The older generation always thinks the younger generation is going to pot.
I hear this statement regularly in the church, repeated by the older generation who dedicated their lives to the church. I also hear it from the teenagers I work with, weighing whether or not to stay in the church.
Everyone knows generational conflict is a tired song. All our complaints — about both the older and younger generations — are reruns of those who came before us.
It’s a self-aware statement: I know my views reflect my cultural context. But often it’s used as a resigned statement at the end of an exhausting conversation about sexuality or communion or baptism. Young or old church members express their view, then qualify it with, “but people like me always disagree with people like them.”
It may be broadly true, but it isn’t relevant. It becomes a way to sidestep the issue. It absolves both sides of responsibility. After a long wrestling over core values, it dismisses the hard work of dialogue as a cynical battle over the winds of fate. It relies on lumping the person you are in dialogue with into a whole faceless mob you can disagree with and distance yourself from. It reduces all our conflicts to a sense of helplessness and inevitability. And ultimately, it’s an excuse to avoid genuine dialogue.
I’m impatient with this idea that “the older generation will always harp on the younger generation,” especially in the church. Because it’s also true that the older generation will always nurture the younger generation. It’s a disservice to the Goshen (Ind.) College professors who encouraged my wild ideas and curiosity, who dedicate themselves to being sounding boards for all the complaints of late adolescence. It minimizes the investment of my seminary pastor who explicitly asked the congregation to help him understand their inclusive view on sexual minorities; the retiree who offered me spiritual direction for years at a steep discount; the teenagers who ask me when we will go see the Chicago Fire play again.
Right now, there’s a generational wariness in the Mennonite church, as if the real source of all our conflict is that, depending on your view, old people are stuck in a rut or young people are selfish and lack morality. It’s a narrative that’s fed by sensationalist headlines about what all the Millennials are doing or how all the Baby Boomers are struggling.
The church’s success and strength, for many, is that they find cross-generational encouragement. Many of the seniors in my congregation say they are invigorated listening to the teenagers share about service trips. Teenagers point to this or that adult who taught them Bible school or mentored them in other ways.
As a church, we have to resist the narrative of segmented generations. The truth is, our generations have always been deeply embedded in each other’s lives. Not a single generation can survive without the other. And while generations may be going through the same issues at the same time, there is more diversity within a generation than there is between generations.
The next time you find yourself about to say, “The older generation always resents the younger generation,” ask yourself: Is this really related to the topic at hand? Or am I trying to dismiss the topic because it makes me nervous?
Instead, try saying something else. Try, “It’s hard to talk to other generations, but I’m willing to do it until we realize what we both love about the church.”
This post first appeared in the Mennonite World Review.