Don’t Panic: Why the Future of the Church is in Good Hands

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“Don’t Panic: Why the Future of the Church is in Good Hands” is written by Joe Terrell, content manager at Joe’s writings for Medium, Relevant, Carey Nieuwhof, and his personal blog, Instrument of Mercy, have been read by over three million people.

For as long as people have felt compelled to write down their thoughts, older generations have complained, fretted, and whined about younger generations.

Here are just a few examples cherry-picked from history:

  • “[Young people] think they know everything, and are always quite sure about it.” Aristotle, 4th Century B.C.
  • “The beardless youth… does not foresee what is useful, squandering his money.” Horace, 1st Century B.C.
  • “Whither are the manly vigour and athletic appearance of our forefathers flown? Can these be their legitimate heirs? A race of effeminate, self-admiring, emaciated fribbles can never have descended in a direct line from the heroes of Poitiers and Agincourt.” Town and Country Magazine, 1771.
  • “We defy anyone who goes about with his eyes open to deny that there is, as never before, an attitude on the part of young folk which is best described as grossly thoughtless, rude, and utterly selfish.” The Conduct of Young People, Hull Daily Mail, 1925.
  • “Probably there is no period in history in which young people have given such emphatic utterance to a tendency to reject that which is old and to wish for that which is new.” Portsmouth Evening News, 1933.

Young people have always made for a convenient scapegoat for society’s ills, and that’s because criticizing the next generation is easier than taking responsibility for building the world the next generation has to grow up in.

And when those kinds of negative attitudes and stereotypes about young people persist generation after generation, it’s no wonder so many Christians have a dismal view of the future of the church.

Criticizing the next generation is easier than taking responsibility for building the world the next generation has to grow up in. @iamjoeterrell Click To Tweet

Confessions of Jaded Millennial Christian

I was born in 1991, which makes me a Millennial.

And that means I endured a barrage of criticism against my generation as entitled, lazy, “fragile snowflakes,” morally bankrupt, self-obsessed, and fiscally irresponsible from the talk radio hosts, political pundits, media commentators, and – yes – church leaders.

Allow me to be vulnerable: Hearing that your generation is “everything wrong with the world” ad nauseam for the better part of two decades is going to reap some serious collateral damage.

(So, yeah, don’t be surprised when those people don’t want much to do with you when they grow up and enter adulthood).

See, the problem with that kind of generational criticism is that it’s designed to grind young people down. And when it’s coming from a spiritual authority, it’s even worse.

Like many Millennial Christians, I’ve grown jaded and cynical toward the church over the past decade or so. But as Russell Moore recently wrote, “For many people, cynicism is a product not of a fighting spirit but of a broken heart.

Maybe it’s the hypocritical political posturing, or the endless litany of sexual abuse scandals and coverups, or the obsessive boundary maintenance to constantly redefine who’s “in” and who’s “out.”

Regardless, after a while, you start wondering if sticking around is even worth it. When I talk to my friends who’ve left the church, it’s almost always the same story: Frustrated and burned out of a church culture that’d rather point fingers than hold itself accountable.

It’s no secret that church attendance – especially among young people – has been on a steady decline for the past few decades. And, to be honest, I don’t think that trend is going to reverse anytime soon.

At the same time, I do believe the church is in the midst of another revival (or reformation, if you will). I just think it’s just going to look a little – or a lot – different than what most people expect.

And it’s going to be Gen Alpha and Gen Z Christians leading the charge.

Why I’m Not Worried About the Future of the Church

So, yes, I’m one of those jaded Millennial Christians.

And, yet, I’m feeling good about the future of the church.

Let me explain.

Movements of revival and renewal are almost always preceded by movements of cynicism and disillusionment. As one movement comes to an end, the other begins.

Movements of revival and renewal are almost always preceded by movements of cynicism and disillusionment. As one movement ends, another begins. @iamjoeterrell Click To Tweet

My generation, for the most part, is a cynical and disillusioned generation. And I think members of Gen Z and Gen Alpha are aware that, while cynicism had its place, it’s time for something new.

If you want a burst of encouragement, talk to anyone in ministry involved with youth and teenagers. You’ll hear testimony after testimony laced with passion, optimism, and devotion.

For decades, Christian discipleship in the West has basically amounted to reading the right books and holding the right thoughts about God in your head.

However, younger generations of Christians are ready to take the church outside of the walls. In other words, they’re far more motivated by faith-based experiences than debating the arcane nuances of an obscure theological doctrine.

They’re far more loyal to a mission than they are to a particular institution. They still value orthodox teaching, but they’re aware the true measure of a belief isn’t how “correct” you are but how that belief motivates you to act in the real world. They can’t stand hypocrisy or passivity.

For young Christians, “everyone’s welcome” isn’t just a slogan to be plastered on a church sign to pay lip service to. It’s a mission statement. They’ve grown up amidst far more diversity than any other previous generation – and they want the church to reflect that.

For young Christians, "everyone's welcome" isn't just a slogan to be plastered on a church sign. It's a mission statement. @iamjoeterrell Click To Tweet

But you want to know why I’m really hopeful about the younger generation and the future of the church?

When I peek behind the curtain, I don’t see a generation distracted by conspiracy theories or parroting talk radio talking points all over social media. They haven’t deputized themselves as secular culture’s “morality police.”

Instead, I see a generation taking Jesus’s words about serving the poor and feeding the hungry seriously. They’re enthusiastic about prayer, worship, justice, repentance, and reconciliation – not just on a personal level, but on a cultural and systemic level.

