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Church: The Next Generation

August 19, 2013

“Church: The Next Generation” Psalm 78:1-8; Luke 4:16-22 © 8.18.13 PC(USA) Youth in the Church Sunday by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

One of the most frightening but also energizing statements I heard as a young minister was “the church is always just one generation away from extinction.” It’s a warning that has been repeated, and repeatedly ignored, many times since. I don’t know who originally sounded the alarm about generations, but the noted educator John Westerhoff certainly asked “Will our children have faith?” in his classic book of the same name. Such a question ought also to frighten and energize us all.

I think one of the reasons I got into campus ministry was that I wanted to make a kind of last ditch attempt to ensure that indeed faith was passed on to the next generation, whatever the failures of the local church or even parents, and that the faith college students discovered was indeed their own, that connected them with the Christian community, yes, but was personally felt and lived, even earned, not merely inherited and/or accepted because someone in authority said so.

But this morning, we’re thinking not only about the generation that gave us today’s teens, college students and young adults, but the one that is following them. Maybe a bit of orientation is in order.

When we talk about the next generation in the church and in society, we mean today two groups or “cohorts” as they are sometimes called. One is the Millennials, a term coined by the sociologists Strauss and Howe. The members of this generation were born between 1982 and 2002. You may run across different dates for beginning, ending or both, but that’s the span I have consistently used. We have a number of Millennials who are members of this church, the oldest being Abby Weldon and the youngest, Matthew Farrar, who barely squeezed into the generation in December 2002. Strauss and Howe characterized this generation as special, protected, wanted, team-oriented achievers who are civic-minded and somewhat conventional. They have also in general been pressured to take advantage of the opportunities offered them. In their commitments and their future prospects, they resemble their grandparents or great-grandparents, who were members of what Tom Brokaw called “the Greatest Generation,” but Strauss and Howe named “Civics.”

But then there is another generation that the researchers variously call “Plurals” or “Homelanders.” I usually have called them “Generation Z,” but it turns out there’s some confusion about the use of that title. We have a bunch of this generation, too, with the oldest being Makenzie Davis and the youngest the child we baptize today, Madelyn McArthur. Various sources tell us that Plurals are extremely connected and technological, earning them the title “digital natives.” They are diverse and embrace their diversity, in all likelihood counting among their friends people of different cultures, races, and religions. Here is how Strauss and Howe describe them: “This generation comprise the oldest Americans who will never recall any year of prosperity before the catastrophic global financial meltdown of 2008—nor any national leader before the election of America’s first African-American President. As post-9/11 infants growing up in the shadow of America’s Asian wars and the…U.S. Department of Homeland Security, they mostly believe that the purpose of government is to ‘keep us safe.’ Carefully raised by hands-on Gen-X parents, who don’t dare let their own kids take the same risks they themselves took, Homelanders literally spend more time ‘at home’ (with their multiple digital platforms) than any earlier child generation in history. Elementary schools are introducing new behavioral regimens to forge these kids into sensitive, helpful, rule-playing youngsters” (see note 1).

Generalizations, of course, are always just guides and tools, though helpful ones. No child, youth or college student can or ought to be squeezed into some researcher’s mold or treated as if he or she is just another statistic or example. Especially as believers in the Incarnation, we know that particulars matter. A boy or girl, a young man or woman comes from a particular place and background, has his or her own interests which may or may not be those of their generation, asks unique questions along with those that kids are always asking, and has needs and desires and talents that those who seek to nurture him or her need to be aware of and sensitive to.

That’s one of the strengths of a small church. These children, youth, and young adults are not just names on a roll. We know them. We interact with them across generations. We listen to them ask their questions, we help them with life changes, like welcoming a new sibling or changing schools or going on a first date or getting ready for college or entering the workforce.

Having said that, though, there are three general ways we can make sure that our children have faith, that we can nurture the next generations. The particulars, again, vary from place to place, family to family, church to church, but these principles are some tried and true ones to practice.

