Saturday, February 18, 2006

Strangers and Elders

During the last few weeks I have had a series of experiences that have left me realizing just how much I am becoming out of step with culture as it is developing. I have been grouchy about it, but this has reminded me that a long time ago I made myself a promise that I would try not to grow into one of those bad-tempered old men who glorified the past with comments that begin with words like "Now when I was young...." Yet as I find myself being ushered by Old Father Time toward my senior years that curmudgeonly spirit sometimes pokes through.

It isn't that I think everything used to be so much better than it is today, but as I age I find myself more and more out of place, as if I am living as a stranger in a familiar world. I can't think how others handled this, but at least I have some notion of what is behind it because I am someone who has sought to understand what society is throwing at us. I find myself watching television commercials that I hardly understand, and being depressed that so much that I have valued has become questionable or irrelevant, both within and beyond the church.

I suspect one reason elderly people have a tendency to get gruff and bad-tempered about the world around them is because the culture is changing and developing beyond what it was in their heyday and they are now outsiders. Today the culture turns over ever more quickly, which is perhaps one of the reasons why it is easier to feel dislocated and out of place. The instinct is to think that it was better in the old days than now, because at least in the old days we had a part in shaping the culture, we were not the ones being taken where we did not wish to go.

We have a picture of my mother-in-law, my wife, my elder daughter, and my granddaughter, four generations of the same family. Between them they are a record of how much things are changing. My mother-in-law grew up when cars and telephones were a rarity, and was at her prime during World War Two. Now a sprightly 88, she is part of what in the US is the G.I. Generation. Yet as he great-granddaughter sits on her lap who knows what sort world she will grow up to make her mark in? So much is altering that prediction is difficult -- except that I do not like some of the problems she and her cohorts are going to inherit from us.

During the lifetime of four generations in just one family we will have gone from the horrors of the Western Front, to we know not what if Hannah lives her full lifespan and does not leave this world until the last quarter of the 21st Century. Perhaps during the lives of these four females the world will have seen more change than during any other such period in human history. We can be certain that even if extraordinary advances are made during Hannah's life, a large chunk will not be good.

It is against this kind of longer term backdrop that I find myself wondering about all we find ourselves fielding at this moment, and puzzling about how we make the name of Christ known, playing our part in the misseo Dei. What I am increasingly ever more convinced about is that the biblical understanding of the faith is the one that will make a lasting impact for the Gospel, but I am not sure that the way in which we are at present packaging it has the capacity to reach into the sub-cultures and micro-cultures in which more and more people are living.

Reading during the last few days Eddie Gibbs' and Ryan Bolger's book Emerging Churches, I see a lot of experimentation going on that is courageous and could bear fruit, but I also see on a part of so many of these young pioneers that Gibbs and Bolger have talked to, an unwillingness to take theology seriously, to grasp the importance of the richness of the Christian disciplines, or to really wrestle with the some of the broader implications of the Great Commission. There is much that we can learn from these emergers, but I am beginning to realize that there is much that they can learn from us.

And here I return to something I have touched on in my past ramblings. I am increasingly confident that we are in a position where the accumulated wisdom of genuine elders is being wasted by the churches. What we say to faithful servants of Christ is go off and play golf, manage your investments, have fun, take a part-time job on the side, perhaps, what we are not saying is we have a task for you to do passing on the riches from your experience to the rising generation.

There ought to be ways to, as it were, suck the goodness out of senior leaders as they draw to the end of their active/paid ministry, but right now we use them to plug holes on a temporary basis and we keep them very much on the fringe of all that is going on. I guess I am trying to say that I have getting on for forty years of experience, both success and failure, under my belt. I am an ecologist, and I would hate to see that wasted. For the truth is that while we might undertake ministry against an ever-changing backdrop, people in all their fallenness do not change.

I think one of the reasons older Christian leaders are shunted off is that if they are kept in the loop they tend to become a bit of a nuisance by wanting to take over again. Yet even if we can be a pain in the neck sometimes, it is worth having us around as a balance that is so desperately needed.

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