There seems to be a growing divide in the church between generations. Different ideas and approaches, combined with a general distrust and a lack of communication, have created a perfect storm between the older and the younger generations. So with that in mind, here are a few basic principles both the older and younger generations need to remember in order to resolve generational issues in the church.
1. Remember We Are Family
The church is a family. Notice I didn’t say, “The church is like a family.” We are not like a family. We are a family.
Older Christians, when younger brethren say, “Wouldn’t it be better if we did things like this?” Don’t grumble about how these young people today think they know everything. Treat them like you would treat your child or grandchild. Put your arm around them and listen to their ideas. Agree or disagree, but do so like family.
Younger Christians, when your older brethren say, “We need to keep doing things this way.” Don’t grumble about how these old stick-in-the-muds just want to hang on to their crusty old traditions. Treat them like you would your parents or grandparents. Have a cup of coffee with them and listen to their thoughts. Agree or disagree, but do so like family.
Consider the words Paul wrote to the young evangelist Timothy:
“Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Timothy 5:1-2).
The church is a family. It’s not a social club or a business partnership. It’s time we treat people like they’re family.
2. Give Them the Benefit of the Doubt
When someone wants to change things, or someone wants to keep things the same, we often vilify them – assigning to them the worst possible motives. To the older generation, too many assign traditionalism, legalism, and a lack of spirituality. And to the younger generation, too many assign liberalism, emotionalism, and immaturity.
1 Corinthians 13:7 says, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” In other words, love gives people the benefit of the doubt. When you love someone, you don’t automatically assign to them the worst possible motives. You assume they probably want what is best and want to please and glorify the Lord; even if you disagree with their thoughts or their methods.
If the church is going to “dwell in unity” (Psalm 133:1), then we’ve got to give people the benefit of the doubt. We’ve got to stop vilifying each other. We have to stop assuming every young preacher is out to destroy the Lord’s church; or that every older brother wants to keep the church in the dark ages.
Assume the best about one another.
3. Know When It’s Time to Change Things
Most generational issues revolve around the dreaded word “change.” In the church, there are certain things we must never change; these are doctrinal matters. And then there are things we have the freedom to change, these are called “expedients.”
An expedient is a tool or method we’ve come up with to do what Scripture tells us to do. Song books, for instance, are an expedient. We are supposed to sing (Ephesians 5:19) and song books are one tool people have come up with to help accomplish that in the assembly. When many congregations changed from song books to PowerPoint projectors, they were only changing an expedient – not a doctrine.
These expedients all have expiration dates. They all have a point at which they are simply not expedient anymore. At that point, they ought to be tossed out as quickly as they were brought in. We ought not to get nostalgic about them, we ought to simply say, “Out with the old and in with the new!” If it doesn’t work well anymore, if it is no longer the best way to do what we need to do, let’s change.
Thomas Campbell said human expedients ought to be adopted:
“without any pretense to a more sacred origin, so that any subsequent alteration or difference in the observance of these things might produce no contention nor division in the Church.”
We have often failed miserably in this area. We have adopted human expedients and become so emotionally attached to them that we fight and bicker anytime someone even discusses changing them. The saying often gets thrown out, “Don’t change things for the sake of change!” There may be some wisdom in that, but no more wisdom than, “Don’t keep things the same for the sake of staying the same.”
When an expedient isn’t working anymore, change it. When there is a better way to do things, change it. Don’t change doctrine. Don’t abandon apostolic teaching, but do what the Lord and His apostles taught and do it in the best – most edifying and God honoring – way.
4. Love People More than Methods
There are going to be disagreements over this though. Even when everyone has the same motives and the same understanding and the same love for God, there will be disagreements. One generation will say, “This is the best way to do things,” while another generation says, “No, we ought to do things this way.”
What shall we do in situations like this? Scripture, of course, has the answer:
“walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1b-3).
We must love one another. We must bear with one another. We must love people more than methods. Even if we think, “There’s a better way to do this,” we must not let our opinions supersede our responsibility to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
I’m convinced the church can overcome generational issues by simply acting like Christians. We have to know what we can change and when it is – and isn’t – appropriate to change those things. We have to show respect to those of previous generations AND to those of upcoming generations. We have to listen to each other and love each other.
Don’t take it personally when someone doesn’t agree with you about human expedients. We will never see eye-to-eye on all of these things; and we don’t have to. But we do have to love each other deeply and learn to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
I love you and God loves you,