December 3, 2020

The Problem with Grandpa’s Church


After World War II, through the 1950’s and especially in the 60’s-70’s and since, America’s culture has been more and more dominated by youth and youth-oriented themes, fashions, preferences, and images. An entire “youth culture” was created and its energy has filled the land. Churches, especially those who have bought in to church growth philosophies, have capitalized on this, changing or throwing out longstanding traditional teachings and practices in order to provide religious settings that fit more comfortably with the lifestyles and preferences of the youth-dominated culture. The more traditional and historic church traditions declined dramatically as the culture of evangelicalism became more and more publicly dominant, energized by the youth ethos.

That is a very broad description of the religious landscape in which I have lived, grown up, received my spiritual calling, and served as a pastor and chaplain. Having weathered this storm, many of us have now come to lament the destruction this tidal wave of change has wrought to the faith and the church. We’ve chosen to choose what Robert Webber called, “the Ancient-Future” path, hoping that we might find a way forward while recovering a more healthy appreciation and integration of tradition and historical perspective.

That’s the pedantic version of what I wrote yesterday when I expressed my longing for “Grandpa’s Church.”

However, there is a big problem that I see about seeking an adult faith and Church in the midst of youth culture, one that frightens and worries me deeply.

53147643_f143329cb6_zThe problem is me. You see, I am “grandpa” now. I am the one who supposedly has the wisdom and experience to be able to lead with seasoned perspective and patient love. And yet I now understand what “grandpa” must have felt like when he was in charge. “Who is adequate for these things?” Paul wrote, and I ask myself the same question every day.

Never have I been less sure. Never less self-confident. Never more aware of the dangers and pitfalls around me. Some nights, I have trouble sleeping.

On the other hand, never have I loved the Bible more and wanted to know Jesus more. Never have I been so convinced that all is of grace and every day is a gift. Never so interested in conveying the grace and mystery of Christ to others. Never so sure that simple acts of kindness and love will do more than all the megachurches humans can build.

In the tradition in which I now find myself, I am a novice. Yet I am also an elder. I have gray hair. I wear a collar. People call me “pastor.” They treat me like I’m the adult in charge. All this, and yet in many ways I just got off the boat. I’ve read a little Luther. I can stumble my way through the liturgy. I can engage in pastoral small talk and make a decent first impression.

But yesterday I talked about how the Church needs to be “nourished by spiritual leaders with gravitas and maturity.” The mirror tells a different story. This fumbling disciple still feels like he needs to receive a whole lot more of the good stuff before he is ready to give it to others.

I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon, but please don’t write saying, “Oh Chaplain Mike, you’ll be fine. Besides, remember that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness.” I am not trolling for compliments or encouragement here.

I’m just trying to be honest. And I believe strongly that leaders need to be more honest about this. We are children trying to lead others in a grown-up faith. It is never comfortable. I sincerely doubt if that ever changes. In fact, that’s what scares me most.

My greatest pastoral hero, the apostle Paul, wrote to the Philippians, “Be anxious for nothing.” However, to the Corinthians he wrote that his own greatest burden was the “daily pressure of his anxiety for all the churches.” Same word. Same inner panicky, sick to your stomach kind of fear and concern. Paul the pastor had trouble sleeping.

On the one hand, he spoke with authority. He even warned rebellious congregations like those in Corinth that he could deal with them harshly, displaying God’s power if need be. On the other hand, he called himself, “less than the least of all the apostles.” Chief of sinners. Hesitant to boast of anything but his weaknesses and sufferings. There is no evidence he ever followed through on any of his threats to personally enact discipline.

The death to which Christ calls us can often seem slow and agonizing.

I wish it could be different. How I wish! In my mind I imagine that it would be wonderful to feel like an adult, capable of leading a grown-up church. Capable of being solid and dependable and grounded in deep assurance. Capable of passing on wisdom. Capable of gentleness. Capable of love.

Like a grandpa should be.

I have never missed mine more than I do now.


