The nest emptied. I turned 50. And suddenly my mind was conflicted between two opposing self-perceptions: one, my life-long assumption that no one would ever be younger than me (read my post, “50 Trips Around the Sun”) and the other, a newly dawning reality that I was now unmistakably a member of the “older generation.” When the AARP sent me a membership card with my name stamped on it, there was no more denying it.
It wasn’t only my sagging body and sluggish mind that was telling me this, it was the sobering realization that my worldview was quite different from the “younger generation.”
I’d become an ol’ fogy.
In the 1960s, when I grew up, someone coined a term for this. They called it the “Generation Gap.” I’m a father of two married daughters in their 20s and a ministry marketer, so I had a vested interest in finding out all I could about what makes this younger generation tick, particularly when it comes to their Christian worldview. I desperately wanted to understand why and how the beliefs and values that I and many of my peers had held dear were not fully shared by the next generation.
So I subscribed to Relevant magazine. I read articles from critical thinkers. I had long conversations with three college ministers. I got two of the best books I could find on the subject and pored over them: You Lost Me by David Kinnaman and Already Gone by Ken Ham and Britt Beemer. Most importantly, I talked to my two 20something daughters. I’ve distilled the result of all this research—as well as a careful self-examination—into this post. Below are my conclusions about how the Generation Gap, namely in the Christian arena, can be bridged.
But before I go further, however, it will help if I define the generations and my designations for them. I’m familiar with the vast array of various names for generations, Boomers, Busters, Millennials, Generation Flux, Gen X, Y, and Z, and so on. But in this post, I’m viewing the generations very broadly, calling my generation, the Baby Boomers born 1946–64, the Concrete Generation. And I’m calling our kids’ generation, born 1982–2000, the Connect Generation. Concreters see the world in hard and fast terms, black and white. We’re a bit materialistic, and cling to things that are tried, true, and highly defined. We’re like a concrete slab. The Connect Generation grew up in the Internet age where change was the only constant. Connectors are connected to information and to people in ways that Concreters may never fully understand. So there you have it. How do you span the Generation Gap? I’d suggest building a bridge—concrete, of course. My daughters might suggest we Skype about it.
What My Generation Can Learn from the Younger Generation
1. Value relationships as much as ideas and ideals.
I’ll be the first to admit that many from my generation lost sight of the fundamental truth that God is all about relationships. Our whole purpose for being created was to share a relationship with God. And a need for relationships and community is built into our DNA at every level.
Concreters often see relationships as means to an end. But for Connectors, relationships are the end. People matter. And not just their little clique of friends. People all over the world are all part of a global community of which we’re all citizens. Furthermore, they see the sinner first, not the sin. Unlike Concreters, Connectors aren’t interested in managing people. They want to love them.
Here’s what my generation can learn from Connectors on this point:
- Value community.
- Be eager to extend grace.
- Don’t be so dogmatic that you win the argument and lose the friend.
- Love the outsider.
- Work in teams.
- Hand-craft disciples.
2. Put values into action.
Like a pair of TOMS or a Livestrong wristband, Connectors wear their cause on their sleeve—or shoe. And just like social media help keep information flowing between their relationships, social justice and social enterprise help keep rights and resources flowing from haves to have-nots.
Concreters have often been content to build their kingdoms in such a way that they can enjoy the benefits personally—and they often build a moat around the castle. Connectors are inclined to build kingdoms without walls or gates or moats. They won’t sit in their ivory towers and proclaim messages. They’re more apt to hit the road and be Jesus in skin to someone who would never swim the moat. They live like they actually believe this stuff. They see faith as a verb, not a noun.
3. Have high expectations and a radical passion for Christianity.
Connectors sniff out fakes quicker than they’ll roll their eyes at the mention of K-Love. They won’t hold their nose around spoiled Christianity just so they can keep up appearances. Authentic Christianity. That’s what they’re searching for. And it better be passionate and relevant. They won’t put up with boring church. Church that’s a spectator sport. Or preachers who know what they believe and are mad about it. They’ve had enough of preaching that makes the Good News sound like bad news. They want Christianity like it was—and still is in some places—when it was fresh, new, on the Gospel frontiers.
