The number of student uprisings shows the scope and intensity of young people’s discontent with established cultural patterns. One need not sympathize with the hippies’ taste for drugs or with the “confrontation” strategy pursued during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago to recognize that the youthful sub-culture may well be the harbinger of an international revolution, for society and for the Church.
Dr. G. W. Bromiley of Fuller Theological Seminary suggests that perhaps the much talked about gap between generations is “an even more stubborn and persistent problem for the Church than that between classes or races.” The sight of students storming a cathedral may not be altogether remote. On the brighter side, Billy Graham holds out the hope that a student movement will be used of God to usher in a sweeping spiritual renewal. “I’ve given up on the older generation,” Graham says.
The problem, however, is not one of repudiating the convictions of those with a heritage of experience. Each generation has its own strengths and weaknesses, and the challenge for today’s Church is to exploit the best that God has entrusted to the coming generation. So far, evangelicals and the Church as a whole have not tried hard enough to confront alienated youth, to understand them, to meet them on their own ground. Much more attention has been given to their misdeeds, and elders sometimes tend to over-react. Church people are tempted to dismiss the whole youth movement as a product of youthful passion.
To grant worthy motives to at least a measure of the new concerns raised by young people today is neither to condone immorality nor to accommodate error. The world owes them more than a chance to tell it like it is—like they think it is—and to tell it loud and clear.
The phenomenon of modern youth shows up clearly in the current presidential campaign. This will be the first presidential election in which America’s big postwar baby crop will be voting. If nothing else, the sheer enormousness of the new youth bloc demands notice. Since 1964 some 12,415,000 persons have been added to the list of Americans eligible to vote. Most of these are young people who have just reached voting age, and there is little doubt that they will turn out at the polls in much higher percentage than their more politically indifferent elders.
The youth movement’s impact upon the ecclesiastical scene, though harder to gauge, is also considerable. True, most hippies and yippies make no religious profession. But the tide of rebellion among the young people of today has spilled over onto Christian and even decidedly evangelical campuses. Dr. T. W. Harpur of Wycliffe College, Toronto, states, “The generation gap is nowhere wider than where religion and young people are concerned.”
Many complaints from the young concern questionable patterns of conduct fostered by the churches. Young people are, in short, disgusted with the status quo. As one of the “flower children” put it, “The Church and the status quo are so tied up together that to throw out one is automatically to throw out the other as well.”
This hippie told Dr. Harpur, who is a professor of New Testament, “When you stop talking about Christianity and talk instead about Jesus Christ I begin to understand—it’s at that point that I can turn on.”
There is hope in that statement. Evangelicals must come to see the real hang-up: that our young people do not see the core of the faith for all the institutional trappings. But evangelicals also have a growing responsibility to communicate the great gains made by the Church down through the centuries, gains often obscured by widely publicized problems and perversions. Dialogue with the youthful subculture, says the Rev. Louis H. Evans, Jr., Presbyterian pastor in California, should be protected from “a stone-age mentality that operates as if nothing had been discovered in several thousand years of religious experience that was worth passing on.”
The characteristics of the new generation have been thoroughly catalogued: more frankness and impatience, less dogmatism, little capacity for shock. Today’s youth seem preoccupied with the here and now. They tend to be more experimental in conduct, to abhor legalism, and ostensibly to accept others as they are. Particularly noteworthy is their revolt against hypocrisy and all kinds of dishonesty, as well as against conceit and arrogance. They are often repelled by authoritarian methods. They challenge the validity of traditional divisions and separations and tend to think in global rather than national or regional terms. They react against clinging to tradition for tradition’s sake, sometimes by trying to be different just to be different. Says Dr. Peter H. Monsma of Grove City College, “Students generally, including those from a more traditional background, are deeply impressed by the supposed fact of change and relativity in all spheres.”
Also noteworthy is the deep-rooted feeling among young people of the need for social action, evidenced by the rise of such agencies as the Peace Corps and Vista. But they tend to consider matters of religious belief as private affairs. Their attitudes in general are more visceral than reasonable.
Some of these characteristics can be traced back to, if not blamed on, attitudes of the older generation. This is true even within the evangelical framework. Dr. Bromiley contends that older evangelicals have already “made great concessions to the general ethical mood, justifying it by a specious biblical relativism, and the students, if they tend to carry the principle further, are here part of their age rather than in revolt against it.”
Dr. Robert A. Cook, president of The King’s College, offers an observation that should prod many an evangelical to nod in shameful assent:
There is the bitter discovery that many an adult hides great areas of defeat behind his confident proclamation of a delivering Gospel. This discovery begins when the young person learns that his own parents are failing to experience the virtues they say are all-important. The young person learns to comply with this split system of life, becoming instantly religious on signal, and instantly secular when the scene changes. This gives rise to a spiritual schizophrenia which can be guaranteed to produce an explosion in the young life sooner or later.
