Talkin’ ’bout my generation (part 1): Unassuming generations

There is a model of ‘intergenerational theological decline’ that has been doing the rounds of late, and perhaps you may have heard it: the first generation wins or establishes the gospel in their context, the next generation assumes the gospel, and the third generation loses the gospel.

As an historian, I have no major problem with the model (typology) per se, although I think it tends to get used unhelpfully. When it is used descriptively it has a degree of aptness for some Christian institutions in history—particularly (but not exclusively) those of a non- or inter-denominational nature (i.e., those predicated on leaving aside certain theological distinctives in order to maintain partnership in another activity, such as a Christian aid organization rather than a teaching ministry). As such, the model can serve as a good warning against complacency.

Nevertheless, I have several objections to what the model hides from view, and unless we come to grips with these other ‘unassuming’ generational realities, then we really do run the risk of perpetuating the model.

Particularly, the model is entirely too neat and static in its presentation of a ‘generation’. It fails to account for: what a generation may do over time (i.e., the first generation may itself become ‘complacent’); what one generation may inherit from another generation; and especially what a generation will do to another generation to come.

In thinking about generations and responsibility in the Bible, certain intergenerational realities emerge:

  1. Each generation is responsible for their own sins. God will punish my parents’ generation for their sins and me for mine.
  2. While I am responsible for my sin, not my forebears, the consequences of my forebears’ sins are mine to deal with, and the actions of one generation can last for generations—for good and for ill (the sexual revolution is perhaps the most tangible evidence of this in recent times).
  3. Looking the other way, while my children are responsible for their own sins, I share in that responsibility if I lead them into sin—in fact, it’d be better for me to have a millstone tied around my neck before I do that.

Already I hope you can see how the model falls down by not taking into account of the fact that while the third generation may indeed ‘lose it’, the seeds for such corruption may well have been planted by the former generations.

The model also fails to account for historical distinctives in why a decline in the gospel occurred in any one particular generation; it doesn’t encourage self-reflection and the wisdom that is to be gained from learning specific historical circumstances.

To give an acutely relevant example, we keep hearing that ‘generation X’ is the unassuming generation (i.e., in gospel terms, we’ll be the generation that assumes the gospel because of our unassuming nature). But why is this? Isn’t it because the baby boomers have so dominated western activity post-WWII that they didn’t know how to let go, how to move aside from ‘power’ and mentor the next generation instead (Peter Bolt has made some helpful reflections on this in the Australian Church Record)? The model of ‘generational decline’ doesn’t allow for this specific intergenerational perception, and of one generation’s responsibility in what another generation is now responsible to deal with. But hear me clearly: the point is not to apportion blame, but instead the point is to know my situation better and learn the lesson (because I’ll inflict things on the next generation too). As I learn the specifics of the historical lesson, I then learn wisdom for my ministry: ministry now, ministry in the future, and ministry now for the sake of the future (e.g. perhaps not to dominate the pulpit every week, but give the next generation of preachers a safe context to grow as preachers as I mentor them).

Let me give another contemporary example. In the contexts where I tend to hear this model being used, it is generally used by my generational forebears who see themselves as having won the gospel in their context and me as the generation that is going to assume it. Now please don’t mistake me: the struggles that my forebears engaged in to bequeath me with what I have were momentous, mostly hidden (i.e. we don’t know about them because they don’t parade it), and of vital benefit for my generation. And I praise God for it. Nevertheless, two things strike me as outrageous about this use of the model.

First, so many times in the last decade when I have tried not assume my theology, but let it drive my practice, I get a smile from my generational forebears and we move on without interaction. For instance, I see reams of business model and psychological literature imported into church practice without any thought about its long-term impact on ecclesiology and theological robustness in church. That is, the people that tell me I’m in the assuming generation are doing the assuming for me! This is evident in what the former generation has bequeathed to me in ecclesiology in my own context: not much Bible in church, not much prayer in church, rarely a confession, certainly no Lord’s Prayer or creeds, and a Zwinglian view of the sacraments (if any view at all). I live now in a church world devoid of theological depth and devoid of theological safeguards (but big on ‘community’, whatever that is). I find it difficult in that light to be then told that I am going to assume the gospel in my context. The model, used in this fashion, blinds both generations about what is really going on. I’m now responsible for what I’ve inherited, of course, and not for a minute do I wish to promote a victim mentality, but my point is that the model of decline doesn’t teach me to perceive intergenerational consequences. And so I run the danger of perpetuating them myself on my children.

