God’s concept of the church has always been that of a multi-generational congregation. The age diversity is beneficial, as the church would be able to harness the natural strengths, skills and experiences of each generation to accomplish her God-given mission.
Regrettably, the reality of inter-generational relations often falls short of this ideal. Instead of promoting teamwork between diverse individuals, with contrasting but complementary strengths, we feel more comfortable gravitating towards people with similar views and backgrounds as us. This often results in a division between the young and the old. How then, should we bridge these generation gaps in church?
ENDEAVOR TO KEEP THE UNITY OF GOD’S HOUSE
If we recognize that the church is the household of God, then we must accept that God intends for the church to have members of all ages, not unlike any other complete household. Within a diverse community, it is inevitable for different age groups to have different opinions, preferences and working styles. After all, each generation has grown up within distinct sociopolitical eras, encountering different experiences, and exposed to varying trends, technologies, theories and social norms. And it is human nature to differentiate ourselves from the previous or successive generation, resulting in divisions within the household of God.
Senior members may lament that the youths of today are so different from how they themselves were at the same age. Their complaints often eventually lead to a disgruntled list of flaws, with youths perceived as rash, immature, irresponsible, self-centered, arrogant, or rude. On the other hand, youths of this era, raised to confidently speak their minds, may be similarly unrestrained in their opinions of the senior members. They may think the senior members are behind the times and out of touch with reality, with senior members perceived as judgmental, stubborn, narrow-minded, and increasingly irrelevant. Such strong sentiments are not only anathema to fostering reconciliation, but also exacerbate divisions in church.
Jesus highlighted: “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand” (Mt 12:25). Instead of fanning the flames of difference, we should “[endeavor] to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3). Such an endeavor has to start with a willingness in each of us to adopt a reconciliatory approach, “with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love” (Eph 4:2). Both young and old must have the same wisdom that seeks to build up, rather than pull down the house (Prov 14:1).
The first step is to avoid stoking animosity between the generations in church. But this can be further enhanced if we switch focus from what separates us to what unites us—the common mission of the church. After all, by fostering a relentless focus on the one Lord, Jesus, and the higher purpose of His church, it will be increasingly clear that no petty differences should drive a wedge within the household of God.
MUTUAL RESPECT AND SUBMISSION
Relationships can only be established if there is mutual respect and appreciation. This is simple in theory, but relationships become strained when individuals fail to put this into practice. When a person, either young or old, expects or feels entitled to the other first showing respect and appreciation before reciprocating, then the gap between them only widens.
Traditional approaches dictate that youths should respect their elders; this is particularly true in Asian cultures. Some seniors may go so far as to say that youths should never question those older than them. Youths, on the other hand, may not subscribe to such norms, believing that respect should be earned, not rewarded on the basis of age alone.
To resolve such opposing perspectives, we must adhere to the Bible’s teaching:
You shall rise before the gray headed and honor the presence of an old man, and fear your God: I am the LORD. (Lev 19:32)
Paul even instructed Timothy, who was vested with the authority of a preacher, to be mindful when pastoring older members:
Do not rebuke an older man, but exhort him as a father, younger men
as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, with all purity.
From the passages above, it is clear that youths should indeed respect older members. However, before senior members take this for granted, it is important for them to acknowledge what the Lord expects from them:
The silver-haired head is a crown of glory,
If it is found in the way of righteousness. (Prov 16:31)
Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine. (1 Tim 5:17)
Instead of focusing on how others fall short of what is expected of them, it would be far better for each to challenge himself to do the right thing. Youths should indeed respect and submit to their elders. At the same time, senior members need to realize that such respect and honor can only be earned through their righteous conduct, their diligence and labor for the word and doctrine.
In addition, the Bible actually does not mandate a one-sided dynamic between young and old. Rather, both are expected to mutually submit to one another, just as Peter taught in the early church:
Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders. Yes,
all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility.” (
PARTNERING IN COMPLEMENTARY STRENGTHS
The glory of young men is their strength,
And the splendor of old men is their gray head. (Prov 20: 29)
There are inevitable differences between the young and the old. But if we can learn to admire each other’s respective strengths, we will be able to integrate as one body and household to contribute towards the ministry. If the young and old can complement each other by deploying their unique gifts in partnership, they can surely accomplish far more than they would if they stayed within their own age groups.
Such exceptional strength, unleashed through complementary partnership, was experienced in the Israelites’ battle against the Amalekites at Rephidim (Ex 17:8–13). Moses instructed the young Joshua to select some men to go out and fight the physical battle. As for Moses himself, being too old for physical battle, he went up the hill with Aaron and Hur to pray for the battle. Joshua did not question Moses’ instruction, despite being the one to face the ever-present danger and demands of frontline battle. Joshua “did as Moses said to him” (Ex 17:10). He did not despise Moses for appearing to take a back seat and not joining them on the front line. Equally, Moses did not insist on leading the battle from the front, which may come with more visible glory. Moses wisely chose to let Joshua play to his strengths, while he made his contribution in a complementary way. During the battle, whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed. When he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed. When Moses’ hands became heavy, Aaron and Hur supported them. Israel’s eventual victory over the Amalekites would not have been possible if either the young Joshua or the elderly Moses refused to acknowledge his own strengths and weaknesses. Likewise, they would not have been victorious if they had not willingly worked in complementary partnership.
