WHEAT RIDGE, Colo. (BP)–As a father of three children, all in their 20s, and a pastor who has reared these children in what I consider to be a “normal” Southern Baptist church, I’ve recently been forced to come to terms with a startling reality: My children don’t want to go to a church like the one in which they were reared.
The one in the Air Force goes to the best church he can find near base; the other two, who have surrendered to vocational ministry, go to churches which are radically different from mine. In fact, their churches, while Southern Baptist in theology, don’t even carry the name “Baptist.”
So what’s the problem? If our church seems to meet the needs of those of us who are parents, why would it not meet the needs of our children? The answer is not simple and has several aspects.
The first thing people usually think about, especially when this topic is broached, is style. I cannot tell you how many well-intentioned middle-aged pastors I have seen who have put their suits in mothballs, donned faded jeans, polo shirts and black rimmed glasses, all in an attempt to appeal to a younger crowd. Additionally they’ve cranked up the volume, changed the songs and called it a “contemporary” service. It reminds me of the 70-something-year-old lady I saw recently wearing a mini skirt. It was a sincere attempt at being younger but not only did it not work, it was really awkward.
Style is certainly something which needs to be considered but by itself it is not the only thing and quite frankly not the principle thing this younger generation is looking for. There is something more substantive, more fundamental underlying this shift in younger Christians.
Many younger Christians these days are more interested in getting back an authentic New Testament type of Christianity. Eschewing the “traditional” church and the mediocre type of Christianity they believe it represents, they are seeking to model their churches after what they envision the first Church was like. Contrary to popular thought, they have no problems with hymns; they often sing them with updated arrangements. They want their worship to come from the heart. They have no problem with stained glass or pews. In fact, they find value in liturgy and things like lent. Go figure!
They practice church discipline and restoration, something most of them have never seen in their daddy’s church. They hold one another accountable, go through intensive doctrinal training before they can become members of the church and are serious about “community,” which to them is more than a Sunday School class which has a pot luck every so often. In fact, my 27-year-old son, working on his Ph.D. in theology, wanted his community group to meet his girlfriend before they got engaged. His church community group is that important to him.
In short, by choosing a new way to express their faith, they are rejecting a Christianity which they believe to be compromised by our culture. They want a faith that runs contrary to culture, not one which accommodates it.
If we would be honest and give it some thought, most of us would have to admit some validity to their concerns. All of us who have been Southern Baptists for any appreciable amount of time have seen nasty business meetings and church members who openly live in sin but who are never confronted. We’ve witnessed power struggles in the church by people who are rebellious against spiritual leadership but are never held accountable. And we are all too familiar with the type of church where human relationships are more important than biblical truth.
Can we really blame a younger generation for rejecting this form of Christianity? Can we fault them for taking the teachings of Scripture seriously and wanting a church which really practices what it preaches? Most pastors, if they would be honest, would love to have a church free from these compromising elements. It’s just that we’ve found church culture is far more powerful than anyone ever told us it would be.
This is one of the reasons we are seeing so many young men coming out of seminary intent on church planting rather than going into existing churches. They know from watching their fathers that you cannot put new wine in old wineskins, so they’ve bought into Rick Warren’s maxim that it is easier to have a baby than to raise the dead.
As we seek to deal with this shift in how church is “done,” there are several things which we must keep in mind.
First of all, style is never as important as substance. Regardless of what style we may choose, a commitment to solid expository preaching and the authority of the Word of God is absolute. All of us need to remember this, not just the younger generation. If more of our churches were serious about the authority of God’s Word, many of our young people would find something worth keeping in our churches. And our commitment to the authority of God’s Word needs to be given more than lip service. Our practice, both outside of and within the church, needs to match our bold claims about biblical inerrancy and authority.
Secondly, one of the things our younger generation needs to realize is that try as you might, no church is ever going to be perfect. Read the New Testament and you find this to be true. Most of the early churches were plagued with problems. The Corinthians allowed sin and division in their midst; the Galatians put up with false teachers; the Ephesians lost their passion for Christ and went through the motions; the church members at Pergamum had a personal commitment to Jesus but would not confront those within their fellowship who were living in sin; and the list goes on.
It is fascinating to listen to my children tell me about their churches, especially when they begin to see some of the same things happening in their fellowship which have happened in more “traditional” churches. And while I am tempted to say that this means there is nothing new under the sun, I still cannot fault them for wanting a church which deals with these issues head on instead of merely accepting them for fear of offending someone.
Third, those of us in “established” churches have a responsibility to reach that generation of young people who are not attracted to our churches but who can be reached with a different approach. This means we need to be actively involved in helping plant churches that are going to reach the next generation. At the end of the day we’re going to find out that it really is about the Kingdom of God and not about our empires. The sooner we come to terms with this the better. Our job is to perpetuate His Kingdom, not our traditions.
Finally, those of us past 50 must recognize that our children all need to find their own faith. That is not to say they are rejecting everything we’ve taught them; it simply means they need to find an expression of their faith that they can own and one they feel comfortable sharing. While my children don’t do church like I do, I celebrate their commitment to our Lord and their zeal. It doesn’t have to be my way or the highway; there is room in the body of Christ for different types of churches to reach different types of people. They are seeking to become all things to all men so that they might save some.
Every generation of believers has thought they could do it better than their fathers did and every generation of fathers has, to some degree, bemoaned their children rejecting their tradition. It’s time for both the younger and the older generations to realize that God is bigger than the way we do things and He will advance His Church with or without our help. May God give us the grace to join Him willingly and not miss out on the blessings that come to those who have an ear to hear what the Spirit says to the Church.
Calvin Wittman has been senior pastor of Applewood Baptist Church in Wheat Ridge, Colo., since 1999. The son of a lay pastor and grandson of a vocational evangelist, he holds an M.Div. from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a D.Min. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.