Passing the Torch: Smiles or Spears?

Avoiding Generational Conflict in the Church

Pull Quote:

“We have to hand over to another generation. The only choice we have is how we do it. We can pass the torch graciously and constructively or we can stay in denial and treat the young as the enemy.”

Saul hurled his spear at David, enraged at the thought that David would someday replace him as king. Herod slaughtered the babies of Bethlehem as well as members of his own family, unable to face the idea that he would not always be ruler. High priest Eli, in contrast, poured himself into the training of young Samuel for future leadership. Elijah trained Elisha to replace him. Elisha and Samuel trained a school of future prophets.

The Apostle Paul encouraged an array of young evangelists and teachers who would carry the gospel after Paul was gone. He rejoiced in them and prayed for them. To Timothy, his best trainee, he wrote, “The things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2 NIV).

We veterans would like to work on and on. We don’t like to think or hear about our decline. Yet before we know it, we reach our twilight years. Our abilities do begin to fail. Though a few stay remarkably young in heart, most of us are winding down, not gearing up. We think more of preserving than creating. We lack the courage of youth to dare and dream and build. We may be looking back more than ahead. We are not as in touch with present needs. We tire more easily.

And so we have to hand over to another generation. The only choice we have is how we do it. We can pass the torch graciously and constructively or we can stay in denial and treat the young as the enemy. When we choose the latter the church pays an awful price.

God does not want the church to be polarized between generations. Just as the gospel unites different races, genders and social classes, it also unites old and young in a common love and purpose. If old age has its failings, it also has a treasure of wisdom. The young need to listen respectfully to the old. The old need to respect the dreams and the needs of the young. Old and young are not antagonists; they are on the same team. Their strengths balance each other.

This is a tough and emotional subject. I think I have the right to address it since I am approaching retirement age myself, have been an elder for years, and love the church. I have prayed for the ability to write in a way that would not add fuel to the fire but would help us older leaders examine our own attitudes and accept spiritual responsibility for gracious, constructive transition between generations. The responsibility is mainly ours because 1) we are the mature, the strong who are to bear the infirmity of the weak; and 2) we are the ones now in power and have a choice about how things progress.

In some congregations the leaders are passing the torch very well and the generations are working together. Many other congregations are in stalemate if not in crisis. Once generational polarization and conflict rise up, the young talk to the young about the old, the old talk to the old about the young, and neither generation talks constructively with the other. Too often they respond to each other in worldly, carnal conflict, not lovingly accommodating each other as Spirit-led Christians should.

I remember sitting in conversation with several elderly leaders in another town urging them not to swallow unfounded gossip about younger workers, but to gently communicate lest they drive the younger workers further away from them. When we older leaders keep an iron grip on power, when we refuse to allow the oncoming generation a real share in leading the church, we eventually drive the best young workers away and with them the future.

Why is it so hard to pass the torch, to share leadership?

At worst, it may just be a carnal struggle over power, not that different from what Saul or Herod felt. All us have elements of worldly, fleshly thinking. If we detect that in ourselves, how important it is to repent, humble ourselves, soften our hearts and change with God’s help! But I would like to think many of our leaders have better motives for their slowness. Possible ones include:

Reluctance to delegate. Part of this is pride (“my way is best”), but part of it is just a concern that the job be done well. We need to remember that younger leaders will never mature if not given genuine experience in leading. We must give them room to think for themselves and to make some mistakes just as we had to make ours while learning. Sometimes they will surprise us with gifts and abilities we never knew they had.

Concern for the future direction of the church. For many of us older leaders the church has been our life. We would lay down our lives to protect it. Younger people express some beliefs that disturb us. We forget that the same thing happened when we were the upcoming youth in the church, and with every generation before us. Change may be more rapid today. But every generation has had to determine for itself what the Bible teaches. We try hard to train our children to fear God and develop their own faith. We hope they stand on our shoulders and grow beyond us, but when they do that we can be very uncomfortable. What if, in some cases, God has enabled our children to see what we cannot? And what if, like Saul of Tarsus, we may unwittingly oppose, if not slander something God is doing? Do we sometimes throw spears at people God has chosen?
Our concern for the church becomes even more acute if we still subscribe to the illusion that we hold all the truth and any other interpretation must be heresy. We may still lack a Biblical understanding of grace and of God’s command to respect each other in spite of differences over “disputable matters” (Romans 14,15). We have often treated disputable, secondary matters as if they were fundamentals of the faith. I must obey my conscience, but scripture says I will be saved even while being wrong about some of the issues that have divided believers. “Accept one another…just as Christ accepted you…” (Romans 15:7 NIV). That should make it easier to coexist and cooperate with younger people who need to be brought into leadership. We don’t have to agree with them on everything; our cooperation does not mean total endorsement; we can leave some things up to God.

