Some of the worst forms of prejudice we face in the church today are not race or class-centered, but generational.
The internet has afforded us the unique opportunity to speak without consequence, to have our own pulpit of opinion. As Americans it's easy to say whatever comes to our mind, to poke fun of things we don't understand. Sarcasm and humor have always been our way of coping with our fear and protesting our constantly changing world. Among the scrolling minutiae of indiscrete banter, unfounded claims, and downright harassment, I have noticed in recent years that people between the age of 18-35, those known as millennials, have borne a majority of public criticism.
The ridicule is diverse and plenteous: “snowflake” jokes are perhaps the most prevalent, followed by jokes about living in parents’ basements, latte art, and of course man-buns. Social media is littered with video shorts, memes and clever jabs poking fun of at people who have come of age in a purely postmodern world. I have been observing this trend for several years now, and as a minister of the gospel I have become increasingly concerned, not with sarcasm and satire as a form of expression, but with what lies just beneath the surface of the repartee.
Christians seem to be some of the most cruel in their language about millennials. A funny and noteworthy example is The Babylon Bee’s article on raising the biblical age of accountability for millenials to thirty. Without robbing the authors of their wit, it’s hard for me to believe that this isn’t, at some level, confirming a serious problem lurking within our churches. Some of the worst forms of prejudice we face in the church today are not race or class-centered, but generational. The American church has witnessed the effects of this unique cycle of prejudice for decades: generations despising their spiritual predecessors for their antiquated philosophy and elders despising their successors for their perceived ignorance. This quiet discrimination has done so much to harm the gospel.
“Genea-centrism” is a word I coined a few years ago to describe one’s preferential view of their own generation to the exclusion of another’s. Genea-centrism is different than ageism because it is less about stereotyping based on the advancement of years and more about prejudices surrounding cultural phenomena and arbitrary societal divisions. I want to suggest that a genea-centric perspective, if fostered, could seriously harm the church’s efforts to reach the lost and invest cross-culturally. This form of generational antagonism is a brick-by-brick wall that will keep spiritual elders from discipling their successors and become a stumbling block that will hinder our youth from respecting their forebearers.
these are just people in need of a Saviour, in need of people to teach and train them.
For a moment, let us consider the fact that each generation births another. Millennials are nothing more than people that we helped create; they were raised in our homes, schools, and churches. All the things we have poked at and made fun of are really a commentary not on social constructs or institutional entitlements but rather our inability to mentor and disciple. Christians, shouldn't we consider that any moral failure, in any society, in any generation, at any time in history is simply the result of Christians failing to teach God's Word?
For good and for bad, I would briefly describe millennials as follows: Millennials are a people group full of vigor and grand expectations but lacking a grand purpose. These are people with a vast imagination and dream-like inhibition who tend to expend that energy on the most trivial pursuits. These are people who understand the breadth and reach of technology and know how to leverage it but often lose hours of their life tinkering with games and frivolous entertainments. These are people with the broadest forms of education who have access to a wealth of knowledge but yet are fearful of disseminating information that has the potential to offend. These are a people group with a sense of social justice but without a divine measuring rod, without a justifier. This is a sensitive, tenderhearted and sacrificial generation, with primarily temporal reasons to be so. This is a generation of people who long for authentic relationships but struggle to know the standard of true fellowship. From this observational appraisal, a biblical conclusion can be drawn; these are just young people in need of a Saviour, in need of people to teach and train them.
Rom 3:9 What then? are we better [than they]? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin; 10 As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: 11 There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. 12 They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.
So how do we begin to undo the genea-centrism that exists in our churches? We must begin to see one another, particularly our youth, in biblical terms.
A Perspective of Christ’s Imminent Return
Time is too short for our prejudices to persist.
I was born in 1982 and am a “first wave” millennial. As a current high school art teacher, I have watched ten classes of millennial students graduate. As the previous pastor of middle school and high school students and now the pastor of a college and young adults ministry, I have had the distinct privilege of literally watching this generation grow from meek and mild sixth graders into seniors in college. Throughout my years of ministry exposure, God has shown me something simple but profound: if not millennials, then who?
If I take the Apostle Paul’s example, the safe assumption as a mission-minded Christian is to believe that Christ could and should come back tomorrow. Paul and the early apostles consistently spoke as though they would see the rapture any moment, as though they were the last generation on earth.
1 Thes 4:15 For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. 16 For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: 17 Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.
