Generational Hunger Games

It runs both ways. Jokes about millennials being society’s dead weight or the constant finger pointing towards Baby Boomers and implications of culpability for a ruined economy. Why? Why do we feel the need to defend everyone who is kind of close to our age by pointing out a flaw in a generation that is a decade away from being lumped in with the first group?

Arbitrary group distinctions are incredibly feckless . . . you know like Gen-X’ers. Just kidding. Maybe I just wasn’t in tune to it when I was younger, but it seems like the generational smear campaigns have been amped up in recent years.

There have always been accusations of younger generations not being able to identify good music or old people being desperately out of touch with . . . everything, but recently the generational antipathy has gotten bitter.  Each group is actively finding ways to mercilessly skewer the hated other as young people run to Buzzfeed lists with corresponding GIF’s to prove that young people are the best people and older generations turn to CBS sitcoms with a stream of easily anticipated laugh tracked jokes at the expense of the weird kid in the group who lives in a three hundred square foot apartment and finds his most nutritious meals in break room leftovers. Because you know what’s funny? Crippling debt and poor nutrition.

Perhaps, as always, I am making too much of too little in terms of actual societal problems, but also, as always, that isn’t where my real concern lies. When generational distaste is common in media choices it limits understanding in broader society; when generational distaste works its way into the church it fractures the body of Christ.

The age problem is manifested within the church in many ways—music choice, service times, speaker volume, etc.—with a common attempted solution: shove each individual group of people into their own mini-church that does not have to interact with others who think differently. It’s a fitting solution in the same way that duct tape is an effective solution to a cracked radiator, it might make you feel better for a little while but it shouldn’t and the problem is still blatantly present.

I generally don’t care for lists as a writing technique, but as I started putting this together it seemed to make more sense in that format so here are 5 reasons why isolating age groups is a bad practice for a church:

  1. We need to learn from other perspectives. Ask anyone who is married and they will tell you that their spouse has brought with them a new way of thinking and operating that would not have been explored without the marriage. I am a better person because of my wife; because we are so close to each other that we cannot simply ignore how the other person sees things but have to engage and grow as a result. The same logic applies to the church. Generally, perspectives change with age and when we refuse to interact with older or younger people we get to remain in our default perspective and never be asked to grow. At a deeper level this denial of age integration is a low view of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God is at work in the lives of young people, old people, and everyone in between who is saved by faith. To deny a fellow member of your local church a voice into your life is essentially ruling out the Spirit working in their life in a way that he has not worked in your own. Even Peter needed Paul to help him see past his own doctrinal limitations. Everyone is sinful and therefore everyone needs to be open to correction. God frequently uses other believers to offer that correction so we should not isolate ourselves from others regardless of their age.
  2. When we refuse to engage with people outside of our demographic we don’t learn how to disagree well. There has only been Christian disagreement since there have been Christians. The idea that we should just keep removing ourselves instead of trying to learn how to be one in Christ is not only shortsighted, it is also anti-biblical. Romans 14 and 15 along with I Corinthians 8 and 9 give a substantial amount of instruction for how Christians should interact with those who view things differently on issues of Christian freedom. If we claim to be people guided by the Bible we have to at least attempt to apply those texts to our churches instead of having a service for old people and a service for young people.
  3. The gifting of the body is forsaken for comfort. I fully believe that there are distinct and important gifts that different groups offer the body of Christ. This principle can be applied to any identifying group of people including generational groups. For the most part—which obviously means there are exceptions so please spare me the anecdotal email about your hip grandma—older generations are not great with technology. They may benefit from younger people being a part of their immediate church community. And similarly, there is a lot of wisdom in older generations that I need to hear as a twenty something. I know these are obvious examples that border on being hackneyed but they are still true and we need to recognize them and then live by them, instead of finding the most comfortable subsegment of the congregation to spend ninety-five percent of our time with.
  4. Distance from people who are different from you allows you to view them as a caricatured other instead of a co-laborer for the gospel. Something fascinating happens when you share work with someone. The imperatives of the gospel are not given in a vacuum or to an age group and when we share the effort, prayer, sweat, desires, dreams, heart breaks, and immense joy that comes with the great commission we start to find ourselves more forgiving of different viewpoints. We are working together to make something happen instead of lobbing rhetorical grenades at strawmen.
  5. Kids need to see their parents exercise the muscles of faith. With specific regard to family, if our kids are never with us during church we have missed an opportunity. Our children need to see their parents worship the Lord. They need to watch the most important people in their lives throw their head back and sing as loudly as they can to How Great Thou Art. Not because we are great vocal virtuosos but because we are the primary tool on this earth that God uses to build faith in our children. Church is not a time to simply sit back and have our every spiritual need met. Church does meet spiritual needs, but it is also an invaluable educational resource that should not be ignored.

The attempt to split the church into smaller and smaller groups by age and never attempting to train and instruct across the generational divide is a “straight to VHS” kind of idea. I have offered 5 reasons why it isn’t good for the church and almost all of those reasons can be applied to any other division within the body of Christ—racial, interest, economic, etc.—but where does that leave us?

I am not suggesting that youth groups, children’s programs, or ministries to seniors are wrong. Those ministries are almost always vital and needed in every church, however, if the people within those groups never interact with someone from a different age bracket except when they are walking through the foyer, we have missed something.

The above list is simply a compilation of negative reasons to not separate churches, but what does it positively mean? Two simple suggestions: first, stop belittling other generations—it’s beneath the body of Christ and simply needs to stop—and instead find the value in a different perspective. Second, make a conscious effort to be with people who don’t match your demographic—again, this can be applied to race, economic status, political preferences, etc. Go be with people younger than you and listen to their frustrations with the church and find people older than you to rub shoulders with and be a better follower of Christ as a result. We need each other. Just find ways to get out of your demographic silo every once and a while . . . as long as you lay down the worn-out generation tropes and pick up humility and the mindset of unity in the body of Christ before you go.

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