A pastor friend of mine from Kentucky, Rusty Ellison, did something at his church that is a perfect introduction to this subject. One Sunday morning at a particular time, he asked everyone who was over the age of 40 to stand up and leave the room while also asking everyone under 40 to remain seated. After a few minutes, they were brought back in. He gave no explanation for this but, unbeknownst to them, his tech crew had the video cameras running that morning.
The following Sunday he played that video for them. And he said, “This is what the future looks like.” He called the older group the Exodus and the younger group the Remnant. And the most startling thing was how the empty the auditorium looked at the end of the video. Is that a picture of the future?
It is hard to imagine anything more important, wildly important, than reaching the next generation. However the demands of the moment, the whirlwind, will divert our attention and energy. Attending to the whirlwind usually pleases a large number of people but, when you don’t, the whirlwind cries very loud. However, the important doesn’t cry out at all. It just silently slips away and never returns, ironically enough, kind of like young adults are doing these days.
Seeing as how the church—as a whole and in particular here—is made up of older people, it is easy to see how the next generation gets pushed aside by the whirlwind of the present generation.
There is an obvious issue here and that is the division between the generations. You can’t manage something until you name it. Older people think young people are soft and lazy but, by the way, they’ve always thought that. The evidence is found in the plethora of “When I was your age…” diatribes. The hills were always steeper, the weather was always worse, the schoolwork was always harder, and so on.
Young people on the other hand have always thought that older people were hopelessly out of touch with the times, possessing only a superficial, nostalgic understanding of things and generally an impediment to progress.
These things have always been true. I could not find any documentation of this but I remember hearing a preacher once talk about an excavation site where among the fragments and parchments, they discovered one with this translated quote: “The times are not now what they once were.” That sounds a little like “the good ole’ days.’
I always appreciated my father’s perspective. He has been deceased for almost 25 years but I do still remember once at a family gathering when everyone was talking about the good ole’ days and living on the farm and how they wanted to get back to the farm. They asked my Dad who said, “I have no intention whatsoever of going back to the farm. I remember the good ole’ days and they weren’t all that good.” Mind you, my father was no radical innovator, no early adapter who always latched on anything simply because it was new. Nevertheless he recognized that not all change is bad.
When we consider how to address the future in general and the emerging generation in particular, we have a negative example in Scripture to consider. To me, it is a sad story because it is the story of a god-fearing person with the power to make a difference but didn’t do so and therefore serves as a cautionary tale for us.
As the kings of Judah went, Hezekiah was better than most. Keep in mind that He was a true worshiper of Yahweh, a man of faith who had trusted God and seen supernatural intervention. But Hezekiah did not finish his life on a high note. He ostentatiously displayed his wealth before Judah’s enemies and Isaiah announced a judgment would come, one that would be experienced not by the king, but by his descendants.
This should have troubled Hezekiah but it did not. He piously accepted the verdict because in his mind he realized that he would be dead and gone by the time it came to pass. Please note what he said but also what he thought and remember that God judges both of those, with Hezekiah and with us:“So Hezekiah said to Isaiah, ‘The word of the Lord which you have spoken is good!’ For he said, ‘At least there will be peace and truth in my days.’” (Isaiah 39:8, NKJV) He was so shortsighted that he couldn’t see how his actions had doomed the generation to follow.
So what? What does this have to do with us? Hezekiahs still live today. The facts are clear: 70% of our students leave the church when they turn eighteen years old. Why are we not traumatized by this and shaken to our very core? Perhaps we are like Hezekiah, driven by short-term thinking and can’t see past the end of our own generation.
A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in. (Greek proverb) By this definition, Hezekiah was not great but small and puny.
In his “at least” remark, we see Hezekiah’s willingness to settle for the way things were rather than fight for what they could be. He said, in essence, “It begins and ends with me. I refuse to look further than myself or the duration of my life.”
We don’t know what Hezekiah could have done to try and avert the coming disaster. Perhaps nothing, but the text shows us that he didn’t even try. This is strange behavior for a man who had previously experienced two supernatural interventions in his life (Isaiah 36-38). When faced with his own crisis, Hezekiah prayed to the Lord. Couldn’t he at least have done the same for his descendants?
There was a hog rooting around a tree looking for acorns. A bird in the tree warned him, “Hey, if you keep doing that, exposing the roots, that tree will eventually die.” The hog never looked up but said, “Who cares as long as there are acorns?” In the church today, older adults seem to be the acorns. Young adults are the tree. If we focus on the former at the expense of the latter, someday the church will die as a result.
Like Hezekiah, we are all frail, flawed human beings. Even the best of us can become short-sighted, mortgaging the future at the expense of the present. How does this happen?
Essentially it happens when we choose self-centered influence rather than servant influence. Like Hezekiah, people who love God can nevertheless act in a self-centered fashion. Though the next generation would perish, Hezekiah said, “Well, at least I’ll be okay.” Do we think the same?
A self-centered perspective invariably manifests itself in either one of two ways, pride or fear, either self-preference or self-protection. We can become myopic in our thinking, just as Hezekiah did, and only see ourselves, the duration of his season of influence, and our own preferences. We can also become intimidated, fearful that we are not “cool” enough to reach young adults.
A true servant mentality rejects pride and fear so as to embrace humility and confidence. It recognizes that personal preferences are not biblical mandates, that my style of music is not ordained by God, and that tertiary matters such as the style of one’s clothes or whether or not one has tattoos on their skin are inherently neutral and only be evaluated in light of one’s ministry influence. Focusing on Christ and not personal inadequacies, servant leaders possess a godly confidence that God will use them to reach a generation that is radically different.
Ultimately what we serve is not just people but purpose. People sometimes ask, “Who’s the boss of the church?” The preacher? The deacons? The congregation? The Lord? Of course, Jesus Christ is but I think He has a co-regent in whom He has invested authority. Who is that, you ask? Not “who” but “what.” Purpose is boss. Actions should be dictated based on purpose. The answer to any question is “How does this serve our purpose?” and not “Do I like this?”
The big question is succession. Opportunity is only for a season. In humility, servant leaders focus on what will happen after they are gone. Those who follow Christ instead of Hezekiah ask themselves, “Will the people I influence hear my voice to the end of their lives or only to the end of mine?”
Hezekiah helps us to see that well-intentioned and good people sometimes create a disastrous future by their failure to consider future generations. Reaching emerging adults today requires us to move beyond an Hezekiah model of leadership to a Christ-like model. It demands that we have the sacrificial and courageous faith to plant a shade tree under which we will never sit.
Please notice that I have not outlined some grand strategy to reach the next generation. Doing so will require one. However, that is not my purpose or intention in this post. Prior to the execution of any kind of strategy to reach emerging adults, there must first be a foundation of servant influence. So we should examine our hearts and see if there is a spirit of Hezekiah among us. Remember he was a god-fearing king who had experienced the work of God in his life. We should not assume that we are somehow on a higher level than he, impervious to these types of temptation.
Ask yourself the hard questions. To what am I committed, ensuring that the purpose of Christ for the church is fulfilled through the passing on of our faith to the next generation or simply to my own comfort and preferences?