Volume 36 - Issue 2

Generational Conflict in Ministry

By D. A. Carson


About five years after the Berlin wall came down and the communist regimes of Central and Eastern Europe had mostly fallen or been transmuted into something rather different, I had the privilege of speaking at a conference for pastors in one of those formerly eastern-bloc countries. The numbers were not large. Most interesting was the way this group of men reflected a natural breakdown.

About five years after the Berlin wall came down and the communist regimes of Central and Eastern Europe had mostly fallen or been transmuted into something rather different, I had the privilege of speaking at a conference for pastors in one of those formerly eastern-bloc countries. The numbers were not large. Most interesting was the way this group of men reflected a natural breakdown. They were clearly divided into two groups. The older group—say, over forty or forty-five—had served their small congregations under the former communist government. Few of them had been allowed to pursue any tertiary education, let alone formal theological training. Most of them had served in considerable poverty, learning to trust God for the food they and their families needed to survive. Some had been incarcerated for the sake of the gospel; all had been harassed. The men in the younger group—say, under forty or so—without exception were university graduates. Several had pursued formal theological education; two or three were beginning their doctorates. They were interested in ideas and in the rapidly evolving cultural developments taking place in their country now that their media were a good deal freer. Quite a number were engaged in university evangelism and wanted to talk about postmodern epistemology.

The older group viewed the younger men as untested, ignorant of the lessons learned by suffering, far too cerebral, dizzyingly scattered and ill-focused, cocky, impatient, even arrogant. The younger group viewed the older men as, at best, out of date: they had slipped past their “sell by” date as much as had the communist regimes. They were ill-trained, defined too narrowly by yesterday’s conflicts, unable to evangelize the new generation, vainly clutching to power, consumed rather more by tradition than by truth. And in very large measure, both sides were right.

More recently I spoke at a denominational meeting of ministers in a Western country. Again there was a generational breakdown, cast somewhat differently. The older men had, during the decades of their ministry, combated the old-fashioned liberalism that had threatened their denomination in their youth. Many of them had been converted out of rough backgrounds and subsequently built strong fences around their churches to keep out alcohol and sleaze of every sort. Most of their congregations were aging along with their ministers; only a handful of them were growing. They loved older hymns and patterns of worship. The younger men dressed in jeans, loved corporate worship where the music was at least 95 decibels, were interested in evangelism, and loved to talk to the ecclesiastically disaffected—homosexuals, self-proclaimed atheists, mystically orientated “spiritual” artists. Some were starting Bible studies, fledgling churches, in pubs. This group thought the older men were out of date, too defensive, unable to communicate with people under twenty-five without sounding stuffy and even condescending, much too linear and boring in their thinking, and largely unable to communicate in the digital world (except by emails, already largely dismissed as belonging to the age of dinosaurs), mere traditionalists. The older group thought the younger men were brash, disrespectful, far too enamored with what’s “in” and far too ignorant of a well-integrated theology, frenetic but not deep, energetic but not wise, and more than a little cocky.And in very large measure, both sides were right.

Doubtless there have always been generational conflicts of one sort or another. Arguably, however, in some ways they are becoming worse. There are at least two reasons for this. First, the rate of cultural change has sped up, making it far more difficult for older people to empathize with a world so very different from the one in which they grew up three or four decades earlier, while making it far more difficult for younger people to empathize with a world in which people used typewriters and wired telephones and had never heard of Facebook or Twitter. Second, and far more important, the social dynamics of most Western cultures have been changing dramatically for decades. The Sixties tore huge breaches into the fabric that had united young and old, assigning more and more authority to the young. The cult of youth and health that characterized the Eighties and Nineties, complete with hair transplants and liposuction, along with gated communities for the middle-class elderly and social welfare that meant families did not really have to care for, or even interact much with, the older generation, built a world in which integration across generational lines could be happily avoided. Even the new digital tools that facilitate interaction tend to enable people to link up with very similar people—very much unlike the way the church is supposed to be, bringing together very different redeemed people who have but one thing in common, Jesus Christ and his gospel. 1 Ideally, how should both sides act so as to honor Christ and advance the gospel?

1. Listen to criticism in a non-defensive way. This needs to be done on both sides of the divide. It is easy to label criticism as hostile or non-empathetic and write it off. Nevertheless the path of wisdom is to try to discern what validity the criticism may have and learn from it. It may be that some older pastors do not know very well how to communicate with a younger generation. How, then, could they strengthen their ministry in these domains? It may be that some younger pastors are brash and intemperate in speech, finding it easy to build a following out of the gift of the gab. How then might reflection on 1 Cor 2 modify their speech? Even well-intentioned criticism hurts enough that we are sometimes seduced into a defensive posture because we have forgotten that the wounds inflicted by a friend are faithful and helpful, but wisdom also listens carefully and respectfully even to disrespectful speech in order to learn lessons not otherwise picked up.

