Why Understanding the Generational Divide
Will Not Save the Church
By Andrew Yang
As a design team leader at Circle of Hope, the church I attend in Philadelphia, every four weeks I am responsible for putting together a liturgy for our Sunday meeting. This entails planning out the flow of worship from the beginning of the meeting to the end, thinking deeply about the themes we want to get across to the congregation and how to convey them, and selecting the songs and artistic elements that will be present at worship.
For me, choosing the music can be a particular challenge. In our church we often include foreign-language songs to reinforce the idea that the church isn’t limited to just our particular context. We may include traditional hymns in order to emphasize our continuity to the church in history, as well as to appease members who are mostly familiar with congregational singing, and we may also include contemporary Christian music so that those who come to us from more recent expressions of the church will feel at home. Finally, we almost always include music written by members of our congregation, to emphasize that the Spirit of God is present with us here and now.
Any choice will make certain people happy and others unhappy. For instance, we regularly struggle with issues regarding whether singing foreign songs leaves us vulnerable to accusations of cultural appropriation, and singing a song in an unfamiliar, difficult-to-pronounce language can be distracting for people who want worship to be a seamless connection to God. Similarly, I’m not really a fan of most contemporary Christian music, as I feel that it lends itself most to a kind of stadium-style worship that feels inauthentic for my community. I’m not the only one who feels this way, but there are many people in the congregation who feel most connected to God in contemporary Christian music and are familiar with it. Because of this, I recognize the importance of including these songs in our liturgies.
All this is an elaborate way of saying that people are hard to figure out. It's a challenge for us to find common ground week to week just regarding the music! Age or generation isn’t a very useful way for us to better understand each other—the people in my church are between 20 and 40, with most of us falling in between. Add in the fact that the members of my church come from wildly different theological backgrounds and have arrived at many different theological conclusions, it’s a wonder that we are able to meet regularly at all.
Yet, we do meet weekly. And I believe that we’re able to do that because of the commitment that we have to loving people on a personal level and because we believe that Jesus is best revealed incarnationally, that is, through loving action and personal relationships.
It’s because of this that I’m hesitant to either generalize my experiences to an entire generation, ostensibly “Millennials,” or to make assumptions about Millennials and frame my experiences with those assumptions. I am sure there are parts of my story that many individuals who grew up in the church and are entering their late twenties and thirties can relate to. I grew up as an evangelical in an evangelical household, and I experienced firsthand many of the trends that evangelicalism went through in the nineties. When I meet another person who also grew up as an evangelical there are parts of their upbringing that I can immediately connect to—like watching VeggieTales, being suspicious of the Harry Potter series, or being raised by parents who strongly supported the agenda of the Republican party. Of course, though, growing up as an evangelical isn’t all they are, any more than growing up as an evangelical is all I am. I feel like parts of my experience are unique to me.
When I was 12 years old, my parents transitioned to a house church model, so I never became part of a youth group. I never became involved in an Asian church. And my parents mostly gave me the freedom to develop my faith on my own, allowing me to attend a mainline Presbyterian church plant that was part of the Emerging Church movement and not being overbearing when my theology diverged from theirs. I feel lucky to have this experience because so few of my friends with similar upbringings have shared it.
Those friends with similar upbringings to me have dealt with those upbringings in ways that are largely unique to them. Some of my friends have become Reformed, some no longer practice any faith, some have fully embraced the tenets of conservative fundamentalism, and some, like my friend Jonathan Ho (who is writing the counterpart to this article), are finding ways to express their faith outside the bounds of the traditional, institutional church. The diversity of these varied experiences makes trying to corral them into any kind of quick, coherent summary difficult unless you’re interested in doing it broadly. And I’m not certain I believe that this difficulty is unique to Millennials. Boomers, for instance, are responsible for rock and roll, civil rights, and the sexual revolution, as well as Reaganomics and the moral majority.
Some might say that defying categorization is itself a Millennial thing to do, which might be true, but that fact still reinforces that this categorization isn’t useful except in the broadest sense. It can be useful for understanding populations, for tracking general trends, or seeing how effects tend to aggregate. After all, categorizing is how marketers and sociologists stay in business. It could also be argued that understanding things like race, gender, age, and socio-economic status is important for Christian groups like Circle of Hope who are trying to better understand their society and become aware of their privilege and prejudices so they can resist systemic violence.
I am not convinced, however, that knowing people in this way is ultimately useful to us in our face-to-face work as Christians who are trying to make disciples. As Christians, we should strive to know people not in the broadest sense, but in the narrowest sense—not generally, but intimately. At the heart of being Christian is the hard work of knowing and loving people, and we are lying to ourselves if we think that categorizing people is a shortcut to achieving that. Knowing and loving others involves the self-discipline of being aware of and shedding our own preconceptions about people; it involves the determination to get to know someone on their terms, and not by imposing a preconceived label on them. It begins not with a survey, but with a greeting. Most importantly, it involves cultivating self-sacrificial love.
In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.” Dr. King wrote this in 1963, and I am strongly convinced that his words still hold true today. There are no shortcuts to solving the problems of the present church. The solution today is the same one in 1963, which is the same one that Jesus offered before he died—to love one another, as he loved us.