It is a tragedy when relationships between generations go wrong. I do not assume that they always go wrong; they often work well. But, while recognising that each situation is different, and that these issues are easy to caricature, I’m looking to address what can be done – when there is frustration or tension – and to identify a better way. My fundamental conviction is that Christianity is a missionary faith, which makes it a ‘from generation to generation’ faith, irrespective of the degree of cultural change…
The relationship between older and younger generations in the Church is complex. Older people can hang on to leadership too long, while younger people (if they stay) get frustrated. Well-intentioned, but often token, appointments of young people are made to church bodies whose meetings can frustrate – or bore the life out of – those same young people. Yet there are also older people looking for someone younger to take on roles they have filled for years – and they can’t find anyone to take their place. The problem is essentially one of power: who has a say and who does not. The issue is also vocational: is each generation respected and released to obey God’s call and trusted to trust God’s promises?
Young people often feel that their church is out of date; that they couldn’t invite their friends and feel powerless to make changes. Or an older generation wonders why people no longer come to church, while a younger one knows we have to go out to the people rather than wait for them to come to us. They are operating
from different models; one is attractional – wanting to make church more attractive – and the other more incarnational in seeking to engage more with the everyday lives of non-Christian friends.
Technological change means that a generation accustomed to listening to an authoritative teacher respectfully is encountering another which has been taught to question everything with the capacity, in a moment, to check multiple media sources. In today’s culture, respect for the wisdom of the elders has largely
been lost. In some communities older people are even afraid of younger people.
But no generation of Christians is meant to start from scratch as they serve Christ in the world. We have to test things out for ourselves – or they remain theoretical – but we are not meant to ignore the wisdom of previous generations nor recycle their mistakes out of ignorance. Unless, of course, we want to learn for ourselves the truth of Christian writer and poet Steve Turner’s lines, ‘History repeats itself. Has to – nobody listens.’
Sometimes the problem is that we confuse particular forms of worship or discipleship with the eternal truths they convey. An older generation finds it hard to imagine a different, perhaps more informal approach to worship, while a younger one fails to see beyond the form to the truths being expressed.
A lot of this is evidence of fractures within our culture, which inevitably impact the Church. But that is no reason to give in to them. There can be a better way. Each generation can pass on the truths of the faith and the callings and promises of God to the next. Each can learn to recognise and bless God’s calling on the others. Each can play their part in releasing each generation for their calling. There is plenty to do. Without effective youth and young adult ministry the Church has no future, but given the rapidly growing proportion of the population over 65, ministry by – and to – that generation will be essential in the coming decades.
The stories around the birth of John the Baptist and of Jesus in Luke chapters one and two provide a model for relationships between the generations. We are even told that John will ‘turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the
Lord (1:17).’ God wants to sort out intergenerational conflict.
Three generations are involved. The oldest – Elizabeth, Zechariah, Simeon and Anna – have faithfully kept God’s word and trusted his promises in their generation. They deserve respect and are afforded it by God’s choice of them, and by the whole way Luke tells his story. (Even if Zechariah has a late in life lesson in obedience.) Their ministry is not yet over. They still have the task of blessing the next generation, and continuing to serve God, as they have been. There is no suggestion that Zechariah is to stop being a priest, or that God has finished with his generation now that his wife is expecting John the Baptist.
Mary comes to stay with Elizabeth. Separated in age by the equivalent of two generations, and receiving the hospitality of her older cousin – who is a direct descendent of Aaron the first High Priest – the younger would normally have paid her respects to the elder. But Mary is not given the chance. She is barely through
the door when Elizabeth greets her prophetically as ‘the mother of my Lord’. The older generation rejoices over God’s call on the next generation.
Mary’s response shows no arrogance. She is awe struck and amazed that God was using her, that he fulfils his promises and shows mercy ‘from generation to generation’ (Luke 1:50). Later, Mary and Joseph bring Jesus, who together with his cousin John, forms the third generation, into the Temple. Simeon blesses them and prophecies over them and their child. Anna also speaks about this child. Once again the older blesses the next generation, seeing in them the fulfilment of God’s promises.
