Bridging the Generation Gap

Manuscript 1998
Tags: Christianity and culture; Ministry; Church; Evangelism; Worship; Edification
Excerpted from A Christian Perspective on the Generation Gap
Related Resources: An Introduction to Local Church Ministry


From the late 1960s to the middle 1980s, the worldwide Christian community was repeatedly challenged by the insights of a Christian writer and thinker by the name of Francis Schaeffer. Schaeffer’s writings often constituted a critique of the reigning philosophies of his day, and thus some of what he wrote is not relevant to the culture of the late 1990s. On the other hand, some of his writings were quite timeless, consisting primarily of biblical principles that do not change. Some of Schaeffer’s most pointed writing can be found in The church at the end of the twentieth century, first published in 1970. Its intended audience was not secular culture but evangelical Christianity.

In this book Schaeffer offered much sound advice to the church on how to maintain a balanced position toward the surrounding culture. Those who have read Schaeffer’s writings can attest to the fact that he was not only a firm adherent to orthodox Christianity but also a prophet against the godless philosophies of his times. As a man who was willing to draw the line between authentic Christianity and contemporary culture, his insight is worthy of inclusion in a discussion of the generation gap. Following are some incisive excerpts from his book:

It is my thesis that . . . anything the New Testament does not command in regard to church form is a freedom to be exercised under the leadership of the Holy Spirit for that particular time and place. In other words, the New Testament sets boundary conditions, but within these boundary conditions there is much freedom to meet the changes that arise both in different places and different times. (p. 67)

I think too often we are killing ourselves. We fail to distinguish the things that are open to change from those that are not. We must make ourselves available to the existential leading of the Holy Spirit. That is not the way we often think, especially those of us who are conservative. Sometimes people say we are conservative in our theology because we are conservative in everything else. That is a jibe, but sometimes it is right. (p. 76)

Can we not believe that the Holy Spirit will lead us in the area of the silences? Is it not true that we Bible-believing Christians often cease being Bible-believing when we begin to teach that what is sociologically comfortable is equal with God’s absolutes? I would suggest that many of us do it all the time. (p. 75)

Refusal to consider change under the direction of the Holy Spirit is a spiritual problem, not an intellectual problem. . . . So if we as evangelicals become old-fashioned—not in the good sense, but the bad—we must understand the problem is not basically intellectual, but spiritual. It shows we have lost our way. We have lost contact with the leading of the Holy Spirit who is never old-fashioned in the bad sense. (p. 77)

Schaeffer’s statements reflect an understanding of the difference between the purpose of the church and the methods it employs to achieve this purpose. The essence of the church resides not in the traditions it maintains, but in its faithfulness to its original mission. Getz (1984) develops this concept at length, contrasting function (purpose, mission) and form (method, tradition). According to Getz, the dynamic nature of culture makes it imperative for the local church to engage in periodic assessment of its ministry effectiveness. The purpose of this self-analysis is to determine which of the church’s activities constitute real adherence to spiritual principles and which are merely remnants of the church’s cultural heritage. The latter may be abandoned for strategies and methods that are culturally significant.

It is the purpose of this third section to suggest some general strategies that may be used by the local church to achieve ministerial effectiveness in the face of intergenerational differences. The content is divided into three parts which correspond to the overarching functions of the church: evangelism, worship, and edification. Only through an emphasis on function over form can the church find the delicate balance between biblical authority and cultural relevance.

I. Strategies for Evangelism

A.   Expect the process of winning secular people to Christ to be extensive.

Several realities combine to lengthen the process that leads to the conversion of secular people. These factors include society’s ignorance of the Christian message as well as its focus on personal needs rather than obligation to objective truth (Keller, 1995, p. 58).

B.   Engage in pre-evangelistic dialogue.

Evangelistic efforts cannot assume that non-Christians subscribe to the Christian world view, understand Christian terminology, or even share the same assumptions (p. 5960). Increasingly, it is becoming necessary to engage in pre-evangelistic dialogues that expose the logical fallacies of unbelievers’ philosophy of life (Leffel & McCallum, 1996, p. 38-40).

