In recent years, there’s been conversation about millennials and the Church. After reading various takes, it seems to me that there’s an inability or unwillingness of various generations to listen to each other well.
As a 40-something, I’m right at the edge of Generation X, 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—the idea of generations sticking together and fighting for their rights in church life—that goes against the ethos of the body of Christ. The Church should be multigenerational: Young listening to old, old listening to young, all followers of Christ working out their salvation in fear and trembling. So, here are five ways that generations (Gen Zers, millennials, Gen Xers, boomers, busters, and any other group not given a clever name) can listen to each other 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 wisdom and knowledge into me and, at times, rebuke. Learning from their experiences is enriching. Not only do I come away with workable ideas for my ow leadership, I recognize the value of the ways a previous generation dealt with issues.
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. 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 and pick your brain on some things.” Easy. You don’t even have to say the word “mentor.” I’ve found that the most valuable wisdom I’ve gleaned is through casual conversations like these. As you build relationships with older mentors, you’ll find you have a lot more in common than you think.
2. Younger leaders would benefit from some humility
This is hard to swallow for some younger generations, 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. And I’m saying that as a criticism of myself, too.
The truth is, like our parents, we are sinners. And in 20 years, some other rising generation will come and offer as substantive a critique of our methods as we do of our parents. What’s more, making demands puts people on the defensive, shuts down conversation, and is antithetical to the kind of full life Christ envisions for his Church.
Rather than building a platform by attacking one part of the Church from our own fortified positions, we should promote gospel unity.
I realize that this can be reversed. 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” (Col. 3:12). Let’s offer respect and dignity to the leaders who have gone before us. 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 that we make older generations feel useless, as if all their hard work and efforts were 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 aside, or it may just be the hard reality of being passed by as the “next big thing.” If I could say something to every single gray-headed Christian leader, though, it would be this: We need you. Your wisdom, insight, and faithfulness needs to be imparted to us so that we might carry the baton of leadership in our generation.
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 one time with a long-time ministry leader who shocked me 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. Thankfully, leaders like this are rare. I’d love to see older generations, including my own as we grow, age well so that they can pass down their wisdom to those of us who are eager to learn.
4. All generations should read to get a better grasp of history
One of the things that plagues our conversations, I think, is a thin grasp of both world 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 and older people, gripped by the alarmism of “this is as bad as it’s ever been” in the Church and in the world. This often happens because people have their view of the world shaped by Twitter 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, etc. We’ll also be humbled to know that perhaps we are not the best, 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, and Mueller. Read about leaders like Eisenhower, Washington, Lincoln, and King. You’ll see how God works through flawed people to bring about his purposes. 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 for our clever new machinations.
5. All generations can 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, or preach a sermon on the latest problem with the Church. There’s a place for self-criticism, but we forget that, for all of her flaws, 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 attacking one part of the Church from our own fortified positions, we should promote gospel unity. That means seeking a Church that is intergenerational, multiethnic, and diverse. Yes, we need to defend the faith once for all 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 tweets 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 Revelation, but that’s okay. That’s even good. This is how you practice love, forbearance, and grace in community.
We shouldn’t want to build a Church that looks just like us or our “tribes,” even if it’s the easiest and most comfortable thing to do. Instead, we should labor, side by side, to build a Church that’s like Jesus, that values every age and stage. After all, “our” way of doing church isn’t helpful unless each part of the body, from eight to 85, is represented and respected.