By Dan Kimball
“One day they’re all gonna grow up and be back in church.
“I’m telling you, these generations are no different than when I was a teenager or when I was in college.” The pastor’s face was flush with emotion. “When I was in high school, I rebelled and rejected church.” He leveled a heated gaze right into my eyes. “When I got to college, I even explored some Eastern religions and experimented with some drugs. But then I got older. I got married, and when we had kids, I returned to my roots and came back to church.”
Then he smiled, as if his case had been clearly made. “It is the same thing with young people today. They are just like I was. One day they’re all gonna grow up and be back in church. All of this is simply a generation gap issue.”
I quietly listened, and when he finished, I said, “You said you had kids and returned to your roots.”
“Yep,” he answered, “just like they will when they get older and come back to the church.”
“What if their roots involved no church or Christian faith to begin with? What if the roots they put down while they were growing up were a pluralistic mix of world faiths, leaning toward more of a Buddhist philosophy? How can they return to their roots of church and Christianity if they don’t have any roots there to return to?”
He sat for a minute looking a little puzzled and then responded, “I don’t know what they will do then.”
Earlier in American history, this pastor would have been right. But in recent years, teens and young adults have grown up in a world of postmodern, post-Christian values and perspectives. They simply have no Judeo-Christian roots to return to.
In Judges 2:10 we read of a time when “another generation grew up, who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel” (New Living Translation). If this could happen in ancient Israel, where God was such a central and visible part of the culture, couldn’t it happen here today?
Let’s take the “returning to your roots” concept and turn it into an imperfect but hopefully useful analogy. Plants have roots, so let’s took at the two environmental factors necessary for their development:
1. The atmosphere: the light conditions, the temperature, the rain and humidity which the plant will intake as it grows.
2. The soil: the nutrients and water on which the roots feed as they grow.
Just as a plant depends on its environment to grow, a person develops according to his or her environment.
What would it be like for a person to grow up in a modern world in America?
In the modern era (ad 1500-2000), someone raised in America (after its birth as a colonized nation) would receive a primarily Judeo-Christian upbringing. For the most part, everyone grew up in an atmosphere that taught the values of the Judeo-Christian faith. Even if one was not a Christian, he probably agreed with most biblical values and ethics, tried to live by the Ten Commandments, understood many of the basic Bible stories, and knew what it meant that Jesus died for sins. When someone in the modern era thought of “God,” generally the Judeo-Christian God came to mind.
In the modern era, a person would grow by taking in the nutrients of modern soil, including monotheism (belief in one God) and a rational, logical system of learning. Religion was a good thing in modern soil. A modern person learned propositionally and was able to understand and master concepts by breaking them down into systems. Most people didn’t travel a lot and viewed life through a hometown lens.
Truth was knowable and absolute. The Bible, for most people, provided a reference point for all experience. It told the story of where life came from, its purpose, and its meaning.
What is it like growing up in a post Christian era with a postmodern atmosphere and soil?
In the post Christian era (beginning c. ad 2000), the values and beliefs of a person raised in America are shaped by a global, pluralistic atmosphere. This person has instant exposure to global news, global fashion, global music, and global religions. There are many gods, many faiths, many forms of spiritual expression from which to choose. In a postmodern atmosphere, a person grows up learning that all faiths are equal but that Christianity is primarily a negative religion, known for finger-pointing and condemning the behavior of others.
In this atmosphere, the Ten Commandments aren’t taught and the Bible is simply one of many religious writings. Ethics and morals are based on personal choice, as families encourage their children to make their own decisions about religion and to be tolerant of all beliefs. A major influence on a postmodern person’s ethics and morals is what they learn from the media and what is accepted by their peers. Although relativism is more of a norm in a postmodern world, most agree on some absolutes, such as the wrongness of excessive violence, murder, or evil like the September 11 tragedy.
