One and a half billion young people are increasingly alienated from the Gospel. Can the churches reach them?
The gap dividing youth from their predecessors is now wider than ever before. Different, dominant, and sometimes depraved, today’s youth reject the life of their progenitors for an intimate and materialistic society of their own. More often than not, that society is found in the vast metropolises of the world—Tokyo, Singapore, Kinshasa, Buenos Aires—where the rules are relative.
Many young people feel that the doctrinal beliefs and cultural patterns of the churches have little to commend them. If the Church is spiritually alert and evangelistically zealous, it tends to appear irrelevant to the materialistic world of youth. If it is in spiritual decline, without a message and syncretistic in outlook, then youth see no reason to unite with it.
Can the Church relate to this vast generation? Many argue correctly that it can. But it must adhere to certain principles if it is to narrow the gap between itself and the “Now Generation.”
Recovering the Basics
1. It is the sovereign spirit of God who convicts and brings new birth.
Too often we are guilty of feeling that just one more literature organization or one more youth committee or one more radio station will make the difference between evangelism and non-evangelism. A little more publicity, a few more newspaper write-ups, a dozen more spot announcements over the air and we can turn the trick. Given enough money and enough promotion, the project must succeed. We need to be reminded that we can do nothing apart from Christ.
Several years ago in Saigon a teen-age soldier who had lost a leg in action was handed a tract as he lay in the hospital. The contact was brief, but God spoke to the young man as he read the tract. Soon he became a believer in Christ. Today he is a printer in a church’s literature department.
A young Buddhist typesetter was proofreading some New Testament commentaries when God brought conviction upon him as he began to think about his life and his soul. Suddenly the Word illuminated his darkened mind. Today he is a church deacon and devotes his full time and energy to producing attractive gospel literature.
What could be more casual than a tract passed out in a hospital ward or a printing assignment given to a Buddhist typesetter? But the sovereign God used these casual contacts to bring about conversion.
We labor together with God, but it is God’s building. We need to remember this. One can only wonder what major changes might occur in this world if some of the energy spent in ineffective Christian activity could be directed into prayer and a true waiting upon God. The great revivals of the past that swept thousands into the Kingdom cannot be explained as the result of human effort alone. The only possible conclusion: God was at work, usually—if not always—in answer to prevailing prayer.
2. The Church must relate to its community on a person-to-person basis, not on an organizational basis.
People do not respond to organizations; they respond to people. You can be fully aware that the Red Cross needs money to carry on its work and still give nothing; but when your neighbor comes to your door to ask for a contribution to the Red Cross, you reach for your wallet.
Young people and adults who are outside the Church tend to look upon it as something distant, irrelevant, and a trifle frightening—until it is personified by an individual. Hendrick Kraemer, writing about the importance of the individual missionary, finds no point of contact between Christianity and non-Christian religious systems except the missionary himself:
The one point of contact is the disposition and attitude of the missionary. It seems rather upsetting to make the missionary the point of contact. Nevertheless it is true, as practice teaches. The strategic and dominant point in this whole important problem, when it has to be discussed in general terms, is the missionary worker himself [The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World, p. 140].
What is Dr. Kraemer saying? Simply this: that people understand and respond to people. His magazine reported on the Good Will Caravans sponsored by Evangelism-in-Depth:
In Bolivia, during the recent nationwide Evangelism-in-Depth effort, scores of Good Will Caravans were sent out from the cities into the surrounding countryside. Each caravan carried a doctor, nurse, dentist, audiovisual man, and one or more evangelists. As it spent a day or more in each town, the people would flock around for medical examinations or tooth extractions. None left without a personal word of testimony from the evangelists and an invitation to return in the evening. In response, unprecedented crowds gathered in the plazas of the towns to see the films and hear a gospel message in the evenings, and hundreds of decisions for Christ were recorded.… The value of this type of ministry has now been tried and proven [His, March, 1966, p. 20].
It was a personal contact that made evangelical Christianity meaningful to the rural people of Bolivia.
