This is the second article of a three-part series called, “The New Era of Faith”. Monday we posted, “A Brief History of Fundamentalism” in which we looked back at how we’ve arrived at our current trajectory. Today we explore “The Greatest Generation (Gap)”, and discuss the current cultural forces that divide two generations of faith in very historically unique ways. Finally, we’ll end with, “A Church in Transition, But To Where?” and bring it all together and explore the future of faith in America.
In our “Brief History of Fundamentalism”, we explored the emergence of Evangelicalism in America out of the holiness movement. We also discussed the corresponding victory of Fundamentalist Christianity over the rising influence of external and internal challenges to the church in that era. The external challenge of that hour was the introduction of evolutionary theory into mainstream thought. The internal challenge was the rise of Higher Criticism and liberal Christianity from the seminaries of Europe. Suddenly, conservative faith had a challenger in defining what Christians should believe and what the church should become.
A century ago, Fundamentalists were the definitive victors of the great ideological battle of conservative and liberal theology. This happened, in part, because of the efforts of two figures who emerged in that hour to raise up and equip an army that the liberal theologians could not match. D.L. Moody mobilized an army across America with his aggressive evangelistic campaigns. R.A. Torrey equipped that army, as well as every rural pastor across America, with The Fundamentals. It was a definitive collection of the essentials of the faith, including essays on the virgin birth, a literal understanding of the book of Genesis, the infallibility of scripture, and the bodily return of Jesus to His church.
Between the reach for holiness and the reaction against liberalism, a very distinct expression of modern Christianity was born. It spread farther and faster than liberalism could in those days. The army of Moody, Torrey, and many others established a new denominational structure that reflected a conservative view of scripture and, eventually, an escapist eschatology that would lead to a subtle disengagement and separation of the church from the affairs of the world. That expression has prevailed as the main expression of the Protestant Church in America for the past century.
We are in a very different era of history, one in which the church is undergoing another radical transition. What has been seems to be quickly disconnecting from what will be. Liberal Christianity has been given new life and a new army through both traditional and social media outlets. More believers than ever before have a voice in helping to shape their worldview and world in ways that have little to do with existing denominational structures and traditional beliefs.
More people are talking to one another about more subjects than ever before. However, how we talk with one another, and how we hear another, is more complex and difficult as well. A generation of conservative, traditional – and often, Republican – believers is giving way to a new generation, one born into a technological world that is advancing faster than any in history. Obsolescence in technology now works in terms of months, and not years, decades, or centuries. Young adults are learning to grow an adapt in a pace that mirrors the pace in which the world around them adapts. In doing so, an entire generation – one that lived and experienced a much slower and simpler life – is quickly being left behind.
As one group adapts and the other entrenches, neither group really knows the other anymore. This is the hour of perhaps the greatest generation gap in history. The dynamics that surround “passing on the faith of our fathers” is becoming impossibly complex. What does this mean for the future of the church?
Where are We Now?
Anger and fear have been as intrinsic to American Christianity as faith and love. Woven into the fabric of American culture is a passion to express personal faith undisturbed by outside influences. Faith and love thrive in a context in which a believer feels empowered and confident in the acceptance of Christ and His leadership over world affairs. Anger and fear arise when our own personal status quo is disturbed and hidden insecurities are exposed – all generally in the context of powerlessness. Nothing exposes our true powerlessness like the free will of our children.
The middle-aged theologian is rarely threatened by new ideas. However, when those ideas threaten the idealistic and inexperienced young person, a certain sense of powerlessness can unexpectedly invade the heart. The holiness movement was, in some ways, a reaction to antebellum excess. The fundamentalist movement was a reaction to liberal deconstructionism. We live in an era of instantaneous reactive communication that coincides with a deconstruction of authority and tradition. In short, everyone is an authority and everyone else is likely wrong (unless they agree with me). In a post-Christian nation, young people are interacting with the non-Christian world in far more intimate ways than their fathers and grandfathers. Even more prevalent is the manner in which they are interacting with the anti-Christian world than ever before. They may not be ready for the tricks their heart will play on them as they do.
