We Wish for…An End to Generational Segregation in the Congregation

Michael J. Glodo
Thursday, July 5th 2007
Jan/Feb 2000

[DISCLAIMER: The following is not an argument for traditional worship. Rather, it is an appeal for biblical and Gospel worship.]

Weddings are among the most festive and positive events we ever attend. Yet don’t you, like I, feel a discernible wave of sobriety at these words? “Whom therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.” These grave words remind us that the bond established in marriage is ultimately created and regulated by God. It is to be inviolable because God made the bond, not just the institution of marriage. Since marriage is to reflect God’s redemptive love for his people acted out in Christ (Eph. 5:25-27), we rob God of that picture, and hence of his glory, when we treat marriage lightly or trifle with it. These wedding words remind us that, to break a marriage bond, we undo the work of God. Therefore, they should make us reflect soberly.

There is another bond which God has established that receives significant attention in the New Testament. It is not a creation ordinance like marriage but a “redemption ordinance,” a set of interpersonal relationships effected by the saving work of Christ. It is the relationship every Christian is to bear toward every other Christian individually and to the Church corporately. The work of Christ, by which he reconciled us to the Father, is to result in the reconciliation of people to one another. When we come to God through repentance and faith in Christ, the result is that we come into a new relationship with the people of God.

In Romans 10, Paul argued for the Gentiles’ legitimate share in God’s plan of redemption when he said, “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call upon him…” (Rom. 10:12). Similarly, in anathematizing the Judaizer’s annexation of the ethnic sign of circumcision to faith as a condition for justification, Paul said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Again in Colossians 3:11, Paul addressed class distinctions arising from syncretism by asserting the new creation in Christ. This is “a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.” Similarly, the fracture of the church at Corinth caused by arrogance about spiritual gifts was rebutted in similar terms. “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13).

In this pervasive Pauline doctrine, the apostle asserts a fundamental reality that must accompany the Gospel. When God makes us one with Christ he also makes us one with each other. Nowhere did he argue this more strongly than in Ephesians 3. The occasion of this epistle has eluded many scholars. But there is good reason to believe that Paul was attempting to preempt the syncretism that had already caused deep problems at Colossi. Ephesians teaches that salvation is wholly a gift of God which comes by faith (2:8). As a result, Jews and Gentiles have been reconciled, made equal partakers of the Holy Spirit and united together into one household of God (2:14ff). In chapter 3, Paul appealed to his own unique apostolic ministry-steward of the mystery that Gentiles are equal heirs of God’s grace (3:6). His stewardship and calling was to preach “the unfathomable riches of Christ” (3:8). Paul’s appeal to the power that is already at work in them (3:20) is appropriate to his prayer that God would strengthen them in the inner man by the Spirit (3:16), so that Christ would dwell in their hearts by faith (v. 17) and that they would comprehend the boundlessness of God’s love (3:18ff). This will be the source of God’s glory to be revealed in the Church and in Christ for eternity (v. 20).

The implication of this linking of thought, taken simply, is this: If the Gospel is really preached and if the Gospel is really believed, then those who believe will find themselves in new relationships, relationships into which they would not-and could not-enter apart from the power of the Gospel. The Church, as a demonstration of God’s riches and power, should be made up of people who would normally not associate with one another otherwise. Conversely, the church where this reconciling effect is absent testifies to the absence or impotence of the Gospel.

This raises a very serious question. I realize this will be controversial, not so much because the doctrine is not clear, but because its consequences strike at some of the most deeply ingrained practices of many evangelical Christians. Of course, an obvious implication is that racial and economic segregation in the church are contrary to the very nature of the Gospel. It also makes clear why class bigotry is hostile to the Gospel. But another conclusion also seems inescapable: churches, and more specifically worship services, which are targeted to specific age groups to the exclusion of others share a fundamental failure to comprehend the heart of the Gospel. The problem plainly stated is that building the church on age appeal is as contrary to the reconciling effect of the Gospel as building it on class, race, or gender distinctions.

Add to this conclusion the fact that the family is the normal way in which the Gospel is to be propagated. The primary way in which the Gospel is to come to young people is through older generations. Anything that reduces interaction between generations in the church works counter to the covenant family.

