You might think that there would be no room for resignation and sadness at Christmas. As if we had to decorate ourselves with shiny joy like a shopping center at Christmas. Is this a culture that free churches maintain throughout the rest of the year – always peace, joy, cheerfulness? If that is the case, we will lose the younger generations. Here’s a suggestion for how congregations can become islands of hope again, especially for the young, especially today.
Recently a social worker showed up at our Sunday meeting. He had listened to almost all our podcasts and now he wanted to meet us in person. The two podcast sections on the topic of hope particularly appealed to him, because he is currently struggling with the “total hopelessness” of the younger generations in his professional environment.
Total hopelessness – that’s a term that I come across again and again in different formulations. Social workers, teachers, youth workers and youth pastors in particular – those professional groups that are closest to young people – always speak desperately about the increasing misery of the younger generations.
Many are then seized by this grief themselves and are almost infected. They don’t even know what to do with it and they hardly dare to talk about it. Often it only comes out behind closed doors, or only after very, very long small talk, or in official pastoral conversations, or in our Sunday meetings, where we cultivate an atmosphere of openness, just like in the podcasts.
As a result, I personally have now learned two things. First, the problem of hopelessness is much bigger than people think. It smolders like an underground root fire in vast areas that otherwise appear to be normal and beautiful on the surface. Secondly, there are certain groups of people who find it difficult to recognize this development as a major danger. This includes, among others, my own generation, especially those whose children who have been adults for a little longer time. Unfortunately, there are also too many Christians whose churches are a little too preoccupied with themselves.
One could simply view it as the great generational conflict of our time. Formerly, young people used to rebel provocatively and the old people would then get upset about it. Today the provocative “Last Generation” is more of an exception, because instead of punk and scandal, most young people are nowadays sinking into the deep swamp of pessimism. And the old people don’t even get upset anymore (except about the Last Generation, of course), otherwise they just shake their heads, making fun of incompetent young and childish idiots who haven’t learned anything smart yet and/or push them a little deeper the mud. In the past, according to an old law of nature, there were always many more young people than old people, but today the demographics have been reversed for the first time in history. So the old people don’t even need to be upset. The concerns of young people are being trampled on by armies of pensioners anyway.
If we are not careful and refuse to take these developments to heart, we will breed very dangerous societies for ourselves. It would be wise to learn from the lexicon of mistakes that the entire West made with colonization: Take the weak seriously! Don’t patronize them! Don’t think you can command them just because you think you are more advanced and know things better. For the weak will grow stronger and you will grow weaker, and then everything will be paid back. Therefore, it is wise to come to an agreement with the enemy while we are still on the path with him, as Jesus already warned.
Churches have a particularly great responsibility here: we have to become role models on a small scale for what the society around us should be on a large scale. We have to achieve what politics and society are currently failing at because we have been given exactly the right and necessary tools to do so. If we don’t succeed, no one will.
It is not enough to just have “good” youth work. It is not enough to hire a youth pastor, or even two. There must be regular dialogue between the younger and older people. The older ones not only need to hear, they need to understand how the younger ones are really feeling. The younger people need to experience and feel regularly that they are really being heard and taken seriously. That would be a first, concrete step towards hope. We older people also have to experience again and again that our sometimes strikingly simple answers or explanations simply don’t work. Like the well-trained and experienced social workers mentioned above, we too have to taste the taste of hopelessness, because anyone who is alien to this modern kind of pessimism will never be able to give real hope, they will only ever preach propaganda.
Which reveals a theological challenge: “Hosanna!” must change from a shout of joy to a cry for help, which is what it actually is, as I wrote on the First Advent. To put it bluntly, many churches seem to live a conviction between the lines of their church culture, communicating that a good member in this church is always joyful, always ever filled with praise, just as every believer always owns convincing hope, they have to have hope, from the very moment you are converted. But if you don’t have it, or no longer have it at some point, if you have more reason to complain than to praise, then there must be something wrong with you or your belief. Quite many believing evangelical Christians find it difficult to accept resignation, hopelessness or depression; they are simply not supposed to exist and so they must be fought or healed. The very attempts to get rid of the hopelessness might lead quickly to the aforementioned pious propaganda. For example: “You just have to pray and read the Bible and everything will be fine again.” It won’t always happen, however, just read Psalm 35. That’s why we have to learn to accept the hopelessness that surrounds us as the new normal. We have to shed the blatant, mask-like hope with which we sometimes decorate ourselves like a shopping center at Christmas. Instead, it will be necessary to relearn living hope, real hope because it is rooted in real grief. If we don’t succeed in this, we will completely lose the younger generations because they simply won’t feel taken seriously by us.
This is a process of rethinking, of contemplation. A process of theological reflection. This process is not always easy and not free of tension. That’s why two particular groups play a key role: Both the church leadership and the young generation. Church leaders need to begin meeting up with youth on a regular basis. Church leaders must listen to them and accept their problems and suggestions. Like the Welsh Parliament, every church also needs a Commission of Future Generations. Or a specially set up leadership foresight group, like the Finnish government has. (By the way, even Canada and Singapore have similar Future Commissions that help their respective governments make wise decisions or provide guidance.) Such groups have never been more important than they are today. Especially in churches where demographic developments are among their greatest enemies. If we want to continue to be a living witness even tomorrow, we must already now listen to tomorrow’s generation. But even that is not enough: they must also be given a voice, they must be taken seriously. There needs to be a real dialogue with real consequences. Here’s a hypothetical example:
Let’s say, your new church commission for future generations comes up with the proposal to only serve vegetarian food at all larger church events from now on. Well, everyone on the board knows right away – here’s a suggestion that will create tension or conflict. On the other hand, the proposal shouldn’t be swept under the carpet precisely because that would confirm how young people feel anyway: nobody takes us seriously, nobody really does anything, it doesn’t matter nevertheless, so here we have it again: hopelessness. The solution here would be for both the church leadership and the commission to develop a plan that not only limits tensions, but perhaps even makes the whole thing an exciting experience for everyone. You could say that over the next 24 months we want to learn as a church how to cater our events without meat. At first there might only be a few interesting vegetarian alternatives, and each time there will be more and more. You could offer cooking classes or create your own church cookbook with devotionals about table fellowship in the Bible.
The more such examples we solve in practice, the more birds we kill with each stone (probably the wrong metaphor after talking about vegetarianism…):
Young people feel involved and taken seriously. Older people can contribute with their experiences. We learn to listen to and understand each other and to show respect for each other.
We learn to question ourselves, and to dismantle our pride.
The church learns to resolve conflicts constructively. The entire community is challenged to rethink and thus to reflect theologically.
We create and construct certain changes ourselves and do not constantly see ourselves as victims of change. We learn to be for change, not against it, this opens our eyes to new possibilities, which we then build and shape ourselves.
We will suddenly experience the word “hope” in a completely new way, much more concrete and dazzling, and not only that: even God will seem surprisingly new to us.
Over time, we create exactly the culture that our times need most: loving bearers of hope who, despite hopelessness, create beautiful things together – because we expect something much greater. This will make us a constructive counterculture, a motivating island in the sea of hopelessness.
If every church were an island like that, then…