A fine example of this was seen in a small Methodist church in Polzeath, Cornwall. The chapel was down to two members, aged 85 and 90. They did not want their church to die, and warmly welcomed a proposal that it should be developed as a church for the surfers on the adjoining beach. The new focus would involve changes in both the building and in worship, but these two were thrilled to see what God wished to do in the
next generation and blessed it – just as Elizabeth blessed Mary. The new work was released by the faith, prayers and permission of those two.
So how can we release the next generation?
I chair the Soul Survivor trustees so I am a guardian of the values of that ministry. It is a prime value of Soul Survivor to equip young people so that they can take responsibility for the ministries to which God is calling them. That involves a discipline of spotting potential as early as possible, giving opportunity for appropriate ministry and then mentoring as you go. Just as Jesus invested in the 12, following a time
of prayer, discernment and listening to the father, so pastors and youth leaders need to identify the young people with leadership potential whom they should mentor and release. That’s how the Church identified
and supported Matt Redman, Tim Hughes, Andy and Beth Croft – as well as the many, many others who do not have such ‘public’ or high-profile names.
Release them now
Instead of telling young people to wait until they have more experience, we need to release them now to do what only they can do. Christian leaders, whether pastors or youth leaders, have to make a choice. Is
their role primarily to protect the young people of their church or to equip them for mission? Is it to educate or to release? Where young people have a vision from God about serving him at their school or in their neighbourhood, give them support but do not take responsibility for that ministry from them. If they have heard it from God, then they are mature enough to lead in it, with prayerful support.
One of the ways in which churches with well-established patterns of mission and worship can become ‘mixed economy’ (inherited styles of church and fresh expressions of church in partnership) and
reach people their existing work does not reach, is to release young people to reach their own generation by establishing a fresh expression of church for them at school, college or a leisure centre. The point is not just that young people can hear God and act on what he says, much earlier than cautious churches allow. It is that
the rapid pace of change and the average age of many congregations (the average worshipper in the CofE is 14 years older than the average age of the population) creates mission opportunities which only young people can engage in.
If they are still looking for their calling, create an environment where they are helped to hear God for themselves. Support them as they take risks of faith so that to risk in faith and find that God is faithful,
becomes instinctive. Provide council and feedback but do not take control.
Let them rise to the challenge
Set the bar high with worthwhile challenges. Young people are required to make potentially vocational choices early as they select exam subjects. So set the challenge of the kingdom before them. The kingdom of God involves the salvation of men and women and the healing of the whole creation. That leaves plenty of scope for discernment and plenty of challenges to tackle. My experience of this generation of young people is that they rise to a challenge and are prepared for sacrifice. When young people are trusted to take initiatives in this way, they become much more open to the wisdom of former generations because they know they need all the help they can get!
Let them shape the church
It is not the calling of young people to preserve or continue the church as it is but to engage in God’s mission in a way which will inevitably shape the Church of tomorrow. If we are to engage with the UK as a mission field with its sheer scale and diverse complexity, we need the missionary gifts of young people today – not just tomorrow.
Christian faith is a ‘from generation to generation’ faith. Young people must be released into mission and older people respected as the faithful stewards of God’s promises. If the generations fail to communicate with, or understand one another, they can miss what God intends. What all three generations have in common are the promises of God. They provide the link. Each generation sees in the next a further stage of fulfilment of the same promises. The forms which faith and obedience take may change, but the common
thread lies in God’s promises. The generations are not so much linked by the way they do things, especially at times of rapid change, but by a shared commitment to God’s will, and to trust and act on his promises. This is the DNA that passes from generation to generation.
‘Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.’
Bishop Graham Cray is Archbishops’ Missioner and team leader of Fresh Expressions.