In the coming decade, the restless and Reformed movement will face a number of challenges. Elsewhere I’ve spoken and written about the danger of rivalry as God multiplies our movement. Success breeds envy like nothing else, and the Devil loves nothing more than to sow seeds of jealousy among faithful bands of brothers and sisters.
But sidelong glances won’t be the only challenge. Leadership transitions within churches and institutions are also full of pitfalls for those moving on out and those moving on up. Passing the baton from one generation to another has never been easy. But it’s also never been optional. The Christian faith, after all, is something that’s handed down (2 Tim. 2:2). It’s entrusted from one generation to another.
Which means we must learn to make the generational handoff without dropping the baton.
When an older generation passes leadership to a younger one, there are generally two dangers to avoid. The first, often associated with the older generation (though young bucks are capable of it too), is the conservative tendency. Often coupled with fear, anxiety, and undue strictness, it’s the tendency to relinquish leadership reluctantly, to hand the baton but not let go, to view any changes made by the new leader with a skeptical and jaundiced eye. It’s the tendency to think we’ve arrived, to think no more progress is possible, or even desirable. Any movement away from where we are now is necessarily a false step, a downgrade, a fall. We know we’ve succumbed to this temptation when we turn churches into museums (or perhaps mausoleums), where we can look at the faith of our fathers behind a velvet rope and plate glass.
The other danger is the progressive tendency, and younger generations are prone to fall into it. This is the danger of ingratitude and bitterness. This is the attempt to move forward like revolutionaries, burning the villages of our fathers and starting again from scratch. We roll our eyes when our forebears offer words of caution as they hand us the baton. We look at our fathers in the faith and only (or mainly) see their warts and failures. We stand on the shoulder of giants and then look down our noses because we’re taller than they are (which is sort of like like berating Thomas Edison for his inexcusable failure to invent the iPad). We know we’ve succumbed to this danger when we chafe under all authority and despise what has come before us.
The great tragedy of these two dangers is they’re often complementary. They mutually reinforce one another. The more the young and restless chafe and despise, the more the elders fear and build hedges. The more the elders build their museums, the more the young head for the hills. What’s more, we’re all prone to be preoccupied with the temptations and tendencies of others. We’re concerned that they not fall into their sin, and so we lean hard against temptations that don’t pose a grave danger to us, all the while neglecting the ones that do.
The good news is that the opposite is also true. The more we resist our own temptations in these areas, the more space we create for growth and maturity in others. And in Philippians 3, Paul shows us the way.
Paul’s Way Forward
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained. (Phil. 3:12–16)
Notice Paul weds conservative and progressive elements together. He allows them to pull in both directions. First the progressive elements:
- Paul acknowledges his imperfection, his incompleteness, his immaturity. (v. 12)
- Paul forgets the past and strains forward. (v. 13)
- Paul presses on toward the goal. (v. 14)
Now notice the conservative elements:
- Paul believes something real and significant has happened: Christ has owned him decisively. (v. 12)
- Paul refers to himself as mature/perfect (v. 15), a word related to “perfect” in v. 12.
- Paul exhorts everyone involved to live up to what they’ve attained. (v. 16).
So there you have it: a progressive conservative, or conservative progressive. Paul wants to move forward without leaving everything behind. He wants to retain what God has done in the past without treating a stop on the way as the destination. He wants to press on toward what lies ahead without burning down what came before. He wants to keep what’s been attained while forgetting what lies behind. And so should we.
Making the Handoff
Wise elders should encourage forward progress. They should encourage forgetfulness of the wrong things along with retention of the right things. They should recognize that no eye has seen what God has in store. They should remember that until he rips back the veil, we’re always works in progress, and that the only way forward is in fact forward.
Wise youth should remember their roots. Gratitude for the investment and blessing of previous generations should far outweigh criticism of their failures and weaknesses. Love covers a multitude of sins and recognizes genuine works of grace. What’s more, a healthy self-awareness reminds us that someday we’ll be handing off the baton to a new generation, and we should want to be a good model for them now.
This type of faith-filled obedience on the part of each generation is only possible by the grace of God. The Son of God is building his church from generation to generation. The Spirit of God binds all of us together, especially across generations.
Older generations must look to the future in faith that the triune God owns and guides it. Younger generations must look to the past and believe the triune God knew what he was doing. This allows both of them to live in the present together while they make the leadership handoff in harmony, in unity, in Christ—who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.