  1. petrushka1611 says

    I feel about the same way….and I’m not remotely close to being a pastor. In one sense, I know I don’t want the false god I thought I knew, but I miss the certainty of what I knew. *sigh*

  2. Bless you for sharing this meditation and your honesty, CM. After watching disasters befall many of my friends over the past 2-3 years and being like the eye of a hurricane as lives are wrecked, I’ve never felt so inadequate. I don’t know how many people I’ve told, “I wish I could wave a magic wand and change everything, but that doesn’t appear to be how God operates.”

    Which has led me to a point that you state so well: “…never have I loved the Bible more and wanted to know Jesus more. Never have I been so convinced that all is of grace and every day is a gift. Never so interested in conveying the grace and mystery of Christ to others. Never so sure that simple acts of kindness and love will do more than all the megachurches humans can build.” Ditto, and Amen! And because of that new perspective/belief, I’ve never been so certain as now that those simple acts of kindness and love are God’s “magic wand” and sometimes the only way for down-and-out people to sense light and joy.

  3. Oh, I think many of us – with greying hair – can relate to what you’ve said, whether we’re in pastoral work or not.

    Age is supposed to bring wisdom, and yet… as we get older, our sense of mortality and awareness of suffering increases.

    I am far less certain of many things now, in my 50s, than I ever was in my 30s and 40s, but in a lot of ways, that’s a good place to be. I would never want to return to the “certainties” I believed in (not just religious, either) during my 20s and early-mid 30s.

    It seems as if we only really start to learn how to live and be with other people as we age. Such a paradox.

    • Amen! I wish I was half as smart as I thought I was at 23!

      The older I get, the more I can see of my inadequacies…..and without the illusion of beauty, youth, and health that used to allow me to imagine myself ” something special”.

      Maybe this IS the wisdom of age……that we all struggle and have sorrow in our lives, but that THIS life is but a preamble to our real life with Christ for eternity.

  4. I think there is a qualitative difference between a 60 year old man living in 1969, having been born in 1909, and a 60 year old man living in 2013, having been born in 1953. Something has changed, and it started sometime around 1958 and was complete by 1973. It was as if humanity had acquired some new kind of sensory organ or brain structure, but when I talk to people born before the Second World War I am acutely aware of a difference between their consciousness and mine.

    I feel more adolescent, but I don’t think it is just because I am some kind of Peter Pan who has yet to consign himself to the grownup NORAD world my father lived in. I think it could be because the race, our race, the human race, has entered its adolescence. When I am reading political or scientific material from the 30s and the 40s, they all seem ever-so-serious, but there is a late-childhood innocence and earnestness about them that we have left behind.

    I realize I’m treading on some unsteady ground here, and there very few guides, but I don’t believe we need to be so pessimistic. The way forward is not always the way back. I remember a discussion I had with a very, very conservative Orthodox gentleman who wanted to import Fundamentalist Ken Ham Creation Science wholesale into Orthodoxy. He stated that the Fathers, specifically St Basil the Great, never thought of the days of Genesis as anything except twenty-four hour periods.

    What someone else said to him still rings in my ears: “The Fathers were spiritually wise and epistemologically innocent. Unfortunately, we cannot undo the last three centuries and return to their mental world. To attempt to do so would destroy the faith of more people than it would save.”

    I wish I could speak more clearly. I don’t even know my own mind yet on this matter. My ideas about the “adolescence of humanity” [viz. Ephesians 4:13: ????? ???????????? ?? ?????? ??? ??? ??????? ??? ??????? ??? ??? ?????????? ??? ???? ??? ????, ??? ????? ???????, ??? ?????? ??????? ??? ?????????? ??? ???????,] are much more of an intuition than anything I have dwelt upon and thought out.

    • Sounds like you’ve been reading Teihard de Chardin – ?

      I do think the rise of TV – and portable radios – in the 50s and 60s did a *lot* of things (not all of them bad).