There are a lot of reasons why Connectors who were brought up in church are turning their back on faith in droves, but I think Kyle Idleman in his book Not a Fan (p. 83) puts his finger on it with this quote from the father of a Prodigal Daughter: “We raised her in Church, but we didn’t raise her in Christ.” As Kyle puts it, “We taught her to be a fan of Jesus—instead of a follower of Jesus.”
This quote from Emma Smith, a student in Lexington, Kentucky (You Lost Me, Kinnaman, p. 232), sums up what the next generation is looking for in the authentic Christian:
“I want you to be someone I want to grow up to be like. I want you to step up and live by the Bible’s standards. I want you to be inexplicably generous, unbelievably faithful, and radically committed. I want you to be a noticeably better person than my humanist teacher, than my atheist doctor, than my Hindu next-door neighbor. I want you to sell all you have and give it to the poor. I want you to not worry about your health like you’re afraid of dying. I want you to live like you actually believe in the God you preach about. I don’t want you to be like me; I want you to be like Jesus. That’s when I’ll start listening.”
What the Younger Generation Can Learn from My Generation
1. Believe in an absolute and accurate authority.
Connectors put an extremely high value on empirical knowledge. So when it comes to spiritual matters, they often have a hard time making a “willing suspension of disbelief,” as Coleridge put it, in God and the supernatural realm. But God is an exceedingly creative God, and the essence of creativity is “unlearning.” Today’s generation has to unlearn the notion that scientific knowledge has no limitations. As Aristotle said, “That which is probable and impossible is better than that which is possible and improbable.” Take creation, for example. If God exists and wrote the Bible, then the literal Genesis account is probable and impossible. (Yet with God, all things are possible.) Evolution, on the other hand, is possible, but improbable.
Discovering the truth is ultimately a matter of settling the question of authority. It all comes back to one solitary question: Did God write the Bible? If yes, then It’s the absolute, inerrant, and accurate authority. If no, then stop wasting time playing church and live totally for self. Either He wrote it, or He didn’t.
An epiphany moment for me in understanding the younger generation came during a sermon preached by my church’s student pastor, Casey McCall. He said, “It’s hip today to doubt. Assurance is not cool. It’s considered arrogant, not authentic. Doubt is what’s thought to be authentic, genuine.” Today’s generation has experienced an unprecedented amount of change, even in their short lifetimes. Human knowledge is doubling every few years, soon perhaps, every few months. Millions of widely varying opinions are only a click away. And we expect young people to believe that a book filled with “far-fetched” stories written several millennia ago is without error and absolutely authoritative? Connectors have their doubts.
Although I believe I could do it, it’s beyond the scope of this post to give an airtight apologetic about the Bible’s historical, scientific, and theological inerrancy—those resources are out there for truth-seekers. I’ve done a good deal of apologetics work, and I’ve never come across an alleged discrepancy yet that didn’t have a satisfactory answer if you’ll look for it. My main point here is that Connectors need to think through the ramifications of evaluating the Bible through the judgment bar of human reason and modern experience. I’ve already written several blogs that touch on this issue, and make the point that:
- Science and empirical knowledge have limits. If you want to see further, you must use another sense: faith. See “Did God create man or did man make god?”
- There’s a divine tension between God’s Revelation and Man’s Senses
- If you truly seek God and wisdom, start at the beginning: Genesis. Once you can begin to grasp, “In the beginning, God…” everything else is quite believable. God. Infinite, eternal, mind-blowing God! If you believe in God, Who is both good and great, how can you doubt anything He says—no matter how much it seems to violate our human reason and modern experience? Why would Someone Who so desperately wants to spend forever with us reveal Himself by writing a book full of misleading stories that never happened? And how arrogant to think that we are the generation that finally found Him out.
It brings to mind a favorite quote (author unknown): “God must be very great to have created a world which carries so many arguments against His existence.” And another by Madeleine L’Engle: “I have point of view. You have a point of view. But God has a view.”
Connectors are on a search for the genuine, the authentic, the truth. Believing that Truth actually exists and that we’ve found it is not arrogance or folly. To the contrary, believing the oldest lie in the book, “Did God really say…” (Genesis 3:1), is neither modern, nor hip, nor genuine, nor cool. So don’t swallow it. Connectors, one thing I think you need to learn is that there’s a world of difference between knowledge and wisdom. Discover the difference, learn to listen to the Lord, and to truly know God. You won’t have any trouble believing the Bible after that.
