The attributes of being historical and multigenerational go together as a response to the crisis of the church’s ahistoricity. By this, I mean that the church, like the consumerist culture that pervades it, has a very limited vision of itself in time. Such limitation is natural to consumer culture, because the consumer’s being, as a consumer, does not transcend death….
The church seems to have fallen prey to this trend, with all sorts of alarmist proclamations about the need to do this or that immediately. The hyperbolic outcries proclaim the death of the American church in a generation unless drastic measures are taken, And the conviction that we must be living in the end time … is simply another aspect of an overall disposition toward viewing one’s own existence as historically exceptional.
To refuse consumerism’s dictates in this respect, the church needs to remember both its eternal ordination and its historical situation. For the former, this is simply the recognition that Jesus Christ himself has ordained the church’s existence, and God has secured its future. If the church were ever to pass away, then onlookers might rightly conclude that the story it had told was all wrong. Fortunately, the church’s continued existence does not depend on us. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be good stewards. But it does mean that we should back off from acting as if the patriarch is dead and we are the inheritors of the family business. No, the head of the church is very much alive.
…. Yes, we live in a period of unique challenges. Everyone who has ever lived, however, can claim the same thing. Whether we occupy an epochal turning point at the twilight of modernity, or a set of years that will appear historically unremarkable, we need to live as just another generation of the body of Christ.
Doing this runs counter to all our tendencies toward American exceptionalism…. A historical sensibility would do a great deal to restore a humility that the American church sorely lacks.
If we are to live out this historical sensibility, it must at least take the form of churches that are consciously multigenerational. Think about how we describe churches with aging congregations: dead, dying, unexciting. Why is it that the church, like the prevailing culture, seems primarily interested in those individuals in their prime earning (and spending) years? We’re as fixated on youth ministry as advertisers are with the youth market. It makes us feel vibrant, alive.
There’s nothing wrong with the discipleship of the young, of course. But our undue focus on youth and young families means that the church does little to challenge the cultural sensibility that one’s value as a human is linked to one’s capacity to produce and consume. Our cultural interest in diversity stops short of age. But if we cannot even recognize the value of the elderly among us, how can we possibly claim communion with the cloud of witnesses that are the holy of God in all ages? And, denied that communion, how can we imagine that our discipleship is anything but crippled?
Tyler Wigg Stevenson, Brand Jesus: Christianity in a Consumerist Age (New York: Seabury Books, 2007), pp. 216-18.