Practically speaking, when we say in a pronounced way to a particular age group that we want them in a specific worship service, we are saying to other age groups that they are not wanted. But even if we have another worship service for the other group, we are saying that the Gospel can’t effectively bring the two together. It is a statement of great doubt about the power of the God in the Gospel. Generational appeal in worship is an admission that the Gospel is not powerful. Having said all of this, some qualifications, explanations, and answers to objections in favor of generational worship need to be addressed.

Objection: “It works,” or “They won’t come if we don’t”

Many who might object to such a severe judgment about age appeal will do so because age appeal “works.” If you believe that is an irrefutable response, then I can say little except to appeal to the fundamental problem of absolute pragmatism. Most of my well-intentioned friends would not consider pragmatism an unanswerable argument. As principled pragmatists, they would believe that what works should be given strong consideration as long as some basic principles are not compromised.

The first response to this principled pragmatism is to challenge whether it really does “work.” Most of my friends copying the great success stories of generational church planting are not finding much success, at least not the kind of success they’ve read about.

But a more important question is whether such a model is right. The biblical analysis with which we began asserts that there is a fundamental characteristic of the Gospel that is compromised. If people come under generational appeal, to what do they come? They come to a Gospel which is lacking one of its principal manifestations of power. They come to a Jesus who doesn’t feel any particularly urgent need to be a king. It leaves them in their own youth-world. And a message which leaves them in their own world fails to bring them into the world of the church-that is, the world to come.

Objection: “We must reach the lost”

Others may resist my conclusion because they insist that we must reach the lost. And in order to reach the lost we must do so in their terms. It is terrific to be motivated by a compelling concern for the promotion of the Gospel (1 Cor. 9:16). This, after all, is the Church’s commission. But this is where generational appeal falls desperately short. The word “Gospel” has an object of reference. “Good news” has a syntactical genitive. It is not any old good news (e.g., a free car). Instead, it is the good news of the kingdom of God/heaven. The Gospel is the news of God’s reign (Is. 52:7; Rom. 10:15). And of course, the kingdom of God is not a realm, but a rule. To receive the Gospel means to come under the dominion of God. Therefore, the lordship of Christ is inherent in the very term “Gospel.”

Moreover, the Great Commission itself speaks of the visible reign of the kingdom. Making disciples, baptizing, and teaching people to observe Christ’s commandments cannot be fulfilled apart from the visible church. The final phrase of the Great Commission-“I am with you always, even to the end of the age”-is elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel associated with the formal structures of authority in the Church (Matt. 18:20, cf. v. 15-19). In other words, evangelism is not the Great Commission but only a part of it. Perhaps better put, the Great Commission is the building of the Church, not merely (but certainly including) encouraging individual professions of faith.

Therefore, one has only believed the Gospel in any full sense when one has joined oneself to the visible kingdom of Christ on earth, the Church. (1) You just haven’t preached the Gospel unless you’ve included the Church. And (back to the argument made earlier) one of the prime evidences of the exertion of the reign/power of God is a congregation which transcends cultural barriers, including age. The one who is reaching the lost is the one who calls people under the dominion of Christ through the Church.

Objection: “Communities are configured this way today”

Some of my friends would argue that today’s society is stratified not just ethnically and culturally, but generationally. Therefore, worship targeted toward a specific demographic profile is essentially the same as targeting a certain people group. They might even cite Paul’s famous statement regarding contextualization (1 Cor. 9:19-23) and claim his example in preaching differently to different people groups (cf. Acts 2, 17). Such a response requires careful analysis of what is intended by the notion of accommodation. But aside from that, such an appeal reflects ignorance of the fact that these new communities are built upon fundamentally worldly notions of class, economics, race, commuting, and capitalism. The sociological realities which make market stratification possible and profitable for advertising are root sources of angst, loneliness, callousness, fragmentation, and alienation in the modern world. Their effects are ones which the Church should strive against in establishing the new eschatological community envisioned in the New Testament. Therefore, the work of evangelism should call people out of worldly stratifications, but especially out of ones that are the product of the dehumanizing forces of modernity.

Objection: “We’re just changing the package, not the contents”

Many people would insist that the message of the Gospel and even Christian doctrine in general are not being compromised when they make generational appeals. They would insist that they are changing only the package, not the content. But as Marshall McLuhan’s maxim-“the medium is the message”-tells us, when we change the form we alter the substance, too. Most of my seeker-interested friends, with their professed sophistication about cultural forms, should be the most aware of this. As a class, however, I find them largely unaware or uninterested in how the repackaging of Christian worship affects the content of the message. It is simply not credible, especially for the very ones who believe they are the most in touch with the times, to try to disconnect the medium from the message. At the least, adaptation of forms can implicitly validate the values of the culture from which they are adapted, be they urban ghetto hip hop or the Seattle sound.