3. The thirty-year-olds are in a good position to mediate between youth and the Church.
It is axiomatic that young people tend to be skeptical of the preceding generation. Mark Twain discovered that while he himself was progressing from age seventeen to age twenty-five his father had learned quite a bit; but the present generation retains its skepticism of its elders at twenty-five. Time magazine, in its 1967 Man-of-the Year issue on the men and women under twenty-five, observes that “the young seem curiously unappreciative of the society that supports them. ‘Don’t trust anyone over 30,’ is one of the rallying cries” (Time, Jan. 6, 1967, p. 19). The article quotes Harvard’s David Riesman as saying, “The generational gap is wider than I’ve ever seen it in my lifetime.”
This “generation gap” is too broad for some older people to span. Many who compose the Church are, in the eyes of youth, part of the discredited, has-been generation. And too many, frustrated in their attempts to bridge the gap, are content to retreat into their own immediate world and let the young people go their own way.
Historically, there has been a group of mediators between the organized church and the youthful community—the thirty-year-olds, who are still close to that bracket we label “youth” and have not yet taken on the set attitudes of middle-age.
Francis of Assisi was twenty-five when he founded the Franciscan order. Xavier was twenty-eight when he teamed up with Ignatius Loyola to organize the Jesuits. Luther was thirty-three when he nailed his theses to the door at Wittenberg. Calvin was twenty-seven when he completed the first edition of his Institutes. Whitefield was a successful evangelist at twenty-five. Wesley began his real life’s work at thirty-five. Spurgeon was twenty-seven when his congregation built for him the great Metropolitan Tabernacle in London. Billy Sunday left home plate for the pulpit at thirty-three. Billy Graham was thirty-one at the time of his now-famous Los Angeles crusade.
Down through history there have been the “between men” to bridge the gap between the organized church and the community of youth. They are not appointed by the church or elected by the young people. They are men upon whom God has set his seal. They are innovators, organizers, action men. And we need them now more than ever before.
Youthful spontaneity has characterized God’s appointment in a number of overseas developments. In the southern Philippines there is an indigenous youth movement, with a periodical geared to youth and rallies at which scores and probably hundreds have found Christ. In India a group of Christian students formed the Inter-Collegiate Evangelical Union, which sponsors weekly on-campus Bible studies, vacation youth retreats, and periodic youth rallies. In Hong Kong an indigenous “Operation Mobilization,” sponsored by students at the Alliance Bible Seminary, has sent five young men across the channel for a profitable vacation ministry in Taiwan. Behind the Bamboo Curtain surrounding mainland China three young men, converted through reading a gospel tract, won ten other young men before all thirteen of them escaped to Hong Kong and freedom. In Saigon there is the Student Christian Fellowship, presenting the Gospel to Chinese students in the Cholon area of the city.
In What Deeps Of Earth?
In what deeps of earth
Dare a poet grope
For a relevant witness
Of hope, of hope
Whose lineage is heaven’s?
Not secret wings spun
To fly toward the sun;
Nor winter-stilled gardens
Where beauty sleeps, furled
To break on spring’s world;
Not even where rainbows
Span darkening skies.…
But—lifting the heart up
Past all surmise—
See on man’s lone pathway
(O no more alone!)
His light, Who comes seeking,
Seeking His own.
M. WHITCOMB HESS
Some of these movements have been abetted by foreign missionaries, but many are purely indigenous. The genius of all lies in their youthful and indigenous leadership.
4. Our approach must be pragmatic.
Time magazine, in the article mentioned earlier, says this of what it calls the “Now Generation”: “Theirs is an immediate philosophy, tailored to the immediacy of their lives.” Buell Gallagher, president of the City College of New York, exclaims, “This generation has no utopia. Its idea is the Happening. Let it be concrete, let it be vivid, let it be personal. Let it be now!”
Even a cursory reading of the Acts of the Apostles reveals that the early Church was a highly practical instrument for immediate action. Was the problem the overwhelming guilt that gripped many of the Jews gathered at Jerusalem as they discovered that they had crucified the Lord of glory? Thousands found the joy of immediate forgiveness as they heeded Peter’s words on the Day of Pentecost. Was it discrimination in the distribution of the daily subsidy, with the accompanying racial and cultural overtones? The Holy Spirit helped them to an immediate solution: the appointment of seven deacons to oversee the food dole. Was it the imprisonment of their illustrious spokesman, Peter? An angel delivered him from the inner cell and put him in flesh-and-blood reality on the doorstep of the house where the disciples were praying for his release. Was it impending shipwreck on a small Mediterranean isle? That great emissary of the Church, Paul of Tarsus, found practical deliverance as he sought God by prayer and fasting.
If today’s Church seems unimaginative and uninteresting to today’s youth, we have only ourselves to blame. Drugged by materialism, we move a bit unsteadily in an aura of indifference, while the next generation races toward its doom. Nothing short of a heaven-sent awakening will stir us from our self-made lethargy. Fortunately, there are signs of such a renewal.
5. To be heard by today’s youth we must be absolutely honest.
The do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do kind of doubletalk is fatal to any dialogue between the Chinch and youth. Young people have always had the ability to detect sham and double standards. And now they react more quickly than before, and with greater finality.
Some of our problem lies in the fact that Christianity has been around for a long time in America, and most of us are second- and third-generation Christians. Few of us have experienced the cataclysmic, daylight-from-darkness transformation that delivered a John Bunyan or a Billy Sunday from the jaws of hell. There was no doubt about their conversions. But the experience is different for most of us. Raised in a rather strict Christian culture, we have been churchgoers as long as we can remember. For many of us, conversion was no traumatic experience. A weak experience of grace has run concurrent with a strong catechism of Bible doctrine. The result has been an emphasis on theory and a de-emphasis on experience.
Today’s young people, impatiently seeking the workable, want the kind of testimony that says, “Salvation works—look what it has done for me.” Unfortunately, too many second-generation Christians can only point lamely to what the Gospel did for John Bunyan and Billy Sunday. And the third generation probably doesn’t even know who Bunyan and Sunday were.
If we are going to communicate with the “Now Generation,” we must do what is necessary to get back to reality ourselves. And in this case, reality means spiritual revival.
Their Time Is Now
Meanwhile, the Now Generation is with us, in unprecedented numerical strength. Convinced that we have failed, certain that the Church has nothing very important to offer them, they are out to tackle the world’s social ills in their own time and way. Their time is now, and their way will not be God’s way.
We can smile knowingly and predict their failure. We can tolerantly philosophize that their enthusiasm is that of youth, that within a few years they’ll settle down and discover their place. We can do that if we want to. But if we do, the Now Generation will be lost.
If the Church of Jesus Christ is to mount a successful attack on this imposing problem, the battle must begin with the basics: prayer and a dependence upon God’s sovereign Holy Spirit. We must demount from our organizational steeds and prepare to fight it out in hand-to-hand combat. Some of us must be willing to step aside and let the in-betweeners carry the sword, content to give more able warriors the moral support they need. We must come out from behind the fortifications of deception and pretense and dare to be transparent and utterly honest. We don’t necessarily need new methods and new techniques; we just need to use to the full the methods and techniques that have been effective in other generations.
The Now Generation stands in the valley of decision, a billion and a half strong. As here at home, so overseas, it is concentrated in the great urban centers: Tokyo, Manila, Djakarta, Hong Kong, Singapore, Saigon, Bangkok, Calcutta, Bombay, Karachi, Kinshasa, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Lima. The Church of Jesus Christ hesitates, a bit uncertain, considerably undecided. What will we do? May God give us the courage to move forward boldly in full dependence upon him.
Milton D. Hunnex is professor and head of the department of philosophy at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He received the B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Redlands and the Ph.D. in the Inter-collegiate Program in Graduate Studies, Claremont, California. He is author of “Philosophies and Philosophers.”
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