to the communication gap would be easy if it were as simple as providing hearing aids or eliminating iPods.
Scripture speaks to multigenerational issues. In 1 Timothy 4–5, Paul gives cautions about how the generations are to treat each another. Youth should not be despised, if the younger believer sets a good example in speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity. Older men are not to be rebuked by younger men, but encouraged as one would a father. All generations in the church are to be focused on the same goal — to see people changed by the gospel. Yet there are different styles of relating in the body. Many older believers tend to “keep their distance” and order the struggling among us to “just stop it.” A younger generation will often be more relational, saying, “Let me walk through this with you.” The church can breed alienation by its resistance to engage across generational lines, which can enrage all its members.
We all know our own generation best. Are we willing to admit our flaws? Do we really trust across generational lines? The church needs the rising generation to assume the responsibilities of a generation of incumbents whose leadership younger men and women have doubted and even ridiculed. Older men and women feel marginalized and defensive toward the attitude of entitlement younger leaders have exhibited. The older generation has been critical of both the methodology and melody of the emerging generations. The fathers and older brothers have often been unwilling to recognize that younger preachers and teachers have, indeed, embraced a fixed theology passed down from generation to generation. Perhaps the younger demographic has embraced the “doctrines of our holy religion” in a kinder, gentler, more “relevant” way. Good biblical mentoring has not been widely practiced by my generation. When it has occurred, there has been a tendency for it to be more theoretical in nature, and it has sometimes developed into a rigid method for passing on traditionalism rather than an encouraging relationship inviting serious theological reflection. When the older generations talk theology, they use the ancient buzzwords and inside, exclusive language. The younger generations fear the theological terms will be a turnoff, because they have felt shut out and rejected by many who use them. Younger men and women want to put their fingerprints on the church but can be resistant to understanding the value of historical, traditional, and biblical structures. Older men and women have struggled with how to “tell the next generation the great things that God has done.”
A younger generation does not need to be disillusioned by what it perceives as the harsh, angry self-righteousness of older Calvinists. All generations need to learn how to use the awesome biblical language of sovereignty, predestination, and election, and younger generations need to be comfortable using those great words to artfully wield Reformed theology, understanding that the language represents timeless, redemptive truth. There is much to be admired in older and younger generations. There is also enough sin to be shared across generational lines. All generations tend to speak loudly where Scripture is silent and go silent where Scripture is loud. Though it may sound like too much of a generalization, it seems that older generations need to rediscover grace while younger generations need to rediscover holiness.
As older and younger begin to talk, they may be surprised to discover there really was no gap, only the perception of one. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Listening can be a greater service than speaking. Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he, who can no longer listen to his brother, will soon be no longer listening to God, either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God, too. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life and in the end there is nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words.”
What an older generation has taken for granted in its theology and commitment to a system of propositions, a younger generation needs to see embodied confessionally, ecclesiastically, and incarnationally.