Builders, Boomers and Busters

(A shorter version of this blog first appeared as an article in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, Sept. 22, 2000, pp.10-11.) 

“Relevancy:  Listening to the builders, boomers and busters.”  This heading was found on the front cover of a recent issue of the Mennonite Brethren Herald  – part of an excellent series on the church (April 14, 2000).  The heading referred to an article based on a sermon by Bill McRae, “Serving our Generation,” which begins with a plea for the Christian church to adapt to the rapidly changing times of the 21st. century.  David is held up as a model of someone who “served God’s purpose in his own generation” (Acts 13:36).  The men of Issachar too “understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (I Chron. 12:32).  The core of this essay involves an analysis of the varying characteristics of builders, boomers and busters, with the aim of helping the church serve the present generation.

Analyses of the various generations of our time abound, as do the calls for relevancy.  But I am becoming increasingly concerned about these analyses and calls. 

For one thing, such calls represent a preoccupation with the findings of the social sciences.  Much time is spent describing the characteristics of Generation X and Y, and who knows what the next generation will be called!    Such a preoccupation with the social sciences entails that we are the mercy of the expert.  And social scientists are very much the experts of our time.  But they can get things wrong!  There are biases that might skew their findings.  Most importantly though, we need to be careful not to become too preoccupied with description which is the central task of the social sciences.  Yes, they can perhaps help us with understanding our times.  But, surely understanding what we are like is less important than understanding what we ought to be like.  Prescription is more important than description.

I also worry about our tendency to categorize, to put labels on groups of people.  Such typologies divide.  They also overlook the important fact that people are not all that different, that human nature really does remain the same over time.  The basic human needs of builders and boomers and busters are similar.  We all need love.  We all need a solution to our common problem of sin.  We all need Jesus.  We all need some discipline.  We must be very careful not to exaggerate the differences between generations.

I have been teaching at universities and colleges now for over 30 years.  I have become familiar with each new generation entering higher education.  And I can testify that roughly students have remained the same over all these years.  Yes, I am aware of some broad differences.  If anything, students are becoming more self-centered and promiscuous in the last while.  This past year I even wrote a memo to one of our program directors suggesting that this was the first time in my teaching career that I felt that I was teaching a class of semi-barbarians!  But even here, we know that human nature has always been sinful, and that self-centeredness and promiscuity are as old as mankind.

This brings me to another problem with the current emphasis on understanding our generation in order to be relevant and able to serve them.  Trying to be relevant also can be carried to an extreme.  Frequent reference is made, in current writings on the generations, to Paul’s model of becoming all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.  To the weak I became weak, to win the weak” (Acts 9:9-22).  But what exactly does this mean?  Surely it does not mean that in a class of self-centered and promiscuous students I should become self-centered and promiscuous in order to win these students for Christ!   Surely it does not mean that I should change my “message”  – water it down, perhaps – to make it more palatable.  Surely it does not even mean that I should change my approach (“my methodology,” as McRae maintains) in order to somehow identify with these students more closely.  Yet these are the things that seem to be suggested when I hear calls to be relevant to the next generation.  We are told  to adjust what we do and say to the generation we are serving.  But how far can we take this?

Let me illustrate.  I teach courses in ethics at a secular college.  What does it mean for me to be relevant to a generation of students who are very self-centered and promiscuous, and maybe even semi-barbarian?  Do I water down my defense of absolute moral values, which is one of my objectives in an ethics course?  Not at all.  For me, understanding today’s student means that I must be even clearer in defending the values of generosity and sexual fidelity in marriage than in times when these values were largely accepted. My students often don’t like this emphasis of mine.  But that in no way makes me change my approach in order to be supposedly relevant.