Second, and contrastingly, I see in conversation many in my generation who are thoughtful thinkers, who want to respect the good things our forebears did—and let’s praise God for it, blessing as well as cursing flows across generations, and what blessings have we received from previous generations!—who nevertheless see the seeds of destruction in what we have inherited too, and want to regain what was lost by the generation that ‘won’ it. People who in their own local contexts fight the good fight day by day, only to be told at conferences that actually they assume it, rather than be mentored (i.e. personally, pastorally, individually) by their elders. Used in this way, it hides the responsibility of one generation to own their mistakes and help the next generation to address them. I find it useful for someone to show me the model, but I find it less than useful for a generational forebear to think they’ve done their job by telling me only this. We need wisdom – and that comes personally, privately, pastorally, and over a period of time.

In other words, the generation before me won some things, assumed others, and lost others. My generation, in the context of that milieu, will also win, assume and lose other things. And I need to learn the historical specifics so as not to perpetuate mistakes myself, and to adopt a long-term view of the week-by-week ministry I conduct. For example, if each week I choose not to say the creeds, when will I ever? After a decade, will my children ever have heard a creed? Can I be content with conducting a week-by-week ministry that cuts my children off from 2000 years of Christian orthodoxy (never mind the week-by-week benefits of saying the creeds)?

Rather than being fatalistic or reductionistic with the model of decline, perhaps our time would be better spent in prayerful reflection asking these questions instead:

  1. In what ways am I in danger of assuming or losing the gospel in my context?
  2. What have I inherited from my forebears that will reap fruit if I cultivate it, or reap destruction unless I repent of it?
  3. What do my actions over the course of years mean will be sown for the generation to come, and how can I change what I do now in order to prevent it?

It’s with these questions that we’ll become the unassuming generation: that is, the generation that strives to question every practice in light of the preservation of gospel across the years.

In future posts, I hope to pick up on several things that I’ve touched on here:

  • Stepping aside (not out) so others can step up (not in)
  • We stand on the shoulders of giants
  • Sowing and reaping: adopting a long-term view of ministry
  • Craving for wisdom

30 thoughts on “Talkin’ ’bout my generation (part 1): Unassuming generations

  1. GREAT post Scott! When I’ve heard that model before, I’ve heard the good intensions behind it, but I’ve also found it a bit patronising. Ironically one thing the boomers have been successful in is passing on to us the need to be theologically rigorous, and so ‘assuming’ the gospel isn’t the pressing issue among my peers. In fact, over the last decade or so of ministry I’ve often seen the younger ministers keeping the older ones to account! 

    By the way, I heard the model used in another context recently. “First generation makes the wealth, second builds the wealth, third loses the wealth” Looks like we just appropriated the model from elsewhere.

  2. Wow … fabulous post, Scott. I heard the model, assumed it, and now you’ve helped me lose it… (Don’t worry, I did take away a slightly more nuanced version of your point smile

  3. What Scott is saying:

    God will punish my parents’ generation for their sins and me for mine.

    What God is saying:

    I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me,

  4. I’m not persuaded that we should give up this expression of decline. It seems to have a lot of truth in it and to be evident in many situations.

    Many churches today are a pale shadow of their forebears through a gradual devaluing of Scripture and its message.

    This was the first thing I read on Twitter this morning:
    Scripture doesn’t need to be denied for apostasy to begin: all that is needed is that Scripture takes second place. Iain Murray

  5. Hi everyone, thanks for the comments.

    David, I don’t think we should give it up altogether either. As I said, as a description and a warning, it has a certain usefulness at times.

    What I’m arguing is that it hides more than it reveals. Most so, when used prescriptively, it fails to be of much use and can be counter-productive.

    If we’re going to learn how not to do what the model suggests we’ll do, then we need to learn the wisdom from specific situations, not the general model.

    Peter – I think the verse you have quoted is actually about the second of the three points I made about what the Bible says about generational responsibility, not the first.

    The converse is true too, of course: of the multiplication of generations that receive blessing because one generation loved God and sought to keep his commands. Whatever the sins of Christendom, there is a blessing that we still have because generations and generations before us, people chose to love God. It’s very hard for us to see it since that blessing is so ingrained in our culture (although Western society is rapidly departing from it, so it’s becoming more obvious).

  6. Great post, Scott. This cliche need challenging on so many levels, not the least the way in which it made one generation the ‘heroes’ of the story.

    It then becomes a story which is used to bully people. Enough already!