In contrast, there was a less favorable outcome during Rehoboam’s reign (1 Kgs 12:3–20). When the people came to entreat Rehoboam to lighten their yoke, he asked them to return in three days while he sought counsel from his officials. He first consulted the elders who had stood before Solomon, his father. They advised him to listen to the people and speak good words to them to win their loyalty forever. Conversely, when he consulted his peers who had grown up with him, they encouraged him not only to disregard the people’s plea, but to be even harsher than his father was. This is a clear example of how the young and the old can hold vastly differing opinions. The young might have spoken out of misplaced confidence and exuberance that their childhood friend was now king. Rash and oblivious to the suffering of the people, they believed Rehoboam should establish his sovereignty by showing strength. The elders, on the other hand, were driven by their many years of experience in helping Solomon administer the nation. Having their finger on the pulse, and the maturity to understand how to earn the people’s loyalty, they believed that Rehoboam should establish his authority by winning over the hearts of the people. Unfortunately, Rehoboam chose to follow the advice of the young and spoke roughly with the people. This resulted in the kingdom being divided into two.
The discourse between Job, his older friends, and the young Elihu provides a positive counter-example of inter-generational relations. In Rehoboam’s case, the young only wanted to listen to the young and were unwilling to consider advice from the older generation. In Job’s case, his three friends had spent much time analyzing and speculating on the cause of his suffering, to no avail. It was only when they had failed to arrive at the truth of the matter that Elihu, who was young in comparison, spoke up. As the Bible records, “Now because they were years older than he, Elihu had waited to speak to Job” (Job 32:4). Hence, we can see how Elihu exercised basic respect for the elders:
“I am young in years and you are very old;
Therefore I was afraid,
And dared now declare my opinion to you.
I said, ‘Age should speak,
And multitude of years should teach wisdom.’
But there is a spirit in man,
And the breath of the Almighty gives him understanding.
Great men are not always wise,
Nor do the aged always understand justice.” (Job 32:6–9)
From this passage, it is clear that while it remains good for the young to accord basic respect to the elders, the elder can also receive advice from the young, just as Job did. The key does not really lie with age, but with he who is wise and able to “understand justice.” We must be prepared to learn and heed advice, regardless of the advice-giver’s age relative to ours.
As one generation succeeds another, it is important that we ensure a smooth transition. Senior members must take an active interest in the youths, to patiently understand and nurture them. Youths, on the other hand, must be diligent to observe and learn from the senior members as they serve, to understand the context of different church matters, and the decision-making process. For succession to be seamless and the church to continue progressing, youths need to embrace the positive traditions that senior members have put in place and build on them. The Bible encourages us: “Stand in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where the good way is, and walk in it” (Jer 6:16); “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle” (2 Thess 2:15).
As time marches on and each generation comes of age, the church traditions handed down to them can start to appear backwards or irrelevant. It can be tempting to do away with such practices in the name of progress and modernization. But, unless these practices are against biblical principles, youths should consider the bigger picture and not dismantle these traditions so hastily. At the same time, senior members should not resist change and forward-thinking ideas, as long as they take the church in the right direction, in line with biblical principles.
The Bible has left us many wonderful examples of seamless succession. Moses had Joshua, who followed him closely. Joshua was with Moses on Mount Sinai, rather than with the people singing and dancing around the golden calf (Ex 32:17–20). Later, he was again aligned with Moses when the people were disheartened after spying out the promised land; he pleaded with them not to rebel and turn back to Egypt (Num 14:5–10). Over many years, Moses mentored and nurtured Joshua to continue the work that was originally committed to him. Just before his death, Moses, at God’s instruction, handed the reins over to Joshua (Deut 31:7, 14–15, 23).
Elijah threw his mantle on Elisha, who then followed him (1 Kgs 19:19–21). Thereafter, Elisha faithfully followed Elijah from Gilgal to Bethel, to Jericho, and finally to the Jordan (2 Kgs 2:1–7). He went all the way with Elijah, till the latter was taken up. Elisha took up the mantle that had fallen off Elijah, and inherited a double portion of his spirit (2 Kgs 2:8–14). In this manner, Elisha succeeded Elijah’s work.
“Thus says the LORD:
‘I will return to Zion,
And dwell in the midst of Jerusalem.
Jerusalem shall be called the City of Truth,
The Mountain of the LORD of hosts,
The Holy Mountain.’
“Thus says the LORD of hosts:
‘Old men and old women shall again sit
In the streets of Jerusalem.
Each one with his staff in his hand
Because of great age.
The streets of the city
Shall be full of boys and girls
Playing in its streets.’ ” (Zech 8:3–5)
Is this not a heartwarming and beautiful scene of Jerusalem—the church—to look forward to, with both old and young enjoying peace and harmony? As we continue our life of faith, worshipping and serving in church, we must recognize that our attitude, our decisions, our actions and reactions will all contribute to the church environment. The progress of the church also hinges on these: Do we really care about the household of God? Do we seek to mend any gaps we encounter? Will we endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace? Are we prepared to respect, appreciate and submit to one another in the Lord? Do we have the patience to nurture and the humility to be nurtured?
We can make the difference and, together, move towards this image of the perfect church at peace.