I recall a lecture where I was defending the possibility of absolutes in the area of sexual ethics.  One girl responded, loudly, so all could hear, “You have just spoiled my weekend.”  Sadly, this girl never returned to class.  You lose some.  On the other hand, I get students who come to me after the course and inform me that while at first they thought I was crazy, by the end they came to realize that there must be some ethical absolutes after all.  That is what it means to understand and serve the next generation.  Instead, all too often in the church we are adjusting what we do and say (method and content) in accordance with the supposedly unique characteristics of the next generation based on the “expertise” of the sociologist.  And what are the results of such adjustment –  “the lovely young women and strong young men will faint because of thirst,” Amos warned in times that were no doubt similar to our own (8:13).

Thus far I have dealt generally with the problem inherent in letting description govern prescription.  Let me now apply this specifically to some of the features often thought to characterize the various generations in relation to the church.  The McRae article suggests that builders like a formal program style, boomers prefer relationships, and busters prefer spontaneity.  Regarding ministry motivation, builders act out of a sense of duty, boomers are motivated to ministry by the sense of personal fulfillment and achievement.  Busters like challenges.  In worship, builders like reverence, boomers, interaction, and busters, energy.  We are to take these as givens.  McRae suggests that each characteristic of the three segments of our generation is just a “preference.”  “None of these characteristics is wrong.” 

This is just plain nonsense!   And this nonsense derives from a preoccupation with sociological description and the resulting failure of nerve to engage in ethical and spiritual evaluation of the supposedly dominant characteristics of each generation.  Take for example the so-called “preferences” in worship.  Builders like reverence.  Perhaps they are too concerned about reverence!  We need to evaluate their preference in the light of biblical teaching.  Perhaps the builder preference for reverence is based on an overemphasis on the transcendence of God.  Similarly, the buster preference for energy in worship needs to be evaluated.  It might be based on self-absorption and a preoccupation with experience and feeling.  Perhaps busters need more of an emphasis on the transcendence of God.  We are not just dealing with personal tastes here.  Generational tendencies need to be critically evaluated in the light of God’s holy Word.

“Boomers are motivated to ministry by the sense of personal fulfillment and achievement that the ministry gives them.”  Again, while this might be factually true, this still needs to be evaluated.  Does not this kind of motivation sound terribly self-centered?  And is not the builders’ strong sense of duty preferable, and more biblical, than the boomer motivation?  Busters support causes, we are told.  Is there not a danger of falling prey to fanaticism with this kind of preoccupation with causes.  And is there not a danger of pragmatic relativism with the boomer’s preference for “how to” sermons?  The critical questions could go on and on.  The central point I am making is that we cannot simply accept generational characteristics as givens.  And we should not blindly adjust church programs in the light of these generational characteristics.  Some of these characteristics are wrong.  The Bible specifically warns about catering to the fancies and fads of a fickle people (II Tim. 4:3).

So does this entail that there is nothing to be said for trying to understand our times and to serve our generation.  Of course not!  Ignorance and irrelevance are not virtues.  We need to understand the somewhat unique characteristics of the next generation (though we must be careful not to exaggerate their uniqueness).  And we need to try to serve the next generation, not by blindly adjusting church programs in accordance with their preferences, but in terms of their real needs.  Biblical principles and precepts must remain the determinants of what we do in church, as the article I have referred to clearly affirms.  The “message” and the “motive” must never be changed. Christ must remain the head of the Church.   But, this same article suggests that what can change is the “methodology” which must adjust to the characteristics of each generation.  But even this will not do.  Methodologies are not neutral! The methods we use to reach each generation too are subject to the principles and precepts of God’s word.  Method, message and motive must all be evaluated from a moral perspective, as Paul clearly teaches (I Thess 2:1-6).  What this entails is that the church today needs a much more carefully nuanced analysis of understanding our times and serving our generation.

There is one final aspect of the current emphasis on generational analysis that needs to be brought to the fore.  There is a tendency, on the part of some (most) analyses, to treat each generation as equally important.  Not only are the characteristics of each generation thought to be equally valid, but each generation is assumed to have equal right to have its preferences met.  At times this egalitarian emphasis gives way to a more radical claim, namely that the latest generation is more important than previous generations.  “The greatest challenge we face is how to adapt in our rapidly changing days so that we will be relevant,” McRae maintains.  We need to have the courage to “run some risks and change course” so that we will “serve our generation,” especially the next generation. (There is an ambiguity in the phrase “our generation” which hides the emphasis on the next generation which is McRae’s real concern).