2. Social action and justice without disciple-making is pointless.
As I mentioned above, my generation has much to learn about the value of relationships and putting faith into action with the type of compassion that Jesus demonstrated. But my observation has been that much of the social action and compassion ministries today are long on relief and short on redemption. We’re giving the cup of cold water, but are we giving it “in His name”? Are we leading people to Christ, or just making the world a better place to go to hell from? Are we throwing out the lifeline, or just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic? We’ve got to connect the dots for people in no uncertain way in order to clearly communicate that we care for people’s physical needs because we care even more about their spiritual needs. Jesus healed the sick and fed the hungry. Then He led them out of even greater oppression and spiritual darkness. When it comes to social action and disciple-making, it’s a “both-and,” not an “either-or.”
3. End cynicism about the church.
Suppose someone came up to me and said, “You know, I really like you, but I can’t stand being around Tina.” (First of all, it’s much more likely for someone to say the opposite, but I digress…) I’m not likely to warm up to someone like that who thinks they can pal around with me but hold my bride in contempt. How much more so does God resist one who says, “God, I like. It’s those Christians down at the church I can’t stand.” The fact is those vile, hypocritical, judgmental, worldly, lukewarm sinners down at the church are His bride. All He sees is the spotless, snow-white wedding gown purchased by the perfect blood of His Son.
God has the right to do all the disciplining of His unruly children He wants, but He doesn’t need us doing His job. Connectors need to see that the church is still—and always will be—God’s chosen community for Christians to grow and multiply. No, you won’t find a perfect church. And if you do, don’t join it; you’ll be sure to mess it up. But we need one another. We need community, not cynicism. Connectors seem to understand community, but they remain suspicious of it in the church.
Others go to the opposite extreme. They make the church all about people and relationships and ignore the importance of orthodox doctrine and truth. People pick a church for all the wrong reasons, because it’s the hip place to be, where all the cool kids are. But if the pure truth of the Word is not preached consistently and convictionally, then it’s not really a church; it’s a civic club. Connectors seem to err on the side of relationships. Concreters might err on the side of doctrine. May today’s generation find the right balance between uncompromising truth and committed discipleship.
Both generations need to be humble and teachable. Both can learn from the other. And one other thing that both generations need to avoid, Concreters in particular, is what Drew Dyck (You Lost Me, Kinnaman, p. 225) calls “proxy wars.” “It’s tempting to vent irritation over a young doubter’s party lifestyle or political views,” Dyck points out. “But these are bad hills to die on. Avoid getting sucked into debates about peripheral issues….Save your most impassioned word to talk about the Gospel.” How true. Concreters may harp on lifestyle issues like alcohol use, music, homosexuality, and other side issues. Connectors might be quick to throw out the baby with the bath water when they smell hypocritical church members, Fox News politics, or compassionless Christians. But both generations need to keep the main thing the main thing and major on the majors.
I’ve been on the trail as a Christian for more than 30 years now. When I come face-to-face with how little progress I’ve made sometimes, I realize I have little right to try and straighten out the next generation. But I do want to stay connected to them. And since my feet are pretty much firmly set in concrete on a lot of issues, that means I really have to stretch sometimes to bridge the generation gap. And sometimes I just can’t get there. Likewise, I realize that today’s generation often feels like trying to connect with my generation is about as frustrating as watching YouTube on a dial-up connection. (I’ll bet there are 18-year-olds who don’t even know what that is.) Thankfully, we have a timeless God who is limited by neither time nor space, Who Himself filled the void between man and God. And if He can fill that gap, filling the gap between Concreters and Connectors is no problem at all.
Five Myths about Young Adult Church Dropouts, Barna Group, November 16, 2011
Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church, Barna Group, September 28, 2011
Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church, Kenda Creasy Dean (Oxford University Press), 2010.
Already Gone, Ken Ham and Britt Beemer (Master Books), 2009.
You Lost Me, David Kinnaman (Baker Books), 2011.
50 Ideas That Changed Everything, Relevant Magazine, March-April 2011, pp. 88-109.
The Generation of Contrast, Relevant Magazine, September-October 2011, pp. 80-87.
An Open Letter to This Generation, Relevant Magazine, March-April 2011, pp. 52-55.
The Vanishing Church Body, Relevant Magazine, March-April 2011, pp. 82-87.
Lost in Transition, Christian Smith (Oxford University Press), 2011.