Generations (1/2): Appreciating our Elders
The glory of young men is their strength: And the beauty of old men is the gray head. - Proverbs 20:29
Throughout history when the church stood united nothing could stop them. The enemy knew this from the first day the church began. When persecution and oppression did not crush the church in the first few chapters of the book of Acts, he changed tactics and attempted to cause division.
Persecution has often hurt the church, but it has been well said that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church (Apologeticus, chapter 50, Tertullian, 197 A.D.)
What has caused far more damage than any outward opposition, has been inward division. Whether through doctrinal compromise, selfish ambition, or unconfessed sin, those within the church bring about destruction, the likes of which opponents on the outside could only dream.
One of the most effective resources for causing division in the enemies toolbox is to cause dissension between the generations.
I believe that this issue resurfaces with every new generation, but it can vary in intensity. For the last 60 years or more I believe the divide has rarely been so sharp.
Each generation faces the temptation to disrespect the previous generation while simultaneously discounting the one that follows them. Many in each generation tend to commit the same error they accuse the previous generation of without realizing their hypocrisy.
For most of us, it is difficult to take a broad view of history, to really understand the thoughts and motivations of the many generations who have preceded us. We bring our own preconceptions to the table and subconsciously side with those we most empathize with. In so-doing we fail to see their error as that would mean identifying our own.
Within Christianity, I have long seen a trend of one generation not really appreciating the generation that immediately precedes them, even though they may make heroes of the ones only slightly more distant. And even while we pay lip-service to them, there is still a root of pride that believes they somehow failed more than they succeeded and we will be the ones to do it right.
The tone of a younger generation to the older can vary from bemusement, disappointment, to outright hostility and attack.
So what can be done? The beauty of the verse I shared at the beginning, is that God and His Word recognize the value of both old and young. Both have strengths and weaknesses. When they work together in harmony, they can achieve incredible things for the glory of God.
I want to write first on the perspective of the younger generation looking up to, or back to, the preceding generation. In a second article, I will write from the perspective of an older generation looking forward to the next generation.
(1) Realize the Battles They Fought were Different to Ours
In WWI machine guns were cutting edge technology. Not knowing any better there were occasions when 18th-century cavalry charges went up against machine guns and they were decimated by a weapon and tactic of the 20th century.
The battles for every generation are different and so each will compile the appropriate tools. It is unfair for us to look back on a previous generation and expect them to have equipped us with weapons for our battle when they were foreign to them.
There is virtually nothing written 100 years ago on transgender issues, and for good reason, it was a virtually unknown issue. Should we condemn them for it? Certainly not.
By the same token, while some may have experience in welcoming soldiers back from warfare, no-one knows what it was like for post-World War ministers who saw whole families decimated. In England, some villages lost most, if not all of their young men. How would we cope? God forbid that we should ever find out.
Each generation faces unique battles, and we must not hold it against a previous generation that they did not equip us with weapons and tactics they never had to use or imagined would be necessary.
(2) Appreciate the Innovations They Made; Don’t Focus on the Ones They Now Resist
Have you ever met an old preacher who barely knows how to turn on a computer? Let alone send an email or design a website? How on earth could God use them if they so stubbornly resist to use such necessary tools? WAIT! Back up a moment.
That same preacher possibly grew up on a farm with no electric and no indoor plumbing. They were only a few decades separated from the Wright brother’s first flight and were maybe your age when man first went to the moon.
They have seen a rate of change that we can only imagine. They innovated. They adapted. The first phone they knew of was perhaps one shared by the entire community in a local store. Then some of the wealthy families or business had one installed. It got smaller and no longer had to hang on the wall. Then they gave it a long cord and you could wander around the room as you talked. Then cordless phones let you leave the room while you spoke to someone on the phone! Then came pagers. Then cell phones the size of a tool box. Then flip phones. Then smartphones.
Most of us can’t imagine that pace of change.
But I guarantee the majority of us will hit an age when 40-year-old technology will be more comfortable than 4-year-old technology.
Realize what they have seen and done, appreciate their innovations, and cut them some slack.
(3) Give Thanks for the Sacrifices They Made
We live in one of the most comfortable generations that have ever existed, not just in modern history, but in the whole of history. If you sit in a home with heating and air conditioning you have a level of comfort that even the greatest kings and emperors of history could only dream. You literally control the weather in your home!
The generations that preceded us that allowed for the development of technology and the economy that we now enjoy did so through sacrifice. While life is hard for many, it is better than it was for many who came before us.
So, it is with life and community in the local church. Things may not be perfect, but many before us sacrificed to give us what we have now. Maybe your building isn’t geared toward small group meetings, it doesn’t have wiring specific for 21st century needs, perhaps the bathrooms are poorly decorated. But remember this. Many old churches were built, literally, by the older person sitting in front of you. They never imagined the need for small groups, the church was a small group when they built the building.
Appreciate the sacrifices they made, and think about what sacrifices you can make to provide for the next generation.
(4) Admit We Stand On the Shoulders of Giants
I once sat in a memorial service and listened to stories being told of a recently deceased friend. He died in his 70’s and I always appreciated his quiet consistency, his warmth, and his softly spoken, but intensely sincere prayers. But I never knew the young man he once was. The young man who had gone on missions trips, who had spread the Gospel across communities, who had led his family to follow the Lord, who had experienced adventure for the cause of Christ.
We are privileged to look back on giants of the faith. But the true giants will never see themselves that way, and so you may not know them as such. The passage of time may have dimmed their passion, and their exploits for the Lord may have faded in their minds. Why not help them remember? Find the giants of the faith in your church, in your community, and find out what they did for the Lord.
(5) Have Enough Humility to Understand Your Weaknesses and Limitations
God honors humility. I, we, need to recognize our weaknesses. Because of the fight, the sacrifice, and the innovations of those who preceded us we are who we are today.
I have been amused to see some in my age group beginning to make the same mistakes they have shown when frustrated with their elders. Their elders behaved with pattern A, but times changed and resisted when the next generation innovated with pattern B, and now those using pattern B are resisting those just 20 years behind them are innovating with pattern C.
The first group chuckle as they see the second group make their mistakes. And the third group bristle and wonder why they have to face, what they believe to be, a completely new situation of wrestling with their elders.
The second group morphs into the first group, the third into the second and it starts all over again.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Were those who came before us perfect? No. Absolutely not. It would be easy to draw up a list of criticisms of those who came before us. Were they all equal in their service? No. Many were not as faithful as they could have been.
But our responsibility is to give honor where honor is due. To demonstrate grace to flawed believers who achieved great things for God despite the times in which they lived. We are no better. We are just as flawed as you may perceive them to be.
Maybe if we keep in mind the weaknesses we perceive in the elderly today, we will avoid the same mistakes ourselves with future generations. And maybe, just maybe, in watching us respect our predecessors, the next generation will give us a break when their time comes to follow after us.