The fundamental problem with both the moderate and the more radical versions of this emphasis is that it involves a violation of the biblical mandate to honor our father and our mother (Deut 5:16).  This commandment does not only apply to young children.  There are no age limits attached to it.  The younger generation is asked to honor the older generation and this will surely also entail respecting the traditions that define the older generation.  And there is a promise attached to such honor and respect – “so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the Lord your God is giving you.”  A church will only endure and enjoy long health if the old and its traditions are properly honored and respected.

Instead, we today seem to be paying special honor and respect to the young, to the emerging generations.  There is a profound level of disrespect for the older generation in our churches.  A dear old saint recently shared with me the struggles he has with the church that he has always been a member of.  He cannot understand the fast-talking pastor – another feature of our contemporary generation.  He cannot join in the singing (even though he loves to sing) because he is simply not familiar with the choruses that are the main musical diet of this church.  Thus he, together with a good percentage of his congregation, are forced to rely on the more traditional religious programming on the media after church for their spiritual nourishment.  When I suggested to this 90 year-old that he might changes churches and attend instead a neighboring church where there is a more balanced worship diet, he shook his head and said he couldn’t do that either.  Loyalty is a virtue for this older generation – and that is an admirable characteristic!  So they suffer in silence.

A pastor of one of our churches, a church which is very modern in its worship style, recently made a statement to the effect that if the elderly did not like the worship in his church, they could go to the foyer in the back of the church and worship God by themselves.  This was stated publicly at a supposed Anabaptist conference!

This is cruel.  Those who are responsible for the worship culture of these churches are acting unchristianly.  They are being unbiblical.  There is something fundamentally wrong with adjusting a worship program mainly or only to the younger generation.  It represents a lack of love, which is to be the defining characteristic of the church (John 13:34-5).

But that is not all that is wrong here.  The bible tells us that the older generation has a key role to play in teaching the young.  Yes, a  young Timothy is allowed to teach, but only under the supervision of the veteran missionary, Paul.  Indeed, Paul addresses several letters to Timothy, giving him very specific advice on how to serve as a pastor.  And when young Timothy finds it necessary to rebuke an older man, he is told not to do this harshly, “but exhort him as if he were your father” (I Tim. 3:16).   Older women are to train the younger women in the church (Titus 2:4).  We have come a long way from this in our churches today.  I talk to older pastors and they fear being put on the shelf before their time.  The advice of older leaders in our churches is simply disregarded.  An older woman I know recently highlighted the change we have undergone:  “When I was young I had to listen to the old in the church.  And now that I am old, I am told that I must listen to the young.  There never was a time when anyone listened to me.”  How sad!  And what a loss for the younger generation who have a lot to learn from the old.  No wonder they “stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east,” searching for authority based on the Word of the Lord (Amos 8:12).

I would suggest that we have here a key to overcoming the problems inherent in the current preoccupation with generational analysis and its aim of understanding our times and serving our generation.  The older generation in the church is in a unique position to teach and even admonish the younger generations, thereby correcting some of the weaknesses that seem to be inherent in them. 

The church is meant to be intergenerational.  But the builders have a unique contribution to make to the boomers – this is a biblical precept.  And both the builders and boomers have something to contribute to the busters.  This is not at all to say that the busters with their energy and enthusiasm don’t have something to contribute to the older generations.  They may even be able to point out some of the blind spots in the builder generation.  God’s ideal is that old and young work together in the church, each contributing their unique gifts, and most importantly, each submitting to the authority of God’s Word.  Where God’s spirit is present, “your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams” (Acts 2:17).  That is God’s ideal for the church.




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