Healing Generational Divides

By Daniel Darling

There is so much conversation lately about Millennials and the Church. Seems every blogger has addressed this subject from one angle or another. After reading the blogs and counter-blogs, it seems to me that the crux of the matter involves two things: a) a vast exaggeration of what generations think of each other, as if everyone born in a certain time period automatically approaches their faith the same way and b) the inability or unwillingness of various people groups, generations, to listen to each other well.

The former has been addressed at length already. But I’m not sure the latter problem–listening–is discussed enough. As a thirty-something, I’m right at the edge of Generation X and looking behind me at Millennials. I consider myself a Millennial in many respects, though I disagree with some of the characterization of this generation and even the overuse of the term.

What worries me the most about this conversation, as a pastor, is the sense of tribalism, this idea of “my generation is going to stick together and fight for our rights in church life” that goes against the ethos of body life in Christ. The Church should be multi-generational. Young listening to old, old listening to young, all followers of Christ working out their salvation in fear and trembling. So, at the risk of adding another tired voice to the pile of opinions on this subject, I offer five ways that generations (Millenials, Gen-X’ers, Boomers, Busters, and any other group not given a clever name) can listen and grow in Christ together:

1) Younger Leaders Should Find Several Older Leaders as Mentors

For youngish leaders like me, we should recognize our wisdom deficit. We have much to learn from wise, older leaders who have gone before us. I’m grateful to have in my life several older pastors who pour into me wisdom and knowledge and, at times, rebuke. I love to drink from the rich fountain of their experiences. Not only do I come away with workable ideas for my ow leadership, I recognize the value of the way a previous generation dealt with issues. I learn the stories.

The best way to set up a relationship like this is to simply ask. You’d be surprised how many seasoned pastors or lay leaders would love to sit down for coffee and chat. You don’t need a curriculum or a structure, just a couple hours of uninterrupted time together. The way I do it is simple. If there is someone I’d love to learn from, I call or email and say something like, “Hey, I’d love to go out for coffee or lunch or something and pick your brain on some things.” Easy. You don’t even have to say the word, “mentor.” I have found that the most valuable wisdom I’ve gleaned is through casual conversations, by me asking probing questions about a person’s life and ministry. What’s surprising is that you will find older and younger generations have a lot more in common than you think.

2) Younger leaders would benefit from some humility. This will go down hard for some millennials, but it needs to be said. We need to dial down the hubris a bit. Part of the reason older generations don’t listen is because we’ve come out swinging, making demands and acting as if we’re the first generation to finally “nail it” when it comes to Christian ministry. I’m saying that mostly as a criticism of my own self.

The truth is this: like our parents, we are sinners. And in twenty years, some other rising generation will come and offer as substantive of a critique of our methods as we do of our parents. What’s more, making demands puts people on the defensive, it shuts down conversation, it is antithetical to the kind of rich body life Christ envisions for His church.

I realize that this can be reversed, that at times older generations have led with a sort of top-down structure. Still, let’s not emulate what we don’t like by making the same demands of those who may not agree with us. As God puts us in greater positions of power and influence, let’s wear it well. Let’s be “clothed with humility” (Colossians 3:12). Let’s offer respect and dignity to the leaders who have gone before. Let’s offer the same forbearance of their (seemingly) out of date methods as we desire for our own blind spots. Sometimes I think the Church chases relevance and youth so quickly, we make older generations feel useless, as if all their hard work and effort are in vain. Instead, let’s respect the previous generation even as we seek to improve or update the ministry model.

3) Older Generations Should Realize How Much They Have to Give

Most long-time, experienced Christian leaders I’ve met are extremely gracious, open, and willing to mentor the next generation. But there are some who have not aged well and whose attitude toward the younger set is one of disdain. Part of this might simply be fueled by the feeling of being put out to pasture or it may just be the hard reality of being passed by as the “next big thing.” I don’t know, but if I could say something to every single gray-headed Christian leader, it would be this: we need you. Your wisdom, your insight, your faithfulness poured into us so that we might carry the baton of leadership in our generation.

Thankfully I’ve been exposed to some of the most gracious, humble, godly leaders who are eager to both listen to and advise the next generation. I’m friends with some pretty well-known pastors in my area who surprise me when they ask me advice on certain things. It reflects a certain humility and willingness to change and grow.

It seems there are two ways to age as a Christian leader. You can age well, as most of the leaders I’ve seen do. Or you can age poorly, getting more prickly, less teachable, more dismissive along the way. I had a conversation earlier this year with a long-time ministry leader who shocked my by his arrogance. He dismissed, with a smirk, nearly everything I was doing at my church, in my writing ministry, and in my educational endeavors. I left feeling like a total failure. Needless to say, I’m not going to be seeking him out for advice anytime soon. Thankfully, leaders like this are rare. But if I could humble give a word to older generations: age well. Realize how much you have to give to my generation. There are those of us who are eager to seek out your wisdom and your grace. We’re ready to learn and be shaped.

4) All generations should read to get a better grasp of history. I’m a bit biased toward history, I guess, so forgive me. But one of the things that plagues our debates, I think, is a thin grasp of both world history and church history. By this I mean God’s sovereign hand over all of history in building His Church and establishing His kingdom. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with young people, gripped by the alarmism of “this is as bad as its ever been” in the church and in the world. And ironically I’ve heard older generations say the same thing, “In all my years, I’ve never . . . ” I think this happens because people have their view of the world shaped by Twitter and the Drudge Report and the flashing neon signs of “breaking news” all over. But settling down and reading, appreciating and absorbing history reminds us that we are not the first generation to face significant challenges. Our challenges may not be as severe as those faced by previous peoples. What’s more, church history connects our generation to a rich, 2,000 year history of God’s work among His people. We’re reminded that we’re not the first generation to wrestle with faith and politics, in the world and yet not of it, social gospel versus proclamation, etc. We’ll also be humbled to know that perhaps we are not the best and brightest and most innovative, like we think we are.

Here’s the other thing history gives us: hope. Read the biographies of men like Moody, Luther, Tozer, Augustine, Graham, Mueller. Read about leaders like Eisenhower, Washington, Lincoln, King, etc. You’ll see how God works through flawed people to bring about His purpose. Every time I finish a biography of a great leader, I come away with hope and humility. The same God who was active in previous generations is alive and active today. He isn’t depressed by what depresses us and isn’t waiting with white-knuckles for our clever new machinations.

5) All generations could work on building unity. I wish I could declare a moratorium on attacks against the Church by the Church. The market is rich for evangelicals to write a book, pen a blog post, preach a sermon on “The problem with the Church.” There is a place for self-criticism, but that is ground so well-covered as to be saturated. We forget that, for all of its flaws, for all of its warts and blind spots, the Church is the bride of Christ. Jesus loves the church. You cannot separate the groom from His bride. He won’t let you.

Rather than building a platform by shooting at one part of the church from our own fortified positions, we should promote unity: gospel unity. That means a Church that is intergenerational, multi-ethnic, diverse. There is a place for defending the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3). But that’s not the same as standing up for preferences in a way that alienates those who think differently. Unity begins by respecting other generations, by listening, by avoiding the sort of over-heated blog posts that drive traffic, but also drive unnecessary wedges. Yes, you will go to Church on Sunday and worship with someone who probably thinks differently than you do about politics, music, and the precise meaning of all the bowl judgements in Revelations, but that’s okay. That’s even good. This is how you practice love, forbearance, and grace in community.

I don’t want to build a Church that looks just like me, but a Church that looks just like Jesus.