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27 June 2016

Respecting the old and favouring the young

Respecting the old and favouring the young

Generations make headlines. Media pundits and marketers routinely subdivide society into builders, boomers, X-ers, millennials or generation Z, and make much of each group's supposedly distinct habits, attitudes and needs. Christian commentators follow suit, devising whole church structures and mission strategies around such divisions. Movements like Emerging Church and Fresh Expressions have formed on the premise that younger generations have been alienated from models of witness and worship devised by their elders, and require something radically different. But does segmenting society and Church into generational sub-groups like this have any theological warrant? Well, up to a point. But above all God's mission is intergenerational - entrusted to a Church He has called to be one. 

The tendency to divide Church and mission into 'generationally' specific categories in fact has a quite recent history. As Charles Kraft observes, most Christians today have been influenced by a peculiarly modern assumption of 'intergenerational antipathy'. In 1904 Sigmund Freud was placing unprecedented emphasis on the role of sexual development in human experience. In the same year the psychologist G. Stanley Hall highlighted puberty and its aftermath, and coined a term that we now take for granted: adolescence. For Hall, adolescents were shaped by hormonal "storm and stress" as they struggled to assert their own identity over and against their parents' expectations. By extension, emerging generations were cast as inevitably rejecting the generation that had gone before. In the 1950s this analysis found expression in the rebellious screen performances of James Dean and Marlon Brando, and in the rock and roll of Elvis Presley. Films, records and fashion were tailored to a new target market: the teenager. Soon, intergenerational antipathy gained deeper traction in the hippie movement and radical student politics. Indeed, the now-familiar phrase 'Generation Gap' itself dates from the late 60s. 

No doubt, scripture recognises that young people and their elders might experience life somewhat differently, and display different traits. So age is associated with wisdom, and commands respect. In Proverbs 4:1 sons are urged to "gain understanding" by listening to their fathers, and in Proverbs 20:29 grey hair is a mark of splendour. While older folk dream dreams, young people are in turn commended for their "strength" and "vision" (Psalms 71:17; Proverbs 1:4, 20:29; Joel 2:28; Titus 2:6). Yet these are highly generalised distinctions, and scripture focuses far more on their complementarity than their divergence. Hence Joseph, Elisha and Timothy all fruitfully respect their seniors, whereas Absalom and Rehoboam wreak havoc from youthful arrogance, and bear out God's earlier warnings about rogue nations who fail to "respect the old and favour the young" (Deuteronomy 28:50). 

In the Nativity we properly focus on the child Jesus, but his birth also features a teenage mother, a middle-aged father, and – in Anna and Simeon - two faithful elderly disciples (Luke 2:25-38). At the very moment God comes to dwell with humanity, He shows that all generations matter to Him. Family – Jesus' as well as others' - is intended by God to harmonise generations, not amplify their differences. It's no accident that the Church of the New Testament develops around multigenerational households of extended families.

Yet God does come to earth as a child. Jesus does begin his public ministry while still relatively young, and as far as we can tell, gathers an inner circle around him who are younger rather than older. Paul, likewise, invests in mentoring Timothy and encourages him not to let anyone denigrate his youthfulness (1 Timothy 4:12). So there is some justification in paying special attention to the nurture of young people in the Church. In the mid-20th century, Karl Mannheim showed how rising generations of younger people tend to set the course of social, political and religious change over the ensuing 20 to 30 years. Being typically more open to new ideas and approaches, they most commonly become the key agents of transformation – what others have called the 'lead generation' in society. Not more important in God's eyes than older generations – just more likely to be influential.

Yet in the end, age is only part of the story. The Hebrew and Greek words translated 'generation' in our English Bibles can signify different levels of a family tree, and can refer to all those born around a similar time, as in the 'generation' of those who had been contemporary with Joseph (Exodus 1:6). But when Jesus speaks of his own generation as "wicked" (Matthew 12:39) or "adulterous" (Mark 8:38), he is not interested in biology or chronology so much as in a prevailing worldview and moral mood that has affected everyone in his era – old and young alike. When he says: "This generation will not pass away until all these things have happened," (Mark 13:30) he is at least partly thinking of a momentous historical event that will redefine the whole of society – the imminent fall of the Jerusalem temple. To divide Church or culture too rigidly according to birth-years is to forget the diverse effects that philosophies, personalities, wars, natural disasters, cultural movements and technological advances can have on particular groups of people, and on all people. It's also to risk stereotyping those whose shared age may be far less significant than their class, gender, economic status, nationality or ethnicity.

As Christians we are certainly called to heed these differences, and churches may even be formed as homogeneous units around them – sometimes, no doubt, out of discriminatory exclusivism, but sometimes as genuine 'mission stations' dedicated to stimulating growth in the wider Church. That, certainly, is the approach of many youth congregations I have encountered in the Evangelical Alliance constituency – a latter-day expression of what David Bebbington calls the "grand strategy" of evangelicalism, namely concentrating on young people to secure the future. Yet in the end, however precisely we define generation, mono-generational churches can only represent what Peter Wagner calls an "interim strategy". As those called to one faith, one Lord and one baptism, we should be wary of generational distinctions that foster more sub-division than scripture allows, and critical of mission plans driven more by assumptions of 'intergenerational antipathy' than by faith in the God whose new-born Son was cradled by an older man close to death, and blessed by a widowed prophetess aged 84. 

Rev Dr David Hilborn will succeed Dr Steve Holmes this autumn as the chair of the Evangelical Alliance's Theology Advisory Group (TAG).

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