It is essential to recognize that no medium is value-neutral. Thus, adapting those forms without serious reflection contradicts one’s claim to sophisticated cultural understanding. And even critical appropriation does not address the problem of rending the people of God by such contextualization.

Youth Culture and Market Stratification

This is all sounding very strange to you if you (as I did) cut your teeth on youth ministry. Not only did I immerse myself in “yutes” for a number of years, I myself was once a “yute.” (If you don’t recognize the term “yute,” used by Joe Pesci in the movie My Cousin Vinny, then you probably don’t need to read this article.) I believed in the necessity of age appeal to attract people to the Gospel. But as I passed from twenty-something through thirty-something, I heard my peers expressing the same sentiments toward the Church that my junior high and high school charges did. And it hit me like a ton of once-popular Levi’s jeans. Youth culture was primarily about market stratification, not about age.

Generational differences are likely as old as humankind, but the youth culture we know derives the majority of its identity from the Sixties. While there was certainly a strong ideological base for the youth revolt of the Sixties, Madison Avenue quickly co-opted its strong sense of generational identity and increased purchasing power in the hands of young people. Since then, the social science of marketing has become increasingly sophisticated, subtle, and effective in grouping us and maximizing our economic response to advertising stimuli.

First we needed Fox as an alternative to CBS/NBC/ABC. Now we need the WB to replace Fox. Surge replaces Mountain Dew, Tommy Hilfiger instead of Levi’s. We moved from the Philadelphia of ThirtySomething to Melrose Place and 90210 and now we live on Hyperion Bay and Dawson’s Creek. The predominance of advertising as the language of cultural discourse requires “new-and-improved” everything because the corporation lives on beyond the lifetimes even of once-optimistic, baby boomers. Essential to this product appeal is obsolescence and narcissism.

This is why Gen-Xers disdain the Boomer church to the same degree that Boomers did the church of the Builder generation. Young Life has come to church. This not only explains why the Gospel-narrating liturgy of traditional worship has turned into a period of kick-butt singing with a high-energy message tagged on. It also tells us how we have reached the point where the Gospel must come in demographically specific terms because it is automatically irrelevant if it comes in any antecedent form. I won’t buy an Oldsmobile if it’s my father’s and won’t believe the Gospel if it’s the “old, old story” my parents loved to hear. (2)

The Consequent Poverty

What are the effects of a generational worship? Many of the consequences should be apparent. It weakens the primary means by which the Gospel is to be propagated-the covenant family. The family often arrives at church together, separates in the parking lot, and only meets again at the car after worship is over. Parents depend upon program specialists to establish their children’s primary connection to the church, tacitly (and sometimes explicitly) saying to the children that the most important set of relationships in the church is the peer set. And then they scratch their heads, repent for unknown sins, and seek Christian counseling when their children stop regular church attendance in college or shortly after.

Another primary consequence of inculcating youth culture through generational appeal is the devaluation of older people. I remember those excruciating Sunday afternoons sitting on the front porch at Mr. and Mrs. Hamm’s house and the repulsive smell of urine in the nursing homes to which Mom and Dad dragged my reluctant brothers and me. The point of it all was lost on me until a moment in 1987 when I heard my 91-year-old grandmother pray at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Herrin, Illinois. We had sprung her from the home for a few hours. It was a simple phrase from her simple, toothless prayer before the meal that her old bones and years of longing produced-“…and we pray that we might see Jesus some day.”

It all made sense to me then. The long lines at funeral homes, waiting to be patted on the head by a distant relative or a friend of my parents I had never met before. Having my hand shaken up to the shoulder and called “old timer” every Sunday by Uncle Charlie Matthews. (He was everybody’s uncle.) Bosky Sauer letting me pull the bell rope announcing worship to the whole town only to be too enthusiastic and causing the bell to turn upside down. (I’m glad Mr. Sauer’s septuagenarian legs held steady on the climbs up and down the steeple ladder. My conscience couldn’t have borne it otherwise.) Hearing Zeke Robb’s piercing (and slightly altered) tenor slicing through the congregational singing like the odd stem of a bagpipe.

