Every year, usually around my birthday, I get teased for looking younger than my age. Perhaps it’s my beardlessness, my small stature, my baby face—or a combination of all three. Whatever the reason, I gear up for the “Congrats on turning 21!” jokes.
Interestingly, some of the same friends and colleagues who jest about my appearance also tease me for being an “old soul”—from my taste in music, to my affinity for Classic TV, or all the old books I read. I think old, or so they say.
As the years go by, I’ve started taking both types of teasing as compliments. I’m glad people say I look younger and think older. I hope these qualities will be true of me thirty years from now, too. Especially when I survey the generational rifts in American society and evangelical churches.
The bridge between ages seems rickety these days. We’ve grown accustomed to dividing up people by generation: the Builders and Boomers, Generation X and the Millennials—now the biggest generation in American history.
Overall, I’m grateful for good research and analysis on generational commonalities and differences. Some stereotypes are too broad to do much good (“Boomers are self-centered,” “Generation X is neglected,” “Millennials are entitled,” etc.). But at its best, generational research can help us live on mission in the world God has placed us. We come to understand similarities among people who share the same generational sliver of time, just as missionaries note the commonalities among people who share the same geographical space.
In his new book, Impossible People, Os Guinness fears that generational analysis has devolved into “generationalism,” an overemphasis on the strong differences between the generations at the expense of the commonalities that unite us. After reading his chapter on this issue, I’d like to borrow a few of his insights and build on them here.
1. Generationalism hinders us in our common pursuit of truth.
Too many times, people appeal to their generation instead of to a standard of truth. “You couldn’t possibly understand because you’re not part of my generation.”
We’ve seen free speech and civil discourse take a hit on many college campuses across America, as identity politics have devolved into a shouting match (“You’re not of my ethnicity and gender, so there’s no way you could understand!”). A similar situation takes place when generational divides become unassailable assertions. We no longer have room to reason together and benefit from each other’s wisdom and passion.
The youth-centered nature of American society exacerbates the problem. In other cultures, age signifies wisdom. In North America, age and experience can often be perceived as detrimental. When the church adopts this mindset, we downplay the long-term pursuit of seasoned faithfulness over time in exchange for short-term flashiness.
Resentment between the generations then leads many older folks to gripe about the plans of the younger generation, applying the same scenario in reverse: They don’t understand because they don’t belong to our generation. In the end, truth suffers and conversation falters. Both sides have walled themselves off from the insights they need.
2. Generationalism cultivates suspicion instead of trust.
A hundred years ago, it was common to grow up in the same geographical area as your parents and grandparents, and sometimes even your great-grandparents. Different generations expected to share time and space together. Today, the transience of our society has caused us to feel farther away from the generations before us. Guinness writes:
“As life speeds up, the past seems farther and father away, including the almost immediate past of our parents and grandparents.” (180)
The cables that link one generation to another are fraying, and as a result, we are less likely to know and trust those who do not belong to our age group. You can’t trust anyone older than 30! Or You can’t trust anyone younger than 40!
I worry that the generational gap has widened within evangelical churches and denominations. Lack of trust leads young people to assume their elders will be against their ideas. Lack of trust leads older people to assume that the young have malicious motives. Soon, suspicion poisons relationships and leads us into a downward spiral of generational self-justification, where an inordinate amount of energy is devoted to justifying the reasons to adopt new principles or reestablish old methods.
3. Generationalism makes it difficult to hand down a tradition.
Generationalism assumes we need a clean state—a fresh start every 20 years or so with new leaders and methods. But that assumption is utopian, not realistic. It makes it nearly impossible to hand down a tradition. The young are unlikely to appreciate the preciousness of their elders’ legacy, and the old are unlikely to let go of power.
Generational blind spots keep us groping around in the darkness of our present moment. The young miss out on the wisdom available to them in the past, and the old miss out on the youthful passion that would prevent them from falling into mere maintenance mode.
To fully understand the way forward, you have to look backward. A generational handoff must always have an eye toward the past and an eye toward the future.
Os Guinness understands why we must avoid the dangers of generationalism:
“All generations are more flawed than they realize. . . . No generation is ever as successful and healthy as it may imagine. It always has flaws that set up the next generation to react against the old one, just as the ‘old one’ did to their predecessors when they were the ‘younger generation.’ Every generation must therefore be realistic and humble, and the young just as much as the old.” (179)
Realistic. Humble. Teachable. These are the traits we need—young and old alike.