Confusing our own cultural expression of the church with the Biblical essence of the church. While God has bound some things we cannot change, in many things he has left us free to choose the best way for our time and surroundings. Most details of what the church does lie in this area. In matters of freedom every generation reshapes the church to fit the needs of its time. We older people need to accept that our cultural expression of the church will pass away just as many past expressions of it have. But the Biblical essence of the church will survive and thrive; the gates of hades will not prevail against it. I am excited about the intense faith and devotion in our young generation.

How can we pass the torch with a smile and minimize generational conflict?

For one thing, we can regularly add new leaders in our congregation. Wise leaders do not wait until they are about to fall into the grave and the church faces a leadership crisis. Instead they proactively and intentionally encourage younger people into joint leadership on a regular basis. Thus the makeup of the leadership more truly represents the whole congregation and younger thinking has a part in the direction of the church. This means intentional, early nurturing of future leaders and their wives; leaders don’t mature in a day. It also means the share of leadership given the younger people must be real. If an older leader or leaders maintain an unspoken veto power, newer leaders will soon recognize the sham. (By the way, a group of leaders with an even spread of ages is less likely to polarize generationally.)

Second, we who are older can listen respectfully to younger people and consider their feelings even if we don’t always agree with their ideas. We should have lived long enough to know how to deal gently and thoughtfully. If all they get from us is opinionated snorts and put-downs, we drive their generation further and further away from us. But if the younger generation is given an ear without having to fight for it, they are more likely to listen in turn to the wisdom of the older generation.

Third, we can deliberately introduce limited, measured amounts of change on a regular basis. I am talking about legitimate, necessary, God-sanctioned change that the church has had to make in every generation in order to be effective and reach the lost. If we do not plan change in doses the church can understand, we reach a understand, we reach a crisis where younger people demand more immediate change than older people can handle. Generational war erupts, members are lost and we destroy the power of the church to do anything. Wise elders are proactive, not reactionary.

Another thing we older leaders can do is keep our minds and spirits alive with on-going study and prayer. Conflict is certain if the younger people pass up the older ones in scriptural understanding and relationship to God. If some of today’s young leaders have frightening ideas, a lot more of them have a fantastic zeal for God and his word. Too often we elders rest on a few “first principles” learned long ago and feel that’s all we need as faithful leaders. Elementary doctrines, though important, are no substitute for going on to maturity in Christ. Elders sometimes show an appalling ignorance of scripture. And yesterday’s issues, however important, are not the only issues we leaders need to face. To have the respect of all ages in the church, we must obey Jesus’ and Paul’s command to “understand the times.” How responsible are we as leaders if we have not studied and prayed over current challenges before they threaten our flock?

I am personally concerned at where strong reaction to the past is carrying some of our younger leaders. But today’s extremes are responses to past extremes. If reaction is carrying some away, we older people helped make it happen. Our legacy to the younger generation is not all bad. They need to remember that we taught them to love God and his word. Yet as we pass the torch, how motivated we should be to avoid what causes the young and inexperienced to stumble! How carefully we should avoid the devastating idolatries of the past that drive the young away: putting form before substance, unnecessary and unscriptural divisions, making secondary things fundamental, confusing our opinions with scripture, making doctrines more important than God himself.

The most wonderful Bible example of gracious torch-passing is John the Baptist. When the crowds begin to shift to Jesus, John rejoiced in what God was doing and said, ” A man can receive only what is given him from heaven . . . He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:27,30 NIV).

I heard a mature, conservative, stable, devoted preacher speak at a seminar some years ago. His spirit is a model of what God wants from older leaders. To younger workers he said something like this: “My generation is growing older. We must look to you to carry on the work. Take over the responsibility. Serve God faithfully. Some of your ideas may disturb us who are older. But don’t be afraid to do what you believe God wants you to do to bear fruit. He will be with you as he has been with us.”

—B. Shelburne