      Sometimes I wonder if I’d be able to tolerate living in a world where books and home-made music are, for the most part, the only entertainment options (along with storytelling and other related things). The quiet would be wonderful, but I fear that adjusting to it would be extremely stressful.

      • Owen Barfield, who is Teilhard de Chardin pulled inside out.

        Chardin, as far as I can follow him, is about a senseless, mindless mass spontaneously organizing itself into higher and higher forms of consciousness. Barfield starts with the consciousness, the Logos, the Hidden Wisdom diffused throughout the periphery and folding itself in towards a multitude of centers.

      • The problem with this quiet world is it allowed us to believe in a world which did not exist. See no evil, hear no evil, thus there must not be any evil.

      • That “old” book by Neil Postman (what’s the title? “Amusing Ourselves to Death”?) really does a good job of describing why that generation born before WWII really are different that those born after 1960.


  5. I recall church historians saying that the “elders” addressed in Paul’s epistles may have been Christians only a few months or years.

    • Great point!

    • Christian soteriology may have differed substantially from Jewish soteriology, but Christians ETHICS and MORALS did not. So, old guys who had been Jews for 50 of their 60 years and only Christians for 10 would not have posed any problem to “sound doctrine” on ethics. Today its rather different. Even a Christian of 100 years old may not have as firm a grasp on that subject as a 5 year old would have had in Paul’s day.

  6. Teilhard de Chardin, that is.

  7. You should have a go at Thomas Bergler’s book, “The Juvenilization of American Christianity.” He did a pretty thoughtful analysis of the way in which the church has interacted with the youth culture post- WWII; and the impact on the church. It answers a lot of questions.

  8. Chaplain Mike ~ crucifixion IS slow agonizing death. I am crucified with Christ – perhaps better said, “I am being crucified”. It is slow and agonizing. That’s why no one preaches it. Doesn’t draw a crowd you know?

    • Actually, I believe crucifixions used to draw very big crowds, just like hangings. Of course, the crowds want to be spectators, not victims.

  9. Before the 1950’s, children and adolescents mainly wanted to emulate their parents styles and participate in grown-up culture, a little of which they gave their own particular generational character; in the 1950’s and after, a separate culture was marketed to adolescents that was fine tuned to their particular immature tastes and desires, and that to a significant degree decreased the motivation to grow-up. This new culture instead glorified youth and rebellion and was marked by a proud refusal to grow-up; there is a sense that many or most of us who came of age in the grip of this historically novel development in culture never stopped being adolescents, and never totally identified with the goal of becoming grown-up. The glorification of gangsterism would be an example of a trait of youth culture that has metastasized and taken on truly ugly proportions in our wider culture; the ascendance of “cool” with its connotations of disaffection and detachment as the most valued affectation would be another. We have lost the models for what it means to be grown up, and as we age we realize that we desperately need these models, because we, a generation of wounded adolescents, don’t have the inner resources to make ourselves adults.

    • There was something else going on parallel to this and reinforcing it.

      The “news” business changed. Prior to the 60s, personal faults of “leaders” were usually not mentioned. We have very few pictures of FDR showing his braces or wheel chair. And only about 5 seconds of video. This is for someone who was President for over 12 years. Kennedy was so infirm at times that just before he was assassinated the Secret Service was planning to make the White House wheel chair enabled.

      Today the personal failures of our leaders are out front and in public.

      My point is prior to the 60s it was easy to believe in leaders that really didn’t exist. The problem was even after many of the hypocrisies of our leaders were exposed our “elders” at the time continued to act as if these leaders were saints. So the people growing up were being told to emulate and respect people who in many cases were not worthy of such. This cognitive dissonance help advance the culture of permanent adolescence.

      • I think that what you say is also true; after all, why grow up when so many of the role models held out by society have feet of clay, and why not develop an alternate culture with values and anti-heroes you can identify with (as long as it remains unrealized that this alternate culture is also a sham).

    • Was the public school system widespread before the 1950s? A child’s parents where who taught them about the world so of course they emulated them, But the school system has changes things.