  7. Perhaps because I’m not in paid ministry, I haven’t encountered this expression used as a stick to beat Gen-X with (and frankly, I think the Boomers are the third in the cycle!).  I do think that it still has value as a warning, particularly in my context: 
    As a first-gen Christian, I have had to work through a great many things from first principles.  My primary-age children, however, simply see the practices resulting from those thoughts, and (I guess) perceive them as What Christians Do.  It is up to parents to explain WHY we do as we do, based on our understanding of Scripture.  We don’t need to teach them What Christians Do; we need to teach How Christians Think, lest my children be nominal and my grandchildren openly godless.
    At this point we should also consider how to not push models so far that they detract from God’s sovereignty!

  8. Scott,

    I think the verse you have quoted is actually about the second of the three points I made about what the Bible says about generational responsibility, not the first.

    Your three points are a great example how theology can be re-interpreted and twisted to suit your own view.
    – Your first point rejects the word of God (Deuteronomy 5:9)
    – Your rejection of the Biblical view of God punishing the children for the sin of the parents leads you error in the second point. You soften the God’s word to mean that we have to deal only with the consequences of our forebears’ sins.
    – Then this twist is turned on its head by sharing the responsibility of one’s sin. This is then contradicting your first point

    When you don’t start from the word of God, you end up to your own view.

  9. Peter,

    Your first point is mistaken (and hence all your subsequent points) since Deut 5:9 is superseded by Jer 31:28–30 (cf. Ezek 18:2–4):

    Just as I watched over them to uproot and to tear them down, to demolish and to destroy, and to cause disaster, so will I be attentive to build and to plant them,” says the LORD. “In those days, it will never again be said:

      The fathers have eaten sour grapes,
      and the children’s teeth are set on edge.

    Rather, each will die for his own wrongdoing. Anyone who eats sour grapes—his own teeth will be set on edge.

  10. P.S. Can someone fix that apostrophe in the title? I mean the one that has been smart-quoted backwards at the beginning of the abbreviated “about”? It should be ’bout, not ‘bout!

  11. All this generational stuff has answers in the Bible. History is a process of gaining wisdom. Each stage is a cycle, and each cycle is like the next level in a video game. Those who qualify get to move on, or move up, to the next level.

    Every biblical covenant contains:

    Transcendence – Who’s the boss
    Hierarchy – Whom God puts in charge
    Ethics – Rules
    Sanctions – Blessings and Curses (depending upon obedience)
    Succession – The future, inheritance in history

    An example would be Phinehas inheriting the priesthood, Israel’s second (more faithful) generation inheriting the Land, and, of course, Jesus inheriting the nations.

    The church has faced more curved balls from God (via the world) in the past half century than ever before. God uses these things to purify the body of Christ. So, if it’s any consolation, the church is wiser than ever before. And those who willingly drink the koolaid of a degenerate culture, whether within the church or without, God cuts out of history.

    God is always doing something new, but His ways are consistent. This pattern above we see in Genesis 1-3, and in all subsequent biblical and church history. If you bring forth the fruit God wants, you get a bigger job to do, with more responsibility. Which is why I am postmillennial. The gospel is conquering the world. We just don’t understand God’s ways. In a transcendent, holy, loving sense, God wants good, Covenant-minded ‘gamers’ who understand the mission – and the rewards.

  12. Hi Martin,

    Thanks for the note on the apostrophe; I didn’t notice that the blogging platform was ‘auto-correcting’ that field.

  13. Hi Scott

    Your conclusion in the last paragraph: And I need to learn the historical specifics so as not to perpetuate mistakes myself, and to adopt a long-term view of the week-by-week ministry I conduct. Not sure what you’re getting at here?

    For example, if your children are growing in their knowledge of the scriptures why would you conclude that they are cut off from ‘2000 years of Christian orthodoxy’?


  14. Martin,

    So you have accepted the idea that God’s absolute moral behavior depends on time and place. I guess this relativistic moral view is becoming more popular. I don’t see God’s moral behaviour changing between Deut 5:9 and Jer 31:28–30 (punishment does not equal death).

  15. No, Peter, I accept the fact that God’s interaction with his creation is not static and so changes as he moves us toward his goal. Consequently I can eat pork!

  16. Hi Dianne,

    Thanks for the questions.

    What I meant by learning historical specifics is that we need to learn wisdom. And I guess I believe that a significant part of wisdom is a combination of knowing our history (and history in general), and being able to perceive the long-term consequences of actions.

    So while I think the ‘generational decline model’ is a useful description at times, it doesn’t actually impart any wisdom in how to go about not doing it. It’s through looking at the specifics of situations that we’ll learn wisdom. Did Princeton theological seminary really turn liberal overnight? What were the factors that led to decay? Etc. And, as I learn what happened, I ask: how in my context would I prevent that from happening?

