Help! I’m Scared of Younger Leaders

Classic Missiological Paradigms for Generational Partnerships

Justin Schell | 23 Jan 2024

Conflict between generations is as old as the Bible. In it, we see a grasping father-in-law take advantage of his son-in-law (Gen 29-31). We see older generations completely failing to invest in younger ones (Judges 2:10-15). We see a young king listen to the folly of his friends over the wise counsel of the elders (1 Kings 12:1-15). We see adults shooing away children as if the Messiah had no time for them (Matt. 19:13-15). We see an older minister give up on a young man who previously failed to follow through on commitments (Acts 13:13; 15:36-41).

Nothing is new under the sun. Youth around the world and across time have struggled to receive the wisdom of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. And those same parents and grandparents have worried themselves sick over the choices of their children, whether fashion and music or more significant issues such as choices around work or dating and marriage. After all, Juliet’s parents just couldn’t understand her love for Romeo

The speed at which information comes to us today, and the wider narrative of hatred between generations which is ubiquitous in media and on the internet makes it seem that we are facing new territory. But, we’re not.

That uncomfortable feeling you have about other generations is normal. I hope this short article helps you to respond to it in a way that honors the Lord and strengthens the church. I am writing primarily to older generations, but I think what I share will be instructive for the millennial and Gen-Z reader as well. More specifically, I am writing to older mission leaders.

In fact, what I’m going to argue is that you already have the tools you need to love, encourage, and partner with younger mission leaders. Your mission training has prepared you for this. Let me remind you of two of the most important mission scholars of the past 50 years, and how their work informs the generational conversation.

Andrew Walls (1928-2021)

Together, these two principles mean that the gospel both affirms all cultures and also subjects them all to the culture of heaven.

Andrew Walls was a British mission historian who had a tremendous impact on mission studies over the last few decades. One of the most helpful contributions Walls has made was in articulating the indigenizing and pilgrim principles of the gospel.[1]

The indigenizing principle of the gospel means that the gospel is at home in every culture. We could even say that the gospel arrives in a culture and finds things there that, because of God’s grace, it affirms as good and beautiful. 

The pilgrim principle, on the other hand, says that the gospel stands as judge over every culture. The gospel is at home in the Arab context, but it calls all Arabs to repent of those cultural expressions that are against God and his ways. It says, ‘You can remain in your culture, but you are a citizen of heaven before anything else.’ 

Together, these two principles mean that the gospel both affirms all cultures and also subjects them all to the culture of heaven. We can come as we are to Jesus, and once we do, we are now strangers and aliens in the world. This means that Christianity will look African in Africa, Asian in Asia, and so on, but what unites us is the gospel itself. The gospel works itself out inside the culture, but we must resist the tendency to domesticate the faith by confusing it with culture or reading the culture back into the gospel.

What does this have to do with generations? Well, what are generations other than time-bound cultures? For example, generations will often have their own unique language (eg slang). Especially over the last century or so, and increasingly within those generations who are digital natives, younger generations dress differently than their parents. As mentioned above, they may listen to completely different music and pursue wildly different vocations. In fact, the very definition of a successful life fluctuates depending on when you were born.The very definition of what people or group they belong to is even up for debate.

So, what is the older mission leader to do? Some might call this ethnographic research. Some of you leaders have been the first foreigner to ever visit a remote tribe. You have learned, sometimes, two or three new languages simply to be able to communicate with an unreached people group. You have changed your dress, cuisine, comforts, and culture in order to become all things to all people. You know how to wield, share, and completely let go of power so that the leaders of your adoptive culture can take the baton and run. Your cultural intelligence is off the charts. In fact, you were so good at this, that when you returned to your ‘home’, you were no longer at home there. You’re now a stranger and alien in your native land. 