And, perhaps best of all, they’re swapping out the jaded cynicism of my generation’s church experience with something that appears genuinely joyful, participatory, and determined.

But none of that will amount to much if we fall into the same pattern of grinding young people down through tired stereotypes, alarmism, and jealousy.

And that’s why it’s high time for older generations (mine included) need to start stepping up.

How to Build Unity Between Generations

Younger generations of devout Christians will always seek out ways to be better Christ followers than their parents and grandparents. And that means they’re going to be on the lookout for areas where previous generations fell short.

It doesn’t take a genius to see how this creates a lot of tension – and possibly animosity – between younger and older generations in the church.

So, while it’s inevitable that the younger generation will inherit the church, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be a smooth transition.

In fact, I think one of the biggest hurdles the church of the future is going to have to overcome isn’t technology, secularism, or nationalism – it’s generational animosity and resentment.

Hope for the future is a great starting point, but it’s not enough to push the needle forward. So, here’s my advice to younger and older generations on how to build generational unity in the church.

One of the biggest hurdles the church of the future is going to have to overcome isn't technology, secularism, or nationalism – it's generational animosity and resentment. @iamjoeterrell Click To Tweet

A Note to Older Generations

I’ve re-reading the brilliant science-fiction seriesThe Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and I came across this quote by British author Douglas Adams

Speaking about technology adoption, Adams writes:

  1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
  2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
  3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

Though tongue-in-cheek and humorous, I love this quote because its application extends beyond technology – to cultural attitudes, social issues, politics, and, yes, even Christian ministry and church leadership.

In his blog post about the Asbury Revival, Carey Nieuwhof suggests that some of the generational distrust that flows downward from older generations in the church could be related to a fear of loss of control.

Part of the problem is “generational vanity,” or the smug assumption that your generation “had it more figured out” than generations past and future.

Within Christian communities, generational vanity can manifest itself through the belief that you were born at the peak of Biblical orthodoxy and practice. And anything that challenges the status quo is misguided idealism at best or heresy at worst.

Of course, a quick survey of church history should reveal the fallibility of those assumptions.

If your ministry is always looking backward to reclaim the past, you’ll always view young people as a nuisance or threat.

If your ministry is always looking backward to reclaim the past, you'll always view young people as a nuisance or threat. @iamjoeterrell Click To Tweet

So, keep an open mind. Talk and listen to younger Christians. Sometimes it takes new eyes and a fresh perspective to point out what you’ve missing or looking for the whole time.

But, most of all, encourage them. Celebrate their wins. Praise their optimism and idealism. And, yes, correct and redirect if necessary – but do so out of love, not discomfort or fear.

Because the more the church discredits and dismisses the unique contributions of young people, the less young people are going to want anything to do with the church in the present and the future.

The more the church dismisses the unique contributions of young people, the less they're going to want anything to do with the church in the present and the future. @iamjoeterrell Click To Tweet

A Note to Younger Generations

There’s a line from the second season of HBO’s The White Lotus that I can’t get out of my head.

While vacationing in Italy, an older man remarks to his perpetually frustrated grandson: “They used to respect the old. Now we’re just reminders of an offensive past everybody wants to forget.”


Generational vanity cuts both ways.

Probably the biggest mistake young Christians can make is pushing too hard and too fast to change established systems and cultural norms.

The church isn’t exactly known for its openness to change, and, in some ways, that’s a good thing. An institution that’s constantly re-inventing itself at the whims of changing culture isn’t much use to anyone.

And just because an idea is new, it doesn’t mean it’s better or right. Sometimes things are the way they are because they’re true and they work.

Just because an idea is new, it doesn't mean it's better or right. Sometimes things are the way they are because they're true and they work. @iamjoeterrell Click To Tweet

Therefore, you’re going to need some wisdom and patience to discern the difference. Form relationships with older people in your church – especially those who actually make an effort to listen to you and are willing to push back and challenge if necessary.

Plus, you might be surprised to find out that some of those older folks in the congregation may know a thing or two about picking which battles to fight and which to leave for another day.

It’s one thing to anticipate change, and quite another to become disheartened when change doesn’t come as quickly as you’d like.

So, before you start chunking verbal grenades through stained-glass windows, it’s important to remember that institutional change doesn’t come without widespread incremental personal change.

And that starts with you.

And one more piece of advice to young Christians: Sadly, you’ll inevitably come across gatekeepers who view your very presence and identity as a threat to their power. They will belittle you out of spite and view your youthful idealism as a problem to be solved.

Don’t let them grind you down.
Don’t let them harden your heart.
Don’t let them make you cynical and jaded.

Don’t give them satisfaction. If necesary, leave and find a church community that will support you.

The Long Road Ahead

Less than a hundred years ago, it was standard practice for churches in America to be segregated by race. And most Christians at that time thought it was completely normal and Biblically justified.

Listen, we’ve never gotten church completely right. Even at ground zero – the early years of the church during the first century – there was confusion, debates, and rivalries.

After that, the two-thousand-year “highlight reel” of church history contains its fair share of horror, cruelty, abuse, and exploitation. And that’s because sinful people tend to create sinful systems – whether they realize it or not at the time.

Gen Z is not going to lead the church into “the promised land.” And neither is Gen Alpha. But I believe they’ll repair some of our mistakes, make improvements, and build on the goodness that’s come before.

And they’ll undoubtedly create a few messes for the next generations to clean up. That’s just how it goes.

And you know what?
It’s going to be alright.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.