As a young believers work to make sense of the world in which they live, they are less prone to react against challenges to their faith and more prone to listen and think through those challenges, regardless of the source. This is not a bad thing. However, to do so without a sense of why the world is the way that it is and how it got here is a dangerous thing. The great weakness of the modern young person is to be both keenly aware of their weaknesses – often in painful and transparent ways – while also being completely unaware of their weakness at the same time. In other words, today’s young adult is both filled with awareness of their shortcomings, while simultaneously having little awareness of their limitations.
The narcissistic message of the day, built around self-help theology that promises therapeutic bliss, is the incessant cry to “believe in yourself”. 21st century America has settled for smaller dreams. “You can do great things” has slowly been replaced with, “You can get noticed”. What this means is that we arrive at a time in which young people have an almost unprecedented sense of self and of personal weakness, yet do not think that those weaknesses are disqualifying related to their goals. This is a new problem. The age-old problem of “not knowing what you do not know” only exaggerates the new problem.
The other age-old problem is a reactionary establishment, afraid of what they see in the lives (and questions) of today’s young adult. One of the great weaknesses of Fundamentalism is that it trains its adherents to react and not to respond. Again we find a new problem intricately connected to an ages-old one. The new problem is a visceral, emotional reaction to perceived cultural threats. The old problem is not humbly listening and learning from the next generation. Teachers and parents often have a hard time hearing from the ones they are trying to protect.
Yearning to Be Heard and Respected
There is no way to write these next few paragraphs without sounding exactly like my father. It’s funny, though. Beyond making peace with sounding like my father, I have to confess: I like it. It’s not hard for me to appreciate sounding like my father when the lessons of his generation seem more necessary today than ever. His generation was a very hard-working generation that fought unpopular wars and received little thanks from a very unappreciative “Generation X”. Many of my father’s comrades played by the rules. They saved. They built. They won for one another a quiet respect and a deep sense of accomplishment in the simplicity of faithfulness. They often did not call attention to themselves, or their pain. They often pretended to not be in pain.
My generation enjoyed the benefits of their hard work. We were the slackers. We filled the gap between the man and women born in the midst of unprecedented post-World War Two optimism and the “kids” that followed, born in the midst of technological enthusiasm and YouTube dreams. It is too early to tell now how the men and women I grew up with will be defined, or what our legacy will be. I already fear the ones who are following behind me, and how they might remake the world into their image. I find that the fear that has helped to shape every generation that has gone before me is inescapable. I wonder if this is the burden placed upon the forty year olds, still young enough to dream of the future, yet old enough to know that it is out of our hands?
The shaping of the immediate future has passed to a very different group than the young adults I used to know. Things that were true about my friends that I grew up with – emotional truths and dynamics of the heart – seem amplified in this generation of young people. Their issues seem louder. Their desires seem to be both impossibly deep and astonishingly shallow all at once. Their passions seem uncontainable at times, a whirlwind of possibilities that threaten to swallow them whole. At the core of it all beats a restless yearning to be heard, to be understood, and to be taken seriously far sooner than ever before. Far earlier than my father ever dreamed, a young man fights to cut through the noise and the storm and shouts his thoughts, cares, and ideas to his peers and his leaders and aches to be noticed.
“Generation X”, my generation, was a self-absorbed group. We expressed it in quiet ways, inwardly searching, wondering where we fit and whether or not our lives would matter. In our search for significance and meaning, we forgot to give it to our sons and our daughters. In our place, boldly and uncompromisingly, institutions did it for us. Hollywood media, preschool programs, youth leaders, teachers, and many others stood in line and told our kids how much they mattered. They told them that they were important. Special. World changers. The problem with an institution replacing a father is that an institution is making an exchange and performing a service. They lack the relational stability to say the loving thing, the hard thing, the right thing, and the encouraging thing. They can only say the empowering thing. Anything harder than that, and a child can gravitate towards a new leader, a different voice, a new show.
Only a father can say lovingly say the hard truths at the right times in a way that empowers.
Love and Lawlessness
A “Gen-Xer” is old enough to remember photos in wallets. Pictures on the wall. Imagine meeting a new friend, and he opens up his wallet. Inside, as the plastic flips open, is a cavalcade of pictures – but not of family, or a boyfriend, or any friends at all. Every picture is of the person you’re meeting. They only carry in their wallet pictures of themselves. You step into their home. On the wall, it’s all the same: pictures of themselves adorn every room. A generation of young people, many of whom love the sound of their own voice and adore the sight of their own face, have been handed the technological context to change their world.
