The Prodigal Generation

Sharon Church, Community 3 Comments

unChristianWell I am back in Durham after a week of traveling throughout Tennessee and Georgia, and I have to say that the Collegiate Summit in Nashville was awesome! We heard from a number of speakers including a phenomenal young pastor in Alabama named David Platt, the President of Lifeway, Thom Rainer, and the President of the Barna Group, Dave Kinnaman.

All of the speakers were incredible, but I’m going to focus the substance of this post on something that Dave Kinnaman said that was both challenging and humbling. In case you aren’t familiar with the Barna Group, it is a research organization that primarily gathers information related to the Church and Christian culture–whether it be patterns of Christian lifestyles, or reasons that non-Christians avoid the Church. Dave has published a book entitled “unChristian” that responds to a lot of the information he found, so you should certainly check it out if you haven’t already.

During his talk, Dave provided us with information about American teens today–what makes them tick, what their habits tend to be, and how complex they are. In many ways they are unlike any other generation before them because they are so tough to pin down. There is very little that characterizes them as a whole.

However, it has become very common today to view this younger generation as sort of a lost cause. 40% of children today are born out of wedlock, and their generation is characterized most by the worldly influences of MTV and trends like “sexting,” so it’s easy to write them off. They would seem to be hopeless.

As a result, many Christians have come to think of this age group as “the Prodigal Generation,” and in light of this perspective Dave made a challenging observation:

“If this is the Prodigal Generation, then the Church is the older brother.”

I don’t think Dave could have been more on the mark. When we consistently criticize and berate young people, we reveal our hearts to be just like that of the bitter older brother in Jesus’ famous parable. Our desire is not redemption or reconciliation–we want to be justly rewarded for how faithful we are. Under the guise of concern and caution, we hide proud hearts that think these lost sheep will get exactly what they deserve.

I do not, however, believe that this trend is limited toward the teenage culture. Christians tend to be bitter and prideful toward a lot of demographics. This is perhaps most noticeable in the blog world–if you visit any popular Christian blog on the internet, you will likely find venomous comments by critical Christian readers who are quick to doubt the intentions of the writer, and fast to slander them.

Many Christians are in a constant posture of bitterness and condemnation. This is not only true of the token conservatives, but of the liberals among the Body as well–it is as if anger has all but consumed our Christ-given propensity toward grace.

It is within this climate that Dave Kinnaman’s words are timely. It’s one thing to be watchful, but quite another to be expecting failure. We must therefore be mindful of what our actions say about our faith. As in the story of the Prodigal Son, we learn that no individual is beyond the redemption of God’s love. It is not simply a story about forgiveness, but about hope–God is able to redeem anyone, even the most lost.

When we let bitterness and judgment define our interactions with other Christians, or non-Christians, we say less about their lostness, and more about God’s ability to use them. Behind that bitterness is ultimately doubt–doubt that God is really able to save, or doubt that He is so radically merciful.

Yet no person is outside the redemptive power of God. As Isaiah 59:1 reminds us, “Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear.” This knowledge should determine our posture towards one another. We should be defined by an orientation of hope, not cynicism. Even if you disagree with another Christian, do not doubt the power of God to work through them. When we are bitter or arrogant, we not only close ourselves off to one another, but to the mighty and wonderful work of God within them.

So check yourself. Is your heart like that of the prideful older brother, or the loving, hopeful, and welcoming father? Judging by how you have talked about, thought about, or written about other Christians this past week, your actions probably speak for themselves.

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Comments 3

  1. David K

    Sharon, hey thanks for posting about my talk. I appreciate it. Glad you found some good points of connection for your ministry. Hope is an elusive thing. But God is in such intimate control of our lives and times. Anyway, thanks again for your heart to hear and respond to all of this. Blessings in your work, -David K

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