2. Be prepared to ask the question, “What are we doing in our church, especially in our public meetings, that is not mandated by Scripture and that may, however unwittingly, be functioning as a barrier to getting the gospel out?” That question is of course merely another way of probing the extent to which tradition has trumped Scripture. There is no value in changing a tradition merely for the sake of changing a tradition. The two tests buried in my question must be rigorously observed: (a) Is the tradition itself mandated by Scripture, or, in all fairness, is its connection with Scripture highly dubious? (b) Is the tradition helpful only to the traditionalists, while getting in the way of outreach?

Even when the question is asked, the answers are rarely easy or clear-cut. The answers may bear on, say, what we wear, styles of music, the order of service, what we do with our massive pulpit. In each case, the bearing of Scripture and tradition can lead to conflicting inferences. Obviously there is no specific biblical mandate for a large pulpit in the middle of the front, preferably elevated to ensure the minister is six feet above contradiction. Knowledge of historic disputes reminds us of the way this arrangement has functioned in the past: the Reformation taught us that not the “altar” 2 was to be central but the Word of God—so the large pulpits were installed in the center. In today’s climate, however, the very same furniture may signal something else to casual visitors—not the centrality of the Word, but the lecture hall, or talking down to others. How can one rightly emphasize the authority of the Word of God without, on the one hand, erecting unnecessary barriers, and without, on the other hand, turning the front of the building into a “stage” associated with entertainment and performance arts? Fine pastors may disagree on the prudential outworking of such reflections in their specific contexts. Unless the questions are addressed with ruthless rigor, however, unbending lines will be drawn and positions staked out that serve only to foster division, not thought.

3. Always focus most attention on the most important things, what Paul calls the matters of first importance—and that means the gospel, with all its rich intertwinings, its focus on Christ and his death and resurrection, its setting people right with God and its power to transform. So when we take a dislike of another’s ministry primarily because he belongs to that other generation, must we not first of all ask whether the man in question heralds the gospel? If so, the most precious kinship already exists and should be nurtured. This is not to say that every other consideration can be ignored. Some ministers are pretty poor at addressing homosexuals in a faithful and winsome way, at speaking the truth in love, at coping with the rising relativism without sounding angry all the time, at avoiding the unpretty habit of nurturing a smart mouth. But Paul in Phil 1 understands that whatever the shortcomings and confused motives of some ministers, if they preach Christ faithfully, he will cheer them on, and be grateful.

4. Work hard at developing and fostering good relations with those from the other generation. This means meeting with them, even if, initially at least, you don’t like them. It means listening patiently, explaining a different point of view with gentleness. It means that the new generation of ministers should be publicly thanking God for the older ministers, praying for them with respect and gratitude; it means that the older generations of ministers should be publicly thanking God for the new generation, seeking to encourage them while publicly praying for them. It means that ideally, disputes should be negotiated in person, winsomely, not by blogposts that are ill-tempered and capable of doing nothing more than ensuring deeper divisions by cheering on one’s supporters. It means shared meals, shared prayer meetings, shared discussions. It means younger men will seek out older men for their wisdom in a plethora of pastorally challenging situations; it means older men will be trying to find out what these younger men are doing effectively and well, and how they see the world and understand their culture in the light of Scripture. It means that younger men will listen carefully in order better to understand the past; it means that older men will listen carefully in order better to understand the present. It means humility of mind and heart, and a passion for the glory of God and the good of others.

  1. ^ On the changing social dynamics, it is worth reading Matthew Shaffer, “Ages Apart: How modernity has separated the generations, and why we should care,” National Review 68/11 (June 20, 2011): 35–37.
  2. ^“Altar”? What new covenant warrant is there for such terminology?

D. A. Carson

D. A. Carson is emeritus professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and cofounder and theologian-at-large of The Gospel Coalition.

Other Articles in this Issue

Listening to or reading the reflections of others on preaching is, for most preachers, inherently interesting and stimulating (whether positively or negatively)...

For Christians in the United kingdom, the Bible appears to have suffered a reversal of fortune with regards to its standing in public life.

The relatively recent interest among evangelicals in engaging ancient Christian tradition is without question a welcome development...

Scholars continue to discuss and debate the scope of the biblical canon...

Is the Reformation over? At first blush, this question would appear to be a rather peculiar one to ask...