In the generational appeal church or worship service, these things will never happen. There will be young men dreaming dreams, but no old men seeing visions. Young men will have no elders to which to be subject (1 Pet. 5:5). Titus 2:2-5 becomes a curiosity. (3) I used to laugh at the ridiculous mainline designation of “youth elder,” founded upon notions of the church as an egalitarian democracy. I now see officer nominees of conservative Protestant church reflecting selections from all age groups. I would be a poorer Christian without the benefit of the wisdom and affection of the old saints and without witnessing their perseverance. And many well-meaning but generationally targeted churches are evangelists for just such poverty. Without a multigenerational church I would have known less of the power of the Gospel that brings God’s people into the new eschatological community established in Christ.

Ways Forward

The realization that generational appeal holds fundamentally worldly and anti-Christian assumptions should produce several responses. One of those responses should not be the feeling that traditionalism is exonerated. Tradition must be evaluated on its merits in accordance with Scripture. Classical music, choir performances, and organ recitals are just as susceptible to the charges I have leveled at youth culture. This domination of cultural identity is not unique to the chronologically young but can be equally intense among the elderly with an insistence upon sentimental gospel songs that is often driven by nostalgia, not substance. My reasoning cannot be used legitimately to resist new music.

Neither is it a reason to eschew evangelism. In fact, as I see it, evangelism efforts should be thoughtfully directed toward reaching people “where they’re at.” Outreach events and programs are not subject to the same strictures as worship. But such efforts must view themselves as a small part of the process and not the end itself. Yet, as noted earlier, evangelism is not the Great Commission. Aggressive outreach aimed at generational target groups must include programs to incorporate and integrate those reached into the whole family of God.

The problems of gen-eration appeal raised here also should not cause us to dismiss legitimate gener-ational distinctions. For example, a church may be made up primarily of people from a particular immigrant group. Many in the congregation may not speak English very well or at all, yet all speak their indigenous language fluently. They worship in that language, be it Spanish, Korean, or Mandarin. The first American-born generation will probably be bilingual, speaking their native language and English in the home. Worship in the mother tongue of their parents is intelligible. But the third generation may not be fluent in or even know the mother tongue. Native language worship is unintelligible. This is a legitimate problem, not brought on directly by materialism and narcissism. There may need to be two different worship services in two different languages.

What my analysis does mean is that worship (and church life) should be evaluated (according to the standard of Scripture) on the basis of whether it is trans-generational, knowing that young people always, to some extent, must learn to value what their parents value. How can this be done? It is challenging to sing and preach in ways that multiple generations will appreciate. Let me suggest two attributes of worship which lend themselves to a trans-generational approach.

Historically, simplicity has been a prime virtue of Reformed worship. Simple liturgy and song is most conducive to corporate participation. They draw the least attention to themselves and, as a result, point people more toward their functions. Though some might object that simplicity is aesthetically inferior, it is an impossible argument to maintain.

Peculiarity is another quality which will assist trans-generational worship. Music, in particular, which attempts to emulate to a high degree the styles from popular culture provides little reminder of the counter-cultural identity of being in Christ. Singing “God makes me right-eous by fai-aith” to the tune of “Play That Funky Music, White Boy” is not only guilty of bad taste. It does little to reclaim one’s affections from the kingdom of this world for the kingdom of God.

Simplicity and peculiarity in worship keep the substance of the Gospel on the table and before the minds and hearts of worshipers while allowing for truly aesthetic and affective expression.

“Whom God Hath Joined Together…”

The Gospel inherently includes the exercise of God’s dominion over the heart. The preaching of the Gospel is an appeal to make Christ king. One prime manifestation of that dominion is the reconciling work of the Gospel. Therefore, generational appeal in worship is contrary to the heart of the Gospel because its ultimate goal is not bringing generations together. This is as true for public worship, the consummate expression of the visible church, as it is for the life of the church as a whole. In the Gospel, God joins together people who have been estranged from one another as well as from him. Let no one put them asunder; let no one undo the work of God and the testimony to the power of the saving work of Christ in the Gospel.

1 [ Back ] "The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation" (WCF 25.2).
2 [ Back ] For a carefully researched and compelling analysis of youth culture, see Quentin J. Schultze, et. al., Dancing in the Dark: Youth, Popular Culture and the Electronic Media (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991).
3 [ Back ] Just so you don't have to look it up: "Older men are to be temperate, dignified, sensible, sound in faith, in love, in perseverance. Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips, nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, that the Word of God may not be dishonored."
Thursday, July 5th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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