C.    Capitalize on the opportunities of postmodernism.

While postmodernism is by no means friendly to Christianity, there are certain features of it that actually create opportunities for the gospel message. Loscalzo (1996) notes that it is more open to spirituality and faith than modernism with all its emphasis on rational proof (p. 412). He goes on to observe:

The postmodern age is an image-rich age; therefore, postmodern preachers should draw on image-rich narratives and stories to present the gospel and make it clear. Not merely stories for stories’ sake, but the imagery and symbolism part and parcel to narrative will capture postmodern imaginations and penetrate postmodern hearts. (p. 413)

D.   Seek to demonstrate the relevance of Christianity.

Secular people are biblically illiterate; they must be persuaded of the fact that Christianity is worthy of their attention (Keller, 1995, p. 57).

E.    Be creative in the choice of evangelistic preaching methods.

Loscalzo (1996) makes the following assessment:

Apologetic preaching should broaden homiletic forms to include both deductive and inductive approaches; narrative as well as propositional styles; didache and kerygmatic goals. For the apostle Paul, no one method of proclamation claimed sacred status; the particular preaching situation dictated his homiletical form without compromising the essence of the gospel (p. 417).

Litchfield (1996) notes the need for creativity in preaching, emphasizing brevity, conversational delivery, the use of images, and other stylistic traits (p. 11-14).

F.    Contextualize the gospel message.

Contextualization denotes expressing the gospel in terms that are understood by foreign cultural audiences. This strategy has been used successfully by missionaries for generations. Grunlan & Mayers (1988) explain:

As we introduce the gospel in another culture, we must attempt to lay aside our own cultural understanding and manifestation of the gospel and allow understandings and manifestations of the gospel to develop in the light of the host culture, that is, to become contextualized. (p. 26)

II. Strategies for Worship

A.   Incorporate a variety of musical styles.

Ideally, a church’s corporate worship will reflect the diverse musical preferences of its members. Bastian (1997) notes that “if the congregation is made aware that this variety is intentional, tastes can be expanded and worship life enriched. Different kinds of music will be used for different purposes” (p. 9).

B.   Ensure that worship is meaningful.

Corporate worship should seek to achieve a balance between novelty and respect for time-proven traditions (p. 9). Regardless of the newness of the forms chosen, attention should be given to the meaningfulness of the act of worship.

C.    Seek to deepen the church’s worship experience.

As Duggins (1996) observes, there are many potential hindrances to sincere worship, including spiritual, cultural, physical, and social factors. These obstacles must be overcome so as to permit deepened involvement in worship. Sincerity of worship—as opposed to mere observance of tradition—is especially important given the skepticism that postmoderns hold towards organized institutions in general. Superficiality of commitment simply cannot be tolerated.

III. Strategies for Edification

A.   Seek to involve every generation in the ministry and leadership of the church.

“Only in rare circumstances may leadership be limited to a single generation. Our churches should seek to be multi-generational as a matter of principle” (Zimmerman, 1995, p. 53).

B.   Capitalize on intergenerational differences.

The generation gap is not necessarily a negative phenomenon. As Wolff (1974) notes, “the differences in the generations have been established by the creator not as a curse, but as a blessing, i.e., for concrete reciprocal aid” (p. 92). Thus programs can be devised that build bridges between generations rather than alienating them. For example, older members can mentor younger members (Larson, 1993). Fellow church members can be “adopted” to fill roles unfilled by biological family members due to distance, death, infertility, or other causes. Thus the church can serve as a network of adopted parents, grandparents, children, and grandchildren (Levengood, 1980, p. 20).

C.    Seek to make every generation feel that it is a vital part of the church body.

Levengood (1980) argues that it is biblically normal and socially healthy for a local church to integrate members of various age groups. Zimmerman (1995) observes that “the wise leader will seek to enlarge the span of alternatives to the end that multiple generations may be recognized and served, rather than developing exclusionary styles that serve only one generation” (p. 53). Lewis & Lewis (1986) make an appropriate conclusion with particular application to pastoral counseling: “When the clergy perceives his/her role as that of a facilitator, the position may be seen as analogous to that of a bridge builder; providing a safe, nurturing path between the two generations” (p.49).

D.   Develop ministries that focus on particular social and cultural groups.

The previous point notwithstanding, it is appropriate for churches to target specific people groups with individual programs, entire ministries, and even overall atmosphere. Mcintosh (1997) demonstrates wisdom when he argues that no single model of ministry can possibly reach three very different generations with the same degree of success. Church leaders need to accept the fact that churches have cultural identities, and must decide what their identity will be. This is not only true of race and ethnicity, but also of generational characteristics. While the local church is capable of uniting a wide diversity of people groups, ministry leaders should not hesitate to focus their efforts on a particular target group. Ideally, this target should be a conscious choice rather than an accident.

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