The young also are feeling the effects of unbiblical theology. Mainstream churches have all too often surrendered to the anti-rationalistic movements of the day, and the effects are being seen on the campus. In contemporary theology, God’s action in behalf of men, rather than his moral and religious requirements, is stressed, and this trend likewise is having far-reaching influence.
Communication between generations is generally agreed to be crumbling. The two groups tend to read events differently. They use the same words with different meanings and interpretations. “As a result,” says Dr. Wilbur Sutherland, head of Canada’s Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, “conversations can go on between older people and evangelical students which ostensibly are on the same topic but in fact are two conversations going past each other.”
The error of attributing evil motives to all that the younger generation does must not be replaced by the error of thinking that ethical purity governs its conduct. Modern students succumb to temptations and pressures that their parents never imagined. Not long ago a professor at a leading evangelical college asked on a final examination if the students had done the required reading. When response was compared with library checkout cards, a wide discrepancy was noted. The gist of the Apostle Paul’s admonition to Timothy, “Let no man despise thy youth,” was that a young man ought to live in a way that would leave no cause for criticism from his elders.
But specific judgments should be issued sparingly, for the whole phenomenon is very complex. The Rev. Walter D. Wagoner, executive director of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund for Theological Education, says:
Today’s student lives in a world of pluralism, instant internationalism, secularism, the knowledge explosion, and the communications revolution. It is a generation which in its mature moments sits around strumming “eve of destruction” and in its more adolescent moments retreats to James Bond and Playboy. It’s a generation of religious ambivalence between a wistful interest in theology and a profound disenchantment with anything that is remotely religious.
The challenge and opportunity among the younger generation is staggeringly obvious, and for the clergyman it may mean moving to the brink of despair in quest of rapport. The new generation is up for grabs. Which ideology will win it?
It is somewhat comforting to realize that every age has had its generation gap. An earlier writer expressed the problem this way:
I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words.… When I was a boy, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise and impatient of restraint.
This was said by the Greek poet Hesiod in the eighth century B.C.
Another source of encouragement is a 666-page report based on a six-year study of students at Stanford and Berkeley. Noted journalist Julius Duscha, reporting on the study in the National Observer, said it was perhaps the most comprehensive effort yet made to find out whether the present college generation differs significantly from its predecessors. The study, conducted by Stanford phychologist Joseph Katz, concluded that no more than 10 percent of students were involved in such activities as the New Left, the efforts to reform universities through vehicles like the 1964 Free Speech movement at Berkeley, or even civil-rights demonstrations. The study was also reported to have found that “sexual promiscuity was not widespread and most students still approached sexual matters from a strictly moral point of view.” Perhaps things are not quite so bad as they seem.
Moreover, there is evidence among today’s youth of increasing concern at the metaphysical level, a decided improvement over the materialistically oriented outlook that has long held sway amid Western affluence. Dr. J. Robert Ashcroft, president of Evangel College, says he sees all of civilization “going through the pangs of birth, moving out of a society dominated by materialism to a new awareness of the things of the spirit.”
Hippies represent basically a reaction to great affluence and opportunity. “Almost all hippies are white and this is significant,” says the 1968 Britannica Book of the Year. “They are the children of the ‘haves’ who are rejecting the values and rewards of the society—the same values and rewards that Negroes are struggling to obtain.”
Today’s young people may find it difficult to accept the supernatural for lack of exposure to it, even when they espouse evangelical principles. “Often they have seen so little occur in their background which they could clearly identify as a work of God,” says Dr. Sutherland, “that they have unconsciously accepted a closed-universe approach to events while still consciously professing supernaturalism.” Their thinking is further confused when Christian students see some of the best things being done today by non-Christians, and when moral issues are first raised by the unchurched. Commitment is supposed to be the product of the churches; yet the kind of commitment that involves real risk is all too rare among Christians. In the words of Dr. Harpur, young people know “that the average churchgoer blends into the background of suburban conformist society as neatly as a snowshoe rabbit in a drift in January.”
In issuing challenges, churches should probably pass up gimmicks entirely. Some clergymen who have tried to be swingers have lived to regret it. One Anglican rector in a small English town brought into his church a black-jacketed motorcycle gang for a special service. It was to be for “the blessing of the motorcycles,” and a number of the bikes were brought to the chancel and into the space in front of the pews. The service turned out to be a lively event, but that was all. The gang never came back. The verger remarked wryly, “All we did was get a lot of grease on the carpet.”