First, those who seek to nurture others must be authentic believers themselves, worthy of being followed and emulated. The scriptures we heard this morning give a sense of the importance of exemplary leadership and mentoring. The right sort leads to positive, even visionary action. The psalmist invites us to tell the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord so they might know his wonders, set their hope in God, and not forget God, but keep his commandments. Then he goes on to recount as a negative example the behavior of the ancestors, until he comes to David, in whose reign “the Lord awoke as from sleep,” and the institutions of Israel were again worthy of confidence. I am intrigued as well by the notice of Luke that in the town “where he had been brought up,” Jesus took as his mission the visionary words of Isaiah. Certainly we know that from an early age, our Lord had a sense of call. But wasn’t his self-understanding nurtured by Joseph and Mary, by rabbis in Nazareth and Jerusalem, by friends and family, people in whose company and under whose authority he grew and became wise?

Millennials especially can spot a phony a mile away. They have grown up and are growing up with spin, rhetoric, broken promises, posturing and fake politicians, self-absorbed celebrities, reality TV, too-good-to-be-true ad claims, and on and on. What they and their younger siblings want are people they can trust, folks who really have had an experience of faith that has fundamentally changed their lives. When we say we believe, then, let’s walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

And that leads to a second principle to practice, namely, that action is more important for spiritual formation of these generations than words and talk. Mark Yaconelli spent 20 years in youth ministry. He wrote recently: “So much of religious education is abstract—stories, beliefs, ideas about how life works. Meanwhile youth long for experience. They long to do something….This kind of raw desire is troubling to parents and manipulated by advertisers, and yet it’s exactly this honest ache for life and relationship that Christian communities should cultivate and address.

“What my children want from religious communities are opportunities for the direct exploration of real living. They don’t want to talk about God, they want to live God. They don’t want to hear about great deeds, they want to be asked to do great deeds. For religious communities to aid the spiritual growth of young people in the future, they need to find ways to encourage, bless, train, and support young people in the active pursuit of real life. It is in that pursuit that God is discovered.

“The youth of this age carry the same hurt and prayer and visions and spiritual ache that all of us harbored when we were young. They long to fall in love. They long to discover and pursue and develop their own gifts. They long to be overcome by the Great Mystery we call ‘God.’ They long to be seen and known, accepted and celebrated by people with warm hearts. Although the culture shifts and technologies invade, the desires of children and youth remain the same.

“What real activities can churches and religious teachers do with youth and children? How can we help the children and youth of our town live out the faith first, and then learn the theology and beliefs second? It begins with people listening to the yearnings and needs of the young and then prayerfully, imaginatively, and even courageously responding” (see note 2).

Third, and finally, as Yaconelli has already suggested, nurture in the church needs to focus on the experience of mystery rather than the learning of doctrine, procedures and rituals. A rabbi recently commented: “Genuine faith is something far more profound than verbal assent to an agreed upon dogma. It arises out of life experience, and among the most important of those experiences are those that help people—especially young ones—to know that they are loved, that their aspirations are sacred, and that they are believed in. In other words, faith in God is best thought of not as a goal, but as a by-product of loving and trusting experiences created by those who themselves already possess deep faith” (see note 3).

In 2001, I led a confirmation class of Millennials. I asked them what their perfect church would be like. One thing they said was that it would be in a building like a castle, lit only by candles. They were telling me they were attracted to mystery, which study after study has confirmed. The tendency of the scientific age was to try to explain everything, to put everything in numbers, to open every door and find out what was behind it. But Millennials like the turn of the century confirmands are comfortable with mystery, with the idea that there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our philosophy. Maybe it’s because the more science learns, the more it becomes clear we don’t know. Maybe it’s because mystery is a matter for the heart and not so much for the mind, because if there are indeed mysteries in the universe, it reminds us that there is more to know, that the imagination is not to be stifled, that somewhere beyond us there is something or someone greater. Sarah McLachlan captured the spirit of the seeker in a song: “…you’re working, building a mystery, holding on and holding it in, yeah, you’re working, building a mystery, and choosing so carefully.”

It is the taste for mystery that draws Millennials to candlelit Celtic music services or more frequent communion, to meditation and ancient Christian rituals. We develop rituals, you know, in order to contain the mysterious and awesome powers that threaten to overwhelm us. Millennials and Generation Z both know intuitively that the basic truth about God is that God is mystery that we cannot grasp.

There’s so much more we could say. But right now it’s time to be done with words and engage in the actions that bring us into the presence of the Mystery who goes with us across the generations. It’s time for baptism.

Note 1

Note 2

Note 3


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