Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Whining Through the Ages

By David Horn, ThD
Director, The Ockenga Institute

Let me whine for a while. I think I’ve reached that moment similar to when I have played a favorite song one too many times. You know the kind of song I am talking about; the song with the lyric, the melody line, the refrain that perfectly encapsules some part of your life…perfectly. And, you make the fateful, if understandable, mistake of playing it one too many times. Now crushed by the weight of redundancy, the song loses its meaning. When does a cliché become a cliché?
This is what I feel about the current language describing Generation theory. No longer is it enough to call ourselves Christians, human beings for that matter. The current climate has us all corralled into increasingly-smaller holding pens called Gen X, Y, Z, post X, Y, Z, the emerging X, Y, Z.
It is not that Generation theory hasn’t been a helpful paradigm, even truthful to a point. The simple reality that cultural values shift through time from one generation to the next is so self-evident it is hard to conceive that it has only been in recent years that the idea has taken root in our national consciousness.
But, have we not pulled the thin strands that hold this concept together almost beyond the breaking point? How many churches have I observed in recent years being completely re-engineered on the basis of this concept alone? Worship services, small group ministries, evangelism, outreach, teaching: Every aspect of church-life has been filtered through the generational lens. Pastors now look upon their congregations as if they are filled with generational subspecies roaming across the Serengeti. Each subspecies—Gen X, Y, or Z--thinks differently, speaks a different language, and responds to God differently in the most fundamental of ways.
Not long ago, I met with the leadership of a national para-Church organization on behalf of the seminary and I made the fateful mistake of questioning the veracity of Generational theory. The silence around that table of leaders was deafening. For a moment, I thought perhaps I had questioned the Resurrection.
Part of what drives my passion on this issue is personal and results from my own work in my doctoral work on assessing the empirical research on religious conversion. Fifteen years ago, if anyone would have questioned the truthfulness of brainwashing or deprivation theories as singular explanations for how individuals change religious commitments, they would have been laughed off the stage. Not so today. We have moved well beyond these explanations to others. Similarly, the surrounding orthodoxy around Generational theory is equally vulnerable to change. To speak of it as a concept is not so much to diminish its usefulness as to caution us of its limitation. How much now rides on this conceptualization in your church?
I think one of the most dangerous implications of our over-dependence upon Generational theory is that it so causes us to focus upon the differences in individuals within our churches at the expense of what unites us together. My twenty-some-year old son wears his pants a little lower than I do. He uses vocabulary at times that sends me scurrying for further explanation. He enjoys different forms of music. But, when I look deep into his eyes, when we talk about what touches us most intimately, when we speak about God, and our family, and our mutual traditions, we are the same species.
Further, we share the same Gospel. The things that both of us look for in Christian community—authenticity, honesty, winsomeness—are the same. Exactly the same. The similarities far outweigh the differences, and the current focus on what makes us so different prevent us—prevent us as a church—from focusing on the most important things, that which binds us together in Christ. The huge amounts of time spent on fine tuning our churches into parts has become a grand diversion from what really, really matters.
I’m done whining now.

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