That’s why I believe in you. You have the skills and the heart to understand the culture, lingo, strengths, habits, and vices of the next generation. As you explore their ‘culture’, you will have the opportunity to affirm all the good that you find there. The Gospel will be at home in the millennial and Gen-Z culture.Their desire for community, their altruism, and their sense of justice. At the same time, they are going to need you to lovingly help them see the ways their culture conflicts with the culture of heaven, how sometimes even their good characteristics become idols, that is, their syncretistic tendencies.

Paul Hiebert (1932-2007)

As you seek to help younger generations root out syncretism, you’ll need to rely on another tool that you likely have from your mission training. In 1987, Paul Hiebert published an article entitled ‘Critical Contextualization’.[2] As a reminder, here are the steps in Hiebert’s approach.

  1. Exegesis of the Culture–This is an uncritical study of the local culture phenomenologically, simply trying to understand what the practices and the reasons for them in the culture are currently. In our case: What does the younger generation do and why do they do it? Explore that as if you were crossing into a new ethno-linguistic people.
  2. Exegesis of the Scripture and the Hermeneutical Bridge–Now we go to Scripture with these younger leaders to discern what it has to say about these behaviors and the beliefs that undergird them. Of course, we must be careful not to force our own cultural practices into Scripture and, therefore, export a Boomer or Gen-X Christianity upon the next generation.
  3. Critical Response–Hiebert writes, ‘The third step is for the people corporately to evaluate critically their own past customs in the light of their new biblical understandings, and to make decisions regarding their response to their new-found truths.’ Do you trust younger generations to wrestle with Scripture faithfully, in prayer and community? Please provide input and wisdom, but in the end, they must own their decisions.

Like any culture, the Gen-Z younger leaders in our midst might keep some practices and ideas because they are not contrary to Scripture (some may even be praised by Scripture, as we saw earlier). On the other hand, they may reject some things they had previously believed and practiced. Finally, they may modify some beliefs and practices to align more fully with Scripture. In the end, they will still be who God has fashioned them to be in this generation, but because of your patience and friendship, they have the chance to live, teach, and lead more like Jesus.

Better Together

In the end, they will still be who God has fashioned them to be in this generation, but because of your patience and friendship, they have the chance to live, teach, and lead more like Jesus

We all are aware that sometimes we are blind to our own cultural sins, biases, etc. Younger leaders know that they don’t know everything. Those that I work with have demonstrated amazing humility and teachability. They are hungry to grow. They want to be more like Christ. They read and listen to as much as they can. They don’t want a platform . . . they just want to make a difference. In light of that, let me offer you one more challenge.

Will you allow younger leaders to speak into your generational sins and biases as well? Will you invite them into a process of critical contextualization where they study your culture, where you read Scripture together, and then you consider how the Gospel calls you to respond and live out more fully the culture of heaven instead of your own generational culture? It can be scary, humbling, and intimidating, but the alternative–to sit around and wish that younger mission leaders thought, spoke, and behaved like you–is not something that you want. 

Because of Christ, the older mission leaders I know want to pour themselves out for the next generation. They too have shown amazing humility through hours of mentoring, and of prayer; intentionally opening doors for growth opportunities; resourcing with books and conferences, not to mention meals, money, and guest rooms; sharing, or completely giving over, authority; inviting, listening to, and applying input. It’s quite beautiful.

Older leaders have what it takes to love, understand, lead, and partner with younger leaders. I believe it will be one of the most refreshing things older leaders could do. And by pouring into the next generation, I believe our impact in our later years will far outstrip any of our earlier contributions.

Endnotes
  1. Andrew Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996), 3–15. 
  2. Paul G. Hiebert, “Critical Contextualization,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 11(3), 104-112.

Justin Schell is the director of executive projects for the Lausanne Movement as well as the US director for Union School of Theology (www.theolo.gy). He studied mission and biblical theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and business administration at EDHEC Business School. He is author of Come and See: A History and Theology of Mission as well as the forthcoming The Mission of God in the Short Studies in Biblical Theology series by Crossway Publishing. He is husband to Megan and daddy to Henry and Evie. They are members at Evergreen Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma (US).