In a post-Christian world, pluralism is the norm. Buddhism, Wicca, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or an eclectic blend—it’s all part of the soil. The basis of learning has shifted from logic and rational, systematic thought to the realm of experience. People increasingly long for the mystical and the spiritual rather than the evidential and facts-based faith of the modern soil. The way people respond and think is more fluid than systematic, more global than local, more communal than individualistic. And in postmodern soil a high value is placed on personal preference and choice, as opposed to predetermined truth.
Why the tension and confusion? We are now in transition as the modern era shifts to a postmodern era. Therefore, a mix of people with all types of worldviews live in America today. Generally, the older people are, the more modern they are. The younger they are, the more they will have known only a postmodern, post-Christian world and the more a postmodern atmosphere and soil will be normal to them. Those born into a postmodern, post-Christian world don’t have the modern atmosphere and soil to remember. They don’t have the modern roots to return to.
But it’s still not quite as cut and dried as that.
Some in younger generations are still modern. Because we are in transition, some people are born into a postmodern, post-Christian era who, in their local environment, grow up in modern atmosphere and soil. Many younger Christians growing up in Christian homes are very modern, as their parents enforced modern values. In some areas of the country, many people are still not feeling the full impact of postmodernism, and the younger people may still be very modern. Because we are in transition, we can’t just say there is a postmodern generation born between certain years.
I recently talked with a father in our church who described his 20-year-old son as being a postmodern. I hesitated to contradict him, but I believed he was missing the point. I know his son very well, and although to some degree he may be influenced by postmodernity, he is modern. He was raised in a Christian home where he was taught Judeo-Christian principles and ethics, and he views the world accordingly. He thinks and learns systematically and is drawn to using logic and reason to prove and understand his faith. It is how one views the world, what one values and thinks about life, that makes one postmodern, not because one falls into a certain age range.
Modern churches are still attracting modern young people. Some contemporary modern churches today are drawing a large number of younger people. It may have to do with the demographics of the community and, of course, with the personality and philosophy of the church itself. Some communities are still very conservative, and people living in them would line up more with Judeo-Christian values even if they are not church attenders. If this is your situation, it’s wonderful that God is blessing you by bringing some of the emerging generations to your church. But don’t let that fool you into thinking you are reaching postmoderns. If you were to sit down and talk with them, would you find that the majority belongs to a more modern mind-set? Were they fortunate enough to have had a Judeo-Christian upbringing?
What about the increasing numbers of people in your community who do not come from this background? How will you reach emerging generations who do not resonate with your church? How will you reach those who grew up and “knew neither the Lord nor what he had done”?
Today there are definitely those in younger generations who are modern, but more generations are being born and raised taking in only postmodern soil and atmosphere and therefore are truly post-Christian, lacking any Judeo-Christian foundation to base ethics, morals, and life on. These generations will increasingly become the American norm and will make up the greater percentage of the population. For their sakes we must rethink our approach to ministry.
But some in older generations are postmodern. We must not forget that although it’s a small percentage, some people who were born in the modern atmosphere and soil thrive in and relate more to a postmodern environment. This was certainly the case for the first postmodern architects and writers of the 1930s and 1940s who found themselves uncomfortable with modern values and began freeing themselves from modernity. It was obviously more than an age thing for them, as they would be in their 80s and 90s now. We have some elderly postmoderns out there! Brian McLaren, in his book A New Kind of Christian, suggests there may even be up to a third of baby boomers (born approximately from 1946-64) who are more postmodern than modern. And this third of the baby boomers are the ones who have not been drawn to churches who use a modern approach to ministry. All of this goes to say that a major worldview shift such as this is more than just a generational issue.
This is why when many churches started Gen-X services to appeal to a certain age group (born 1964-83), they found that many people outside of this demographic resonated with the heart, methodology, and style of these services. For this reason, most of the so-called Gen-X ministries I know of have now opened up to all ages.
Dan Kimball serves on staff with Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, California, a congregation seeking to reach those in the emerging post-Christian culture. He oversees the church’s vision and mission and does the majority of weekend preaching.
This excerpt is from The Emerging Church by Dan Kimball. Copyright © 2003 by Dan Kimball. Used by permission of Zondervan (www.zondervan.com).