    I’ll write more about wisdom in a later post, but that’s what I meant.

    As for the example of creeds … I meant it as an instance of learning the ability to conduct (and defend, and promote) a week-by-week ministry that can see the decade-long consequences of decisions. I’ll write more about this too in a subsequent post.

    But as for creed-saying itself … another significant part of wisdom is listening to our elders reflect (history is really just an unpersonal form of this?). I’d be a very impoverished Christian if I said that all I need is the Bible and Bible teaching. Sola Scriptura is not a statement about ‘Bible alone so nothing else is worthwhile’; it’s about the Bible alone in authority for *all* matters of faith and conduct.

    The creeds have withstood the test of over 1600 years as an expression of Christian unity, a unity founded on a remarkably expressed – succinct, deep, accurate –  trinitarian theology (I’m thinking the Nicene Creed here). No, it’s not the Bible, but I’d be pretty unwise to just dismiss using it because it seems out of touch (!?!) or my congregation isn’t familiar with it (it’s not familiar with it because we never say it). In terms of its theological rigour, depth, and memorable expression of Christian faith – they are pretty special documents.

    Of course, we could argue that we don’t need to say these in particular – why not other good Christian literature? And I agree – we should learn the wisdom of other good Christian writing from history. But I defy anyone to show me how in their church context they have dropped out the creeds and subsequently replaced them in the broader life of the church with a means to teach in a memorable, deep, robust fashion trinitarian theology … for the whole church.

  17. I think that little aphorism says more about the boomer self-importance than about historical reality. Every generation has to “win” the gospel anew in it’s context. Sometimes the field is fruitful, sometimes it’s a bit fallow.

  18. re the ‘self importance’ and ‘bullying’ spoken of in previous comments and also the danger of stereotyping:

    Any person ‘in Christ’ is a new creation, a brother in Christ, a member of the household of faith and to be loved ‘as Christ has loved us’. We have to be careful not to be in denial or doubt that the Spirit is transforming the minds of all Christians as they live by the word of God.

    Our relationships in the household of faith are to reflect submissiveness and love across the generations. For example from Timothy 1: 

    Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity<em>.

    <em>Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honour, especially those who labour in preaching and teaching.

    Command and teach these things.  Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.


  19. Friends, I’m a bit late to the discussion, but thought I’d alert you to an interesting article by Mark Glanville, “For the Sins of the Fathers: Generational Recompense in the Old Covenant and its Implications for Infants in the New Covenant” in Reformed Theological Review Sup #4, pp29-51 (not online), a festschrift for Bill Dumbrell.

    Mark argues that notwithstanding Ezekiel 18 (nor Jer 31:29-30), intergenerational recompense operates throughout the OT, across genres and across the timeline of OT history, and does not fade in later Israel, both in benediction and malediction. Just some of his many examples: 2 Chron 30:9, Psa 102:28, Psa 103:17, Prov 14:26, Prov 20:7, Isa 48:18-19, Isa 49:25, Isa 65:22-23, Isa 66:22, Jer 6:11, Jer 30:20, Jer 31:17, Jer 32:18, Jer 32:39, Lam 1:16, Lam 2:11, Hos 4:6.

    Mark states that generational recompense operates through 4 means:
    (i) Influence of parents’ teaching and example (good or bad).
    (ii) Inheritance of parental situation (e.g. land, tools, flocks, local and national security, etc).
    (iii) Occasionally through supernatural intervention most famously with Korah etc.
    (iv) In extreme cases of idolatry, by judicial activity, most famously with Achan.

    Mark notes that the pattern of generational recompense is quite often broken, through God’s intervening grace, and in the other direction by human apostasy and rebellion (examples include Josiah, Hezekiah, Joash returning to Lord despite parents, and David’s and Eli’s sons going astray. So individual responsibility is affirmed all the way through the OT alongside generational recompense.

    Mark suggest two theological underpinnings for generational recompense:
    (i) the inter-generational unity of the human race, via Adam’s federal headship, providing a principle that operates even more broadly;
    (ii)  horizontal unity through people groups (e.g. Israelite tribes).
    In addition, he notes the witness of non-western cultures to communally oriented action (giving the Masai as an example).

    Mark offers several reasons why the principle of generational recompense operates in the New Covenant (albeit modified given the absence of God’s people being gathered in a geo-political situation with land), noting alongside prophecies applying in this time (some listed earlier), and God’s consistency in how he deals with his people, specific NT witness such as Luke 1:50 and Matt 27:25.

    His conclusion is that the principle of intergenerational recompense continues to have relevance alongside individual responsibility.

  20. