Radical Divergence

Rick Mattson Uncategorized 9 Comments

If you’re 45 years of age and up (like me), I have news for you: The younger generation of evangelicals is not going to learn our ways and grow into maturity to look like us. They’re never going to get it, as we define “it.”

They’re not going to take over our (white) churches like sons and daughters assuming the reigns of a family business and run things like we have.

They’re not going to start dressing up for Sunday services or tuck in their shirts or sign up for a lot of committee work or revive the old hymns (at least not in the old forms).

They’re not going to fight the same battles that divided their parents’ churches on issues such as charismatic gifts, women’s roles, eschatology, and the social gospel. They’re into inclusion, not drawing lines in the sand.

They value vulnerability, personal stories and admissions of imperfection. The bigger-than-life man of God who reigns sovereignly over a local parish, who preaches with doubt-defeating conviction and shows no weakness, will not be impressive to them.

But the leader who shares from the heart and speaks across the table rather than downward from a pedestal, will connect. . .
I could say so much more. Another time.

But WHY the radical changes? What’s driving the new thinking? The new methods?

You tell me.

•    If you’re 35 and under, tell us what’s going on. Us old-sters need to hear from you.

•    If you’re 45 and up, what are your thoughts about the younger generation?

•    If you’re 35-45, which way do you lean—younger or older? Why?

I’ll share my own thoughts on the subject next week.

Comments 9

  1. I'm 28, and the reason for the radical change is because of the biblical truth. God has opened our eyes to see many examples in the bible of how God is bringing the nations together to worship.

    Not only is this happening in heaven, but he wants us to do this on Earth.

    God is calling us to be united, so why are we so divided on Sundays?

  2. I hope you're right. It's hard not to notice a conservative re-entrenchment over the same old issues. Inerrancy as the only hill people want to die on. I'm encouraged by the direction of IV on racial reconciliation and other efforts to move the body of Christ toward deeper unity. Kate

  3. Interestingly enough, in the Catholic world, some of the trademarks of this generation you describe more appropriately describes the generation of folks just after Vatican II. What the Church is seeing now is a return of some of the traditions and mindsets characteristic of pre-Vatican II, including (in some cases) a renewed interest in the Latin mass, dressing up for Church, religious life, etc. Albeit, “tradition” is viewed quite differently by Evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics. Nonetheless, could it be a bit hasty to say the younger folks will never do these things?

  4. As you know, I didn't grow up as an Evangelical. I came to an adult faith while in college.

    I am tempted to dispute an assumption implicit in your post – the assumption that what has characterized the Evangelical church in recent times is actually the “it” Evangelicals want both their children and others to get.

    Evangelicals at their heart have always know the only “it” worth worrying about is Jesus. And they have been the consummate chameleons in terms of adapting to help a new culture “get” Jesus.

    They, like all traditions, get confused and think the previous cultural context was necessary for getting Jesus. And while their eccesiology and pnematology is crap, the Church and the Spirit help them to realize that any culture can get Jesus.

    The fact that the forms of the currently passing away culture no longer bring Jesus to the “emerging” culture is nothing new – it has happened many, many times in history.

    When Jesus turned water into wine at Cana, the steward sayed, “Most people save the poorer quality wine for later, you've saved the best for last.” This is just what Jesus still does, he brings out the better wine – new forms for new cultures – again and again.

  5. To Peter: Multiethnic partnerships seem to come very slowly for us. Why is this so?

    To Anonymous: Kate, yes, it does seem racial reconciliation happens more easily on campus than elsewhere (though it’s never easy). My hope is that the current young generation, which is more at ease with multiethnicity, will increasingly bring this value with them to church. Do you think they (your peers) will?

    To Paddy: I appreciate the helpful note of moderation to my post. I actually love it when young people embrace old traditions. Yet, it seems to me, they do so after first discarding them. That’s what postmodernism is, a discarding of the past 400 years. PM “deconstructs,” tears down, then (at its best) reconstructs. To thus reconstruct a spirituality by casting about for moorings and finding them in a tradition, is truly novel. That seems different to me than embracing the tradition uncritically. Would you agree?

    To Charlie: Yes, I know the “it” is Jesus, but “it” seems encumbered at times by our cultural trappings. My main goal in life is to help young people find Jesus. So I worry that my generation and older will not show enough stylistic and contextual flexibility to connect with the current generation. As you suggest, the new wine of the gospel must be encased in new wineskins. Question: How do we discern the difference between gospel and tradition (wine and wineskins)?

  6. Hi, Rick! Thanks for your comments. I'm grateful we had a chance to chat a bit about this already.

    First, while I would agree that deconstruction and reconstruction often play out in contemporary Evangelicalism, I wonder (1) what tradition(s) is/are being deconstructed (Roman Catholicism? Mainline Protestantism? The church (or para-church group) down the street? Everyone else's beliefs but my own? Some/all of the above?), and (2) how reconstruction is guided (Appeal to other, existent traditions? sola Scriptura (lots of questions here)? My own preferences and assumptions?). Moreover, as you indicate, reconstruction is not a given. When it does happen, it seems precarious, at best, to me. When it does not happen, it can be disastrous. How do we allow for reform rather than de- and re-construction? (More on this below.)

    Secondly, especially since the Reformation, we must remember that the critiques of a tradition usually employs a tradition of its own. For example, the salvation-by-works critique of the Catholic Church usually has lots of Lutheran or Reformed presuppositions in it. While one may be able to step outside a particular tradition to deconstruct it, one cannot step out of tradition altogether, as we are historically incarnate creatures. Further, we should recognize that “I don't like it” is in no way properly considered a critique of a tradition, but a judgment based on personal taste.