  10. Richard Hershberger says

    I’ll respect your not trolling for compliments, but I am going to give you encouragement regardless. I have recently come off six years on my church council, two of them as church president. I initially felt panicky at the idea of being church president: what do I know about running the place? I soon realized that the great thing about having traditions is that you don’t need to constantly improvise. In my period as president there was one minor crisis regarding lay personnel. That was stressful and took a lot of my time and attention. But otherwise job was to encourage people in doing the stuff that needed to be done, which in most cases was what they had been doing all along, far better than I could possibly have done it: leadership by keeping out of the way, and occasionally smoothing the path as necessary.

    Of course traditions can be a ball and chain. Just because we have always done something this way does not necessarily mean that we must, or should, keep on doing it the same way. And it is important to cycle new blood through the various tasks, so you don’t end up with the same people doing it year after year, slowly burning out and complaining that they have to do everything, while at the same time protecting their turf and not letting anyone else help. This is part of smoothing the path: encouraging new people to get involved and encouraging old people to welcome them. Tradition needs to be managed. But it is far better than making it up as you go along. I have no idea how churches that change direction on a dime manage it (or why they would want to).

    So my words of encouragement is that you have joined a church tradition that is pretty good at running itself. You are the pastor, not the president and not the janitor. You have a church council, who can be your best allies. (This can go horribly wrong, but usually it doesn’t.) The little old ladies who cook the church suppers have been doing this for years. They neither need nor want you telling them how to do it, so don’t. You just need to worry about pastoring. And for goodness sakes, that is plenty to worry about.

  11. I think Mule’s timeline is correct, but i believe we have arrived at a Juvenalization of our culture for different reasons.

    The generation before the Boomers went through WW1, the Great Depression, and WW2 in relatively rapid succession. Those were real hard times, not the fluctuations in our personal affluence that we call hardship. (Derisively called ‘First World Problems’) The Boomers and those coming after know nothing except affluence. There have been no cultural crises of great enough magnitude to force these generations to mature the way our parents or Grandparents matured.

    My wife’s grandfather recently died at 94 years of age. A veteran of WW2 combat in the Pacific and a Fire department Captain for 40 years after that, his confidence and conviction were unshakeable. He was very wise, both socially and regarding money. Next to him and my dad’s father, my parents and my wife’s parents, are adolescents in comparison.

    As I make my way through middle age I increasingly look to their example and wisdom to guide me.

  12. Sir I think you would love A.W. tozer leonard ravenhill all free at sermon index and art katz at his website free.
    I appreciate your genuine love for God and His people and I to struggle as I believe Jesus still weeps over the American church as He did jeruselam

  13. Which is better? to know that there is a lot you don’t know, but to understand yourself better…or…to not know yourself all that well because you’ve only lived with yourself for 20 or 30 years and to THINK that you know more than you actually do?

    I think that it’s a little foolish to think that you, with your many years of experience dealing with and loving people and studying and loving God’s Word, are less-equipped to lead God’s people than a “young” man with way less experience.

    Yes, things may seem different to you than you thought they would be now that you have actually “arrived”, but this doesn’t mean that you are less-equipped to lead. Keep up the good work. The Church needs “older” and experienced men to lead.

    • “The Church needs “older” and experienced men to lead.”

      Experiences hopefully in righteousness rather than steeped in decades of rebellious sinning.

  14. I’m over 50, my children have all finished school, most have moved out of home and about now I’m starting to just feel I might be mature enough to start a family…And people at church seem to look to me for wisdom…did I mention lots of grey hair!

    • Richard Hershberger says

      I just turned fifty. I started the family life late: my kids are five and three years old. From an emotional perspective I am glad I waited. The idea of my younger self having this responsibility is absurd on its face. On the other hand, chasing a toddler around would have been a lot easier when I was ten or twenty years younger.

      • Richard, I took the opposite path and was finished having children before my 25th birthday. I had a great deal of physical stamina, but was so concerned about being a “good parent” that I worried too much and was often too harsh to my young sons.