1Pe 4:7 But the end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer.
If I honestly believe Christ is going to return shortly, then this contemporary generation has unique eternal significance. If these young people don’t become our future missionaries, pastors and church planters, then haven’t we failed in our stewardship? A “last days” perspective has the ability to revolutionize how we see millennials, even with all their cultural differences. God wants to use us so that he might use them. Time is too short for our prejudices to persist.
Understanding Culture to Win Culture
Are you becoming familiar with them even in the simplest ways so that you might win them?
Pastors and disciplers must begin to recognize that the future of our church is contingent on if we are willing to understand, empathize with, defy and minister to a multiplicity of cultures. In order to be effective in this endeavor, we must first properly consider the things that divide people and then work to bridge that cultural divide with the gospel.
Paul was an expert in this principle. He was constantly learning and leveraging his cultural interactions so that he might infiltrate ground that belonged to Satan. He did this with love. He understood that he was a servant to mankind; regardless of ethnicity, religious practice, or class, he was dedicated to meeting people exactly as they were.
1Co 9:19 For though I be free from all [men], yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. 20 And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; 21 To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. 22 To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all [men], that I might by all means save some. 23 And this I do for the gospel's sake, that I might be partaker thereof with [you].
In what ways are you interacting with young people? Are you becoming familiar with them even in the simplest ways so that you might win them?
One of the most faithful women we have in the college and young adult ministry is a woman who is almost three times the age of some of our students. What makes her so effective? Love and sacrifice. Lots of people can preach, teach and counsel but very few are impactful. To be truly effective at discipling cross-generationally you must long to understand and love the people you minister to.
Becoming a Father to the Fatherless
this is an epidemic that only the church has an answer for, and the answer is true discipleship.
Discipling this generation does pose some unique challenges. I believe many deficiencies we find in millennials can be traced to one primary issue: they were raised in divided homes. Divorce rates in America peaked over 50% from the early-eighties to the mid-nineties (U. Maryland, 1999). Millennials were raised by women. They are a generation of young people without the benefit of a loving and faithful paternal role model. This is an issue that transcends our clever satire; this is an epidemic that only the church has an answer for, and the answer is true discipleship.
I learned a lot about this when I began pastoring the college and young adult ministry. Of the approximately 100 millennials in our ministry fellowship, two-thirds of them are women. I was surprised to find that the women were doing the majority of the evangelizing and discipling and the remaining one-third of the group— the young men— were hiding behind service ministries. I saw it immediately. Our young men were struggling: struggling to lead, struggling to evangelize, failing to make hard decisions, failing by comparing themselves among themselves. For millennial Christian men, our future church leaders, the lack of fathers has produced a general softness, a sense of self-doubt and insecurity. Millennial men are particularly stunted in terms of traditional leadership skills.
For young women, the lack of a father figure affects them somewhat differently. Many women grow up without a father to share words of affirmation with them, to offer them security. The young women in our ministries who have come to Christ are looking to their leaders, elders, and pastors to show them a Christ-like acceptance. In other words, effective ministry to millennials must have strong father figures.
I recently spoke to a dear friend of mine who was in youth group with me in the late nineties. He and I both grew up without dads and as we chatted we began discussing how that void impacted our church experience in our high school years. We recognized that what we were looking for among our pastors and leaders wasn’t so much doctrine, but more so what their doctrine was supposed to do: provoke to love and good works. We appreciated the teaching but what we needed was someone to share life with us. As we reflected on that particular group of young people we began to realize just how few of our peers remain in the church today.
1Co 4:14 I write not these things to shame you, but as my beloved sons I warn [you]. 15 For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet [have ye] not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. 16 Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me. 17 For this cause have I sent unto you Timotheus, who is my beloved son, and faithful in the Lord, who shall bring you into remembrance of my ways which be in Christ, as I teach every where in every church.
In 2018, discipleship ministries across the world have the unique challenge of turning a generation of people from their selfishness, distractions, and over-sensitivity into Bible-believing leaders. In other words, the mission is no different than it has been at any other time in Christian history. The charge here is a personal one, though. Are you willing to stop assigning stereotypes? Are you willing to put aside cultural differences to love unconditionally? As leaders, we must not be passive investors but exemplaries of faith, courage, and love. It will require empathy in our shepherding. It will require us to be transformed by the gospel into fathers and mothers that we might reach a generation in need of hope.