Gimmicks aside, the task seems to be clear if not simple. As Dr. Harpur stated it in a recent article for the Toronto Daily Star:
The challenge then for Christians is that of clarifying the message so that young people are confronted not with religious reasons for being good citizens or for bolstering up things as they are, but with the Person and claims of Jesus Himself. This will be a disturbing experience both for those in the church who have a congenital dislike for boat-rockers and also for those outside who really couldn’t care less about religion but nevertheless look to the churches to sprinkle holy water on the values and goals they have already decided to live by.
The primary and ultimate program of the Church for the young should be directed toward their spiritual regeneration and subsequent growth. But given the complexity of the present situation and the misunderstanding of the Church and Scripture that exists today, some pre-evangelism is often necessary. Various evangelical observers have expressed the educational tasks in these ways: “Students must be shown rather than told. They take little for granted.” “Most have been acculturated in non-Christian school situations and harbor non-evangelical notions of life, not because they are in revolt but because they are uninstructed.” “They have been taught much in one or two areas of doctrinal emphasis but not given an overall systematic grasp of Christian understanding. They desperately need a real and continuing expression of relevant Bible exposition.” “They often feel let down because they are not able to handle adequately some of the intellectual challenges to faith that they encounter on large campuses.”
Drastic changes may be necessary if the root of the educational problem is to be reached. Dr. Harold W. Boon, president of Nyack Missionary College, says:
We are reaping the consequence of a materialistic, secularistic philosophy of education in our public schools. In a desire for the separation of church and state our young people have received a paganistic philosophy of education. They have grown up in two worlds. They have been exposed to a very aggressive, secularistic philosophy in public schools. They have found very little in the Church that relates to their high-school education or answers the many questions they have in their minds.
Dr. Boon adds that “too often the Christian education program in the local church is preoccupied with entertaining the young people of the church, perhaps following the theory that they cannot be in two places at the same time, and if they can be sheltered, they won’t get into difficulty.”
Dr. Charles Hummel, president of Barrington College, is equally critical: “Church programs cater to young people, seek to entertain them often, and seem to show fear of their dissatisfaction. Actually these young people need to be prodded, stimulated, challenged to get off the sofa and into some kind of action for others.”
Dr. Hummel also favors giving young people a greater voice in their schools and churches. And Dr. Orville S. Walters of the University of Illinois feels that evangelical students sometimes feel with resentment that they have had authoritarian viewpoints and positions imposed upon them and have not had the chance to think for themselves. “These are sometimes justifiable occasions for protest,” says Dr. Walters.
Giving young people more authority and responsibility will probably be the hardest part of the effort to win rapport. The principle of seniority has a tight grip upon our society. Age more than any other one factor is thought to result in good judgment. This is standard policy in labor unions, in politics, and in the Church. Young Americans can die in battle when they are eighteen but cannot run for the presidency until they are nearly twice that old (Christ himself could not have been a candidate). The Church perpetuates this tradition, and the pattern cuts across all theological and ecclesiastical lines. Average age of delegates to the Uppsala assembly of the World Council of Churches was fifty-seven; the youngest member of the six-man WCC presidium is sixty.
The pattern of failing to recognize competence in young people is in a sense a disavowal of history. Michelangelo carved his first Pieta when he was twenty-three. The English poet Keats died at twenty-five. Calvin’s Institutes were published when he was twenty-seven. Mendelssohn wrote his masterful violin concerto at twenty-nine. Napoleon was a national hero and had seized power in France by the time he was thirty. In our own time, Billy Graham is an example of a young man who made church history.
Surely the Church ought to lower traditional age barriers and try to bring young blood into its offices and organizations. Young people will not feel they are being taken seriously until they win a new measure of authority in areas of their competence. The mood of today’s evangelical young people distresses their pious elders, and conflicts will arise, just as they did when Jesus confronted his parents and friends and the religious and political authorities. But such conflicts can make for a stronger Church of the future. And unless the Church yields at this point, it stands to lose much of a generation. Biblical integrity need not be compromised an iota in order to bring young people into the mainstream of church life.
Today’s Christian student has a decidedly more humanistic approach to the world. Often he seeks to interact with the world primarily through a Christian dimension in his vocation. Committing one’s life to the mission field is no longer regarded as the ultimate Christian sacrifice. The number of candidates for general missionary service is declining while the number interested in specific jobs such as missionary teacher or doctor increases. And many a young person would now rather be a missionary by avocation—he’ll join the U. S. Foreign Service and do his “missionary work” during off-hours. With governments closing doors to professional missionaries, this may be a desirable trend.
Many young people today are looking for a cause to uphold, a flag to wave, a purpose to champion. Christianity, if it is anything, is the best alternative that can be offered them. The older generation needs to be sensitive to the leading of the Spirit of God as it seeks to present its faith to the young. And it needs to invite young people to find new ways of using their energy and talent in the greatest of all endeavors, the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
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