Carson on Generational Conflict

Posted: August 24, 2011 in controversy, humility


D.A. Carson writing in Themelios:

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 This group thought the older men were out of date, too defensive, unable to communicate with people under twenty-five without sounding stuffy and even condescending, much too linear and boring in their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.

He then offers four ways in which both sides can seek to understand each other and “get along”:

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…


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?…

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…

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.

I quoted Carson’s last point in full because it is just so good.  If both “sides” would earnestly and sincerely adopt these four principles for interaction (as many have), God would be glorified and the church well-served.


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