A rigid Christian culture neither offers honest answers nor encourages transparency, and in the long run it damages young people who are genuinely seeking answers. Jesus welcomed difficult questions and inquiries with openness and grace. Our young people who are growing up amidst a hostile secular culture have difficult questions about the existence of God, human sexuality, marriage, the use of controlling substances, secular music, the reliability of Scripture, differing forms of worship, and their disinterest in formal church structures as they’ve experienced them. These questions are rarely asked but often wrestled with, and wise parents and leaders will draw these questions and struggles out (Prov. 20:5). How can we help the next generation navigate difficult questions?
Avoid Becoming Defensive: It’s not a help to young people when older respected church-goers become defensive when their generation’s lack of love and contradictions are pointed out. In my experience I’ve found our young people desire genuine answers to life’s complexities and the church’s hypocrisy. They are seriously trying to align the grace and truth of Christ with their underwhelming religious experience, and they need to be able to voice their observations. Canned religious answers and shame tactics do nothing to resolve these tensions (Jn 9:28-34). We have failed to create a safe culture where our children can receive help to navigate vexing questions and difficult life experiences. We have failed, in part, because we have tolerated empty form and lifeless devotion so long as people’s standards align with ours and their fashion and musical tastes don’t change too much. We’ve settled for style and form without expecting any life or substance. We’ve expected our children to be comfortable walking through the museum of early nineteenth century Christian antiquity and relate with archaic language as a worship medium because that’s what our religious experience was connected to and what we’ve been comfortable with. A sign of danger is when parents’ concerns seem more attached to their child’s lack of opportunity to play their instrument on Sunday than whether their child is truly growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ. We don’t even seem to care about the disconnect our children experience every Sunday and the frustration that quietly builds within them when they sense empty form and judgmentalism to the same or greater levels as to what they’ve experienced in the pagan world the week before. Our openness and honesty will encourage their openness and honesty. We need to provide genuine answers for their questions and admit our failures without becoming defensive.
Admit When Your Benchmark Is No Longer God’s Word: Are we men and women of God’s Word or have we veered away from our benchmark? Since we have believed animated gestures, bold theatrics, and a fast rate of speech in preaching are synonymous with sincerity and earnestness, we’ve expected them to believe this too. But they’ve discovered these can be disingenuous and the product of training and lifeless habit. Since we’ve believed talent and technique are synonymous with Spirit-giftedness we’ve expected our children to believe this too. But they’ve questioned the hollowness of self-serving performance in the context of local church and ministry. Since we’ve embraced decisionism and glowing statistics as true gospel effectiveness we’ve expected our children to accept this too. But they have questions about the tactics, have felt the manipulation and intimidation, and are asking if there isn’t a more wise and effective way to share Jesus with unbelievers. Our children have discerned that nominal Christians have made an idol of personal preferences and that the expectation of deference is often a one-way-road that leads directly back to them, but no Scripture is used to validate why. They have not sensed a reciprocating deference as an example of what’s expected from them. Our young people are considered unspiritual because they won’t conform to the accepted religious culture, but no Scripture is used to explain why. We have told them God’s Word is our benchmark and final authority for faith and practice, but our children have seen where this has not always been the case. As a result they question the sincerity of this conviction from those who excuse certain Scripture away because it doesn’t fit within the man-made borders of preferred Christian practice (Mt 15:2,6). We need to allow differences of opinion on matters of preference while helping them understand why a particular standard may be in place. We need to admit when we’re making wise cultural decisions in matters where godly people differ and when it really is a matter of core doctrine clearly taught in God’s Word.
Listen with Your Heart, Not Just Your Ears: Is the local church your children are part of a safe place for them to share their struggles and ask difficult questions? I am thankful for the godly influences God has brought into my children’s lives. Godly influences, both friends and leaders, are gifts of God’s grace. We must take time to listen to their concerns. We need to leave room for them to express and vent disappointments and struggles. Young people can sense if we’re approachable, fair, and gentle. They can also sense if we’re simply going to pounce on them with our standard answer without having felt their struggle. Have we cared enough to listen to those who have been watching us for years? It confuses our children when we respond with the very spirit and actions which Jesus condemned. When this happens all our truth-claims come under scrutiny, and rightly so. We undermine our children and discourage them when they show genuine passion to follow Christ and walk in His ways but are treated with suspicion and become the topic of clandestine conversations in the parking lot because their love and expression of following Christ doesn’t mirror our expected cultural norms. How do we expect them to feel when we’ve ignored them and failed to invite them to share life with us? It’s amidst the normal stuff of messy life where our children will begin to share their heart with us. But this demands we restructure our priorities and begin to spend time with them. Take time to listen with your heart, not just your ears.
Respond With Grace and Truth: How would Jesus interact with our children and answer their difficult questions? He would respond with the same grace and truth showed to the sinful woman at the well, to religious Nicodemus, to the blind man who was put out of the synagogue, to the rich young ruler, and to his disciple who rejected him. Where there is true rescue from the tyranny and guilt of sin there will also be a culture of praise, thankfulness, love, unity, humility, gentleness, acceptance, and honesty. Jesus said, “true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:23–24). He said, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (Jn 6:63). All kinds of people were attracted to Jesus because he was full of grace and truth. People observed him and understood the loving nature of the Father. People desired to be in Christ’s presence and share life with him for a reason. There is no artificial substitute for grace and truth. It’s compelling!
Expect the Unexpected: We have assumed the next generation will simply do as they please. We have expected teenagers to be problems. But they’ve proved us wrong. They desire to share life with us and learn from us. They’ve earned our trust, and the church is growing with earnest and passionate young Christ-followers. They are beginning to example to us what worship in spirt and in truth looks like. Are we humble enough to learn from them? Our children are willing to overlook a lot they don’t prefer if they could actually experience Christ’s love, unity, humility, gentleness, and honesty lived out in the church before them. They would experience this in a variety of different ways if we would align our life with Ephesians 4:1-6: “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Grace expects the unexpected as it leaves room for God to work both in our hearts and theirs. There is great hope for the next generation of Christ-followers.
Get Back On Mission: Let’s get back on mission and begin caring less about our opinions and comforts and caring more about Christ, His Word, and the next generation who will take our place. Make disciples, and begin with the young people closest to you.