What kind of world will they make?
In the days of Moody and Torrey, conservative Christianity – fundamentalist faith – won the day because they were able to mobilize and equip a larger army. That generation successfully passed down their faith to sons and daughters for almost a century. Today, a generation is rising up and, through the unprecedented power of social media, raising their voice to throw off the bonds of fundamentalist error and excess. I look at the faith of my fathers before me, and listen to the words of the children who are gaining strength after me, and stand between two worlds. I stand in-between the largest generation gap in history. I’m not sure who to agree with, who to side with.
I look to the young with compassion, understanding the role that fundamentalist faith played in shaping the world as it now exists. The angry reactions of disillusioned youth feed a deep resentment of the weaknesses of their fathers who fearfully enabled or rejected them. I understand what they are rejecting and why. They want to express the compassion that their fathers lacked. They have a voice my fathers never had. They have the means to rally an army – one that could rival the armies of Moody and Torrey. I’m young enough to partially believe in their cause, and see and understand their pain. I’m still impulsive enough to join them. There’s only one problem, but it’s a big one: the voices crying out for a compassionate church have room in their heart to love everyone in the world, except for the fundamentalist fathers and mothers that came before them.
I look at my fathers with compassion as well. I understand the reasons that caused them to fight the wars they fought, a tender desire to keep their world for the children they didn’t know how to love. When life is a fight from the beginning, slowly crawling from nothing to something, fighting becomes the primary way you learn how to love. You might not be able to say it, but you can show it. It would be like the returning from the Vietnam war, unappreciated, unloved, greeted by scorn and rejection for trying to do the right thing. The kids might not fully understand why you fight, why you rally, why you vote the way that you do, why you react the way that you do. It doesn’t really matter to you, if you’re trying to do the right thing. One thing you do have that I so appreciate, is discernment. You can tell when things are off course. Here’s the problem that I see, however: discernment mixed with fear is easy. Discernment with hope is much more difficult, but it’s what young men and women are longing to see modeled and mentored.
There is a difficult way ahead for a young leader, a young voice. The power has shifted to the young leader far faster than ever. For centuries, the young leader needed the old leader. Today, the functional need for an old leader – one that can help empower and resource a younger one – is fading quickly. A young man can go his way, alone. He can have a measure of power and influence, cheaply, and immediately. Whether he should have it does not really matter anymore. No one has time for that argument. It simply is, and that isn’t going to change. It will be a relatively short time before the platform and the influence will have finances added to it. Once this generation of young people have the financial resource to go with their people influence, things around the world will change even faster.
They can change apart from the traditional authority structures. They can change outside of any authority at all. The institutions that raised them have been inadequate, and are no longer necessary for them. Their fathers have failed them. They have committed, in this culture, the worst of sins: they believe embarrassing things, and will not listen when those beliefs are challenged. Better for them to have committed adultery, or robbery, or anything other than the sin of obsolescence. The world has, seemingly, moved on from the faith of D.L. Moody and R.A. Torrey. The liberal wing of the church is finally able to amass a compassionate army that has no use for the old fundamentals of another era. Evangelicalism seems to be dying, and that may not be a bad thing for the new voices arising across our nation.
I think it is a bad thing. In fact, I’m not sure that old-school Evangelical faith is dying out any time soon. I think that we have much to learn from one another still. We live in the era of the dogmatic overreaction. We do not know how to disagree with one another. How to listen. The laughable irony is that the generation that longs to be heard has never been trained to listen. It’s okay. Our great-grandparents – and their parents – did not know how to disagree either. The way forward isn’t found in new solutions for church life, and won’t be discovered by progressive new ways to reach the lost. That’s not where it starts, at least. It starts by loving your enemies. It starts by embracing humility. It all changes when you set your heart to learn from the ones that have the most to teach you – because you decided a long time ago that they had nothing to teach you. If we can’t love the whole family of God, even the ones that we fear, or do not understand, or are embarrassed of, how can we love the world?
Coming Next Week: the conclusion of the series, “The New Era of Faith”. What will the church look like a decade from now?