Changing Generations (Part 1)

21 May 2009

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Church culture is changing. In radical ways. And, as with any change there are many who stand back and wonder whether it’s for the better or worse.

In recent years there has been much discussion about what it means to reach out to younger generations, individuals who are becoming increasingly disconnected from the church.  Often, methods to reach the next generation has focused on musical style and missional outreach programs.

Yet it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know the laws of physics apply quite equally to Christian ministry: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  Whenever a decision is made to benefit one group of people, another group steps in to register their complaints.  When change happens, people tend to feel a sense of nostalgia for the past, a sense of alienation from the present, and a sense of anxiety toward the future.  And, in my personal experience, these feelings are hardly limited to any one generation – younger people can be every bit as resistant to change as older generations, and in some cases more so.

For many these feelings of nostalgia, alienation and anxiety form a trifecta for disaster, and often churches feel forced into alienating either one generation or the other, usually (though, to be fair, not always) catering to the previous generations at the expense of seeing younger people leaving the youth group and having their faith dwindle to nothing over the next decade.

The task before the church today is daunting.

As a younger Christian and future church leader these and related questions are never far from my mind.

But before we get to programs, before we get to application, we need to take a time out and understand the way people think.  The word of the day is “epistemology.”  It’s a big word – it basically means “how we know what we know.”  Epistemology deals with the way people perceive truth, and it is important to understand the difference in epistemological theories between older and younger generations.

A New Kind of Epistemology

Ok.  Epistemology.

Think of truth as a building.  A tall building, with lots of windows, like a skyscraper.

Got it?  Good.

Older generations tend to point to the foundation of the building.  After all, it holds up the rest of the structure.  In epistemology this is called the “foundational” view of truth, and it actually finds its origins in the enlightenment period.  There’s lots more to tell here, and we could drop words like “Cartesian certainty” until the cows come home, but you’re reading this because you want to understand the church better.  And I salute you for it.

Foundationalism focuses on the foundation.  In church this means that people point to the “foundation” of the faith all the time, which usually means the Bible.

Therefore, spirituality is articulated almost exclusively through learning the Bible.  The means?  Expository sermons, Sunday School classes, prayer meetings and scripture memory.  Some may even elevate personal or familial tradition to the same level, which is why hymns are often viewed with the same reverence as scripture (there’s the nostalgia thing again).  This is a generation more likely to be in Sunday School than to be engaged in active mission.

But younger generations are different.

For years they’ve heard their parents harping on the foundation – “foundation, foundation foundation,” only to respond: “But Mom and Dad; you don’t live in the basement!”

Whether rightly or wrongly, younger generations are reacting strongly against the perceived materialism of their parents’ generation (often critical of the megachurch movement), and feeling alienated from a faith that emphasizing principles without practice.

Younger generations have moved from foundationalism to what is sometimes called a “coherence” theory of truth.

What does this mean practically?  It means that younger generations tend to gravitate toward faith that touches all areas of their lives.  Their desire is a faith that is of great practical value and speaks to their practical needs – not the one-hour, Sunday morning, “basement” faith of their parents.  The present generation thrives on mission, valuing it over the perceived empty doctrine that their parents and church leaders had tried to instill upon them.  The result is a generation more likely to get involved in mission than their parents’ Sunday School class.

Doctrine vs. Mission

There are problems with both views of truth, and a full analysis is neither possible nor warranted here.

Rather, there are two key errors that churches must avoid given this epistemological shift:

(1)   Teaching from the ground up.

Teaching from a foundational approach often runs into the problem of emphasizing doctrine without emphasizing mission.

There is a great temptation to default to “business as usual:” preaching with no raising of need or practical application, designing Bible studies and hosting prayer meetings.

The result?

Younger generations become further alienated from the Christian faith, leading to the further hemorrhage of young adults during their college years.  Young adults grow up without a Biblical worldview that addresses their practical needs or concerns, and ultimately feel disillusioned by what is perceived as an “impractical,” dogmatic faith.

(2)   Working from the center.

Some churches, reacting against the dry orthodoxy of the past, value practical application over Christian doctrine.

The danger is that in so doing we run the risk of sacrificing Christian identity on the altar of cultural relevance.

The result?

Older generations react strongly against this approach, fearing the loss of the “foundations” of the past.  Missional emphases are viewed with skepticism, defensiveness or even hostility in an effort to protect valued programs.

Quite equally there is a danger that in trying to be practical, churches address the perceived needs of individuals (marriage, finances, etc.) forgetting the real, deep spiritual needs of a culture that values “spirituality.”

Younger generations respond generally well to this approach, depending on its execution, but the practical approach often deprives young people of a Biblical worldview that addresses their ongoing needs.  This can lead to two greater errors: (1) syncretism – absorbing other philosophies/religions into one’s own and (2) utilitarianism – faith is whatever “works” for the individual and/or is most beneficial to the community.

Thus the cure can potentially be worse than the disease.

So what’s the answer?

The answer begins by eliminating the dichotomy between doctrine and mission.  It is important to understand that mission is the ultimate outflow of Christian doctrine.  Mission is not merely supported by, but infused with the doctrines of scripture and theology.

I suspect in this post I have raised more questions than answers.

This post will be the first of many, where the differences that divide us shall be discussed in light of the Savior who unites us.

21 May 2009

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.

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