        The best parents would have a fifty-year old brain and soul and a 25 year old body…..but that model currently does not exist. But, children make you understand God’s love for us in a way that no other human experience can….

        • Pattie, I’m thinking that we should have children before age age 25 because we’re still enough child-like ourselves at that age that we can better deal with childisness…er, something like that ;o)


    • I’m well into 58. Except for the loss of vigor I’m just beginning to feel like I may have my act together enough to possibly be a good father to children….

      As my wife said yesterday when we were speaking of grandchildren, “Now we get to actually apply what we learned from our mistakes.”


      • Sobering and true. At least my children have been modelled on ‘how to say sorry’ by watching their dad

  15. CM, You’re the man I’d go to for advice and understanding.


  16. Bil Metzger says

    Chaplain Mike,

    I’ve been a Lutheran pastor for thirty years. I, too, have a greying beard and a bald head. I’ve been around the block many times. I’ve seen it all and done it all. I look OK in an alb. And at the age of 56 I feel as if I’m just beginning! No one should even think of preaching or attempting spiritual direction until they are AT LEAST 50 years of age. What I inflcited on the congregations I served when I was younger! It makes me cringe. Even now…
    Remember that Paul boasted of his weaknesses, not his “strengths”. He kept it all about Jesus and His Cross. That’s enough. Blessings!

    • I think 30 is sufficient. There is such a thing as too old. In the church I grew up in both the really young (because they had no job) and the really old (because they were retired and drawing social security) would preach that it is your duty to make it to every service of the church, even week-night services during a revival, or you “aren’t what you ought to be” (code for “you’re going to hell”) which is absurd nonsense, but since both classes of people didn’t have jobs it seemed logical to them.

  17. surfingHedgeHog says

    Thank you for discussing this topic.

    One reason of several I feel out of place in churches and don’t attend any longer, and don’t even feel as though the Christian faith is for me at all any more, is the exclusive focus by Christians and churches on children, teens, and related issues (such as, constant marriage sermons).

    Once you get past a certain age (I’d say it’s about 35 years), churches – because many of them focus on marriage, kids, teens, and family – feels very alienating for you if you are over 35 and still have not married and you’ve never had kids.

    I don’t think Christians understand how rejecting the “youth friendly” (and obsession with marriage) is to those of us who have not married or had any children.

    I don’t understand why attracting teens and 20 somethings is the Holy Grail of preachers. They should be more concerned with the fact (as some books by Christian authors have noted) that most of their age 30 (and up) single members, tired of being neglected or all the hype about marriage, kids, and 20 somethings, have walked out the back door.

    Preachers and their churches should work harder to retain those they already have, instead of exerting so much energy on trying to think of what an average 15 or 20 year old will find appealing, which merely results in loud electric guitar playing on Sunday mornings and too- casual dress standards for worship services.

    • “Once you get past a certain age (I’d say it’s about 35 years), churches – because many of them focus on marriage, kids, teens, and family – feels very alienating for you if you are over 35 and still have not married and you’ve never had kids.”

      Actually I feel the same way, but this feeling happened for me at 26 and is why I quit attending church. I got tired of hearing sermons making Christianity be all about parenting since its pretty obvious to me I was never going to find the right woman in our modern whore-society. I’m 30 now and so far it looks like I was right.

    • “…and too- casual dress standards for worship services.”

      That part I don’t agree with though. You were required to wear a 3-piece suit in the church i left or be treated as a heathen and it got tedious. I would have liked to just be able to wear some khakis or decent jeans with no holes and a button up shirt. But if you mean like shorts, yeah, I don’t think shorts to church is appropriate.

  18. If we’re going to go back to our grandfather’s church because its older and moldier, why not just roll back the Reformation while we’re at it and go back to Rome? Life sure would be a lot easier if there weren’t 50billlion different denominations anyway, right?

  19. Check generational cycle theories like Generations by Neil Howe and William Strauss. If nothing it reminds us that the experiences and reactions of each generation are unique.