    Finally, I'd like to think there's a healthy way of “rediscovering,” rather than reconstructing, a tradition, one which invites the rediscover-er to learn from within and then contribute to furthering the tradition as appropriate to the contemporary setting. As my original comments suggest, I do believe this is what's happening in some areas of Roman Catholicism.

  7. Hey Paddy, thanks for extending the conversation with your thoughtful analysis. You are pressing me right where I need it. Can you also fix my putting? 🙂

    My reply is WAY LONG. Anyone reading this, feel free to skim or skip altogether.

    1. I don’t think the deconstructive process is very intentional and particularized among postmodern evangelicals. Seems to me they are instinctively rejecting a list of beliefs and behaviors without naming them per se, such as: directive language, dry/boring worship/sermon elements, one-way and/or top-down communication, old-school graphics and visuals, lengthy texts with no images, dress codes, limits on self-expression, neglect of the poor, mono-culturalism, theory without practice, cheesy art, hierarchical leadership styles, uber-nationalism, racial insensitivity, sectarianism, turf wars that exclude, claims to neutral objectivity, Christian claims in the media to be “right” about everything, condemning language, slick presentations, technology void of personal/human/experiential elements, denigration of feelings/intuition, empire building, hegemony, “one way” of doing things, centralization, long meetings. . . this list could be much longer. But it’s all an intuitive package, not anything that they name, per se, as designated “postmodernists.”

    2. Then in reconstruction, it’s about creating places of shared power, experiential learning, offering lots of options, not boxing people in, working toward flow and whole-person engagement in worship, story-telling, multiculturalism, community experiences, and making pragmatic sense of Biblical teaching. This list could go on and on as well. My point is that those of us who are in power in our churches should SPONSOR reconstruction for young people. We should set the table so that they do it well. But it’s tough for us because the modern-postmodern gap is bigger than an ocean and way different than the “generation gap” we experienced with our own elders, 20-40 years ago. In fact, it’s more like the ‘60s, when young people were operating on a different plane altogether than their parents and grandparents. I guess the true radicals of the 60s became professors and created postmodernity. The rest became boomers/builders in a modernist framework—and built, among other things, the evangelical juggernaut. I’m part of this, and it’s what postmoderns are rejecting. They don’t know what it is, exactly; they just know instinctively that it’s not right for them.

    3. Now, if they DO adopt something from the tradition, I would argue it’s done in a “retro” way, not straightforwardly. It’s done with a sense of irony—which is something at which they are expert. They’ve rejected the whole paradigm, then gone back and retrieved from it whatever they wish. Again, it falls upon their elders to give loving guidance in this process so that they choose wisely. But we cannot assume we can spoon-feed it to them. We must let them discard it before they embrace it. We must be compelling but not directive. We must make evangelical spirituality and ecclesiology attractive to them without forcing it. And that means we must die to self—that is, die to list #1 above.

    4. Paddy, what if one tradition (RC?) has so much history and power that it is, essentially, beyond critique? What licenses this authority? And what self-correcting mechanisms—with any input from the outside—would guarantee its fidelity? I agree with you in a Wittgensteinian way that one re-discovers or learns from “within” a tradition, and then can make a contribution. But the essential postmodern instinct is to reject, a priori, the institution. This horse is out of the barn and cannot be retrieved, in my opinion. So does the RC then just force it? Play ball with us or go home? Dare I say, based on my interactions with more young people than I can count in the past 30 years, many have chosen to go home. Unfortunately, this statement can be applied equally to evangelical churches as well. That’s my view from campus ministry stadium seating 🙂

  8. I call your attention back to Jesus because it is always a danger in the reconstruction project to “misplace” Jesus in the new “thing.”

    Many efforts have been made in history to make Christianity palatable to its “cultural despisers.” These have had a good intention behind them, but when some element in the target culture was incompatible with Christianity, it was Christianity that got changed, rather than the culture challenged.

    Which brings us back to tradition. Tradition is necessary to provide protection from this theological creep. While I agree that new forms can and should be found to present the Gospel to each new culture, it must be understood that the new form must come from *within* the Christian tradition (in a Macintyerian way).

    Willian Willimon makes the point that learning Christianity is like learning a language. There is a time in the learning of a new language that you must sit through the uncomfortable part of not knowing a thing about it. This is unavoidable, and our job as evangelists is to walk with people through this initial awkwardness.

    Again I point out that this is all nothing new. But I will point out that it can go badly. The Mainline is an example of the Church tossing aside Tradition in favor of the Culture, and hence losing Christianity.

    It seems like a very thin line to walk along, but Tradition + Cultural Engagement is what is needed.

  9. To Charlie: Your point reminds me of the golf swing: over-do anything and it goes wrong. Good advice like “swing easy” or “keep your left arm straight” can become faults when exaggerated.

    And so with the gospel and cultural engagement. Too much contextualization leads to compromise–i.e., Schleiermacher, as you hint at.

    Overall, however, I believe boomer-and-older evangelicals are more in danger of antiquating the gospel than losing it. That's why I'm calling for flexible styles and methods so as to be more hospitable to postmodern people.

    As one of my good friends is fond of saying, when it comes to proclaiming the gospel we constantly “feed the full but neglect the hungry.”

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