Tag Archives: Generational differences

Different drummers and keeping step

As I increasingly find myself marching to the beat of a different drummer than those around me, I’m trying to learn how to keep step with the church. I don’t worry too much about society in general; I don’t mind not fitting in there. But I need to know how to love and serve in a church (broad sense, not local church) where many see things differently than I.

It’s funny. When you’re younger, it almost seems appropriate to feel out of step. You’re a rebellious youth, with new vision and a spirit of restoration. You’re calling the church back to what it should be.

As it gets older, if you’re not in step, then you’re holding the church back. You’re not following the Spirit. You’re clinging to tradition.

For my money, the two situations are virtually identical. The question is how to find the grace to deal with the situation.


Bridging the past and the future

Van Gogh shepherd

Tradition is the living faith of those now dead.

Traditionalism is the dead faith of those still living.

Jaroslav Pelikan
The Vindication of Tradition

Traditions of a church can provide an organic link to her past. They can also choke out the future. It takes discernment to have traditions without traditionalism.

Another reason that I think that, in most cases, the elders are the ideal ones to lead the church is their tie to history, their ability to bridge the past and the future. The average minister comes into a congregation and spends a limited number of years. He’s not part of the past of the congregation and probably won’t be part of the future.

A wise minister recognizes the temporal nature of his work. He doesn’t defer to his elders on everything nor kowtow to the youth at every turn. He works to shine God’s Word on the church’s present situation, helping provide insight that might not be there otherwise.

A strong eldership provides the knowledge of the past with a desire to prepare the church for the future. It allows the minister to focus on God’s Word and its application to the congregation, while the elders focus on shepherding the flock.

Lots of ideals there. But I think a healthy congregation has an eldership that refuses to be a board of directors and a minister that refuses to be CEO. They choose to walk the path of the Lamb rather than the cold cobblestones of Wall Street.

The leadership of elders

Van Gogh shepherdWhen you listen to preachers talk, many of them complain about their elders. It’s a bit like men and mother-in-laws, as far as stereotypical relationships. It’s just supposed that preachers and elders will be at odds.

Sometimes that does happen. The church is made up of humans. I think it can be especially hard when the preacher and the elders are from different generations. Then all of the tension that we’ve been talking about this week enters into the equation.

The churches of Christ have typically been an elder-led movement. Some have intentionally sought to change that, wanting to give the preacher a more prominent role.

I don’t buy it. I do agree that elders should take the lead in shepherding, which is one of the reasons I dislike the trend of calling a preacher “pastor.” Elders should be pastoring. The fact that our society expects it to be done by the preacher shouldn’t change that.

Many have wanted to follow the corporate model, with the elders serving as a board of directors that hires the CEO (preacher) and lets him run things as he sees fit, until he loses their confidence. I don’t see that as a healthy model for the church. You can’t parallel an organism like the church with an organization of this world. There are some principles that will overlap, but no corporation is the Spirit-filled body of Christ.

I don’t think elders rule. I don’t think elders dictate. But I do think that elders lead. Or should, at least.

Traditions, generations, and a warning of death

abandoned churchThere’s another side to the generational issue. Just as there are young people who dismiss their elders, so there are older Christians who “despise the youth” of those with less life experience. To many, it feels like the only thing that younger generations want to do is change things.

The reaction is often to fight back with three deadly phrases:

  • We’ve never done it that way before
  • That’s not how we’ve always done it
  • We tried that once and it didn’t work

In the end, it boils down to tradition. Dr. Wendell Broom once described the creation of a tradition. He said that there is a problem that needs to be solved, and a solution is found. That solution works, so it is used again and again. Over time, that one possible solution becomes the only solution; tradition becomes law.

This happens all the more in a movement like the Restoration Movement. When so many have staked so much on being right, having right understanding, and doing things the right way, any deviation from tradition becomes (a) deviation from what is right; and (b) a condemnation of what was being done before (and thereby those doing it).

If I’m convinced that I have fully restored the church and made it exactly what it should be, there is no longer room for “movement” within my movement. No room for thought or study. Rather than passing on a passion for investigative Bible study, we pass on conclusions; any Bible study that doesn’t reach those same conclusions is necessarily wrong.

And that’s when movements become institutions. What was an organism becomes an organization. What was an animate being slowly becomes an inanimate object. And death is not far away.

Fortunately, that’s an extreme. Few congregations follow that route to its conclusion. But it should stand as a warning to all. We give future generations room to grow, explore, and learn beyond what we know, or we condemn our churches to a slow, painful death.

photo courtesy MorgueFile.com

Ignoring the wisdom of generations past

elderlyWho wants to listen to the old-timers? When is the next generation going to get a chance to take the lead? Who cares about what people said and did 10, 20, or 30 years ago?

Some of these thoughts are stirred by the slight toward my friend Juan Antonio Monroy. This year is a special anniversary, marking a half century since a story that many of us in churches of Christ grew up with: how this man from Spain found the churches of Christ at the New York World’s Fair and learned that they shared the same doctrine. As Juan comes to the States to commemorate that event, there is one congregation that won’t be taking part: the church that supported Juan in ministry for three decades. There was no room on their schedule for someone who is part of their history, but apparently not of their present nor future.

I remember when I was working on my master’s degree in communication. At that time, I could choose to write a thesis or to do a non-thesis degree. I was considering doing a thesis, preferably something related to the two years I had just spent in Argentina.

That’s when two elders from the University Church of Christ asked to meet with me. These two men had been leading the missions committee at UCC, had made numerous trips to Argentina, and were excited at the thought that someone would do research that would be useful to the missionaries. They asked if I would be interested in doing a study in conjunction with the missionaries supported by UCC.

I was thrilled. It was what I had been hoping to do. I had even broached the subject with the missionaries, and they had expressed interest in the study and a willingness to help shape the research.

Then they mentioned, “But we’ve just restructured things at University, and the elders are no longer on the committees. You’ll need to get approval from the missions committee.”

So I went through channels and submitted a request to the missions committee. A few weeks later, the deacon in charge pulled me aside and said, “We’re not going to help you with this study. I don’t know anything that I need to know to do my job. And no one who has been involved with the Argentina thinks it’s a good idea.”

I was stunned. And saddened. And fully aware of how ridiculous this man’s words were, especially the last sentence. Two of the men who had been most involved in the Argentina work had approached me about doing this study. It was obviously that this deacon hadn’t spoken with them or hadn’t given their input any credence.

Sadly, though, I see the same in me. I give little respect to those who have gone before. Like your current plumber criticizing your previous plumber, I can only see the defects in what previous generations did; I can’t appreciate anything positive that they contributed.

History has value. Experience brings wisdom. We don’t have to be tied to the past, but we do well to be informed by it.