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Things they do

November 11, 2013

“Things they do look awful cold, hope I die before I get old”

If you are old enough, or know something of music history, you will recognize that line as coming from the song “My Generation” by The Who, released in 1965.  I was 18 when it was released and I remember quite well my being in full agreement with its sentiments.  It was a rant about what was wrong with the older dominant generation and the anger and disgust that younger folks felt with what they saw.  I agreed and was ready to sing along.

I am happy to report that my wish did not come true, I didn’t die before I got old.  Sadly, I feel I am now part of a generation that the song is about and no longer the one singing it.  This is particularly true within the church.  This widely read article on CNN pretty much makes clear that my generation has really screwed up the whole “church” thing.  This is not an isolated sentiment.  The Washington Post picked up another young Christian essentially saying the same thing.

These articles, and others like them, are stinging criticisms of the church we are giving a younger generation and their clear statement that they don’t want it.  I am glad to report that, no matter how much it hurts to read things like that, they are giving warnings and not categorical declarations that the authors are ready to die rather than be with us.

How is it that we, the singers of “My Generation,” somehow ended up being the subjects of that song?  Those of us who are Christians remember the angst we felt at that time with the “established church” and our passion to leave it and find something better.  Frankly, in essence, what my generation (to borrow a phrase) did at the time bears striking similarity to what I am seeing now.  We largely left what we now call “mainstream” churches and forged a new picture of what church looked like.  Drawing pieces of the traditional church, stirring in a healthy dose of early 20th century fundamentalism, and mixing it with the zeal and passion of youth we essentially formed what we now call evangelicalism.

So, there we were, excitedly shedding the establish religions of the day and crafting a new and improved faith that we confidently presented as “it,” the true return to Biblical Christianity.  Much to our surprise we find ourselves as shocked as our parents and grandparents were when a new generation looks at what we built and says “no thanks.”  As I’ve looked at this I’ve come to certain conclusions that are humbling to me and run the risk of being humbling to the authors of the complaints against us.

–          This is nothing new.  The grandchildren of the Puritans who arrived in the New World were harshly critical of the faith they were given.  At the same time, they were criticized by their elders as being weak and lacking commitment.  Indeed, you can look at the American church history and see this conflict between generations seems to occur every 30 or 40 years.  Passionate destroyers of the flawed older forms of faith find that their grandchildren want to destroy what they built.

–          There is a myth at the heart of each of these destruction movements.  The myth seems to be that the destroyers are actually rebuilding the “true” church that existed at some time in the past.  A young generation, correctly, sees the flaw in the model they are being given and assumes that what they are doing is righting a wrong – making the church what it was always meant to be.  Not knowing, or not caring, that this has happened over and over in American church history can lead to arrogance and a sense of moral superiority.

–          There is also a myth in the hearts of defenders of the status quo.  Nobody likes to see something they have made torn down.  It is easy, and emotionally helpful, to see the destroyers in a negative light.  We can say they lack the commitment that we had and what they really want is and easy no-work church.  We can point out flaws in their critique.  This myth too enables us to claim moral superiority.

–          These two myths combine to create fertile ground for generational conflict.  The song “My Generation” was actually a battle cry for such conflict.  I suppose that, as part of a generation that has moved from singers to subjects, I can take some comfort in knowing that it will probably also happen to those who are singing it now.

While this pattern of challenge and rebuilding is cyclical it would be a mistake to say it is always the same; that there is nothing new.  The new generation of challengers is not facing the same thing we were, or generations before us were.  While we were busy building American evangelicalism something else was happening in America.  In my lifetime our country became religiously pluralistic.  It also became much more cynical.

A new generation must articulate a faith that stands not only against the older form of American Protestantism but against all sorts of beliefs and non-beliefs; and they must do so while facing cynics and doubters.  We do them no favors when we espouse a faith that pretends that pluralism is not out there; that ridicules all efforts to engage it with anything other than hostility, as weakness and compromise and that says doubt itself is sinful.

As it turns out, my generation was no more successful in building the “right” faith than all previous ones were.  It is humbling to admit how badly we did; how accurate some of the critics are.  Sadly, while there was no mythical time when the church was pure and true there will equally be no mythical future when a generation finally gets it right.

My wish is that the next generation does better than we did.  I hope they learn from our mistakes.  It would also be great if they realized that they stand in history, not as a unique generation who finally sees the problem, but as the next generation God has called to bring His truth to the world.  I’ll be cheering and praying for you.  Hey, it might even be good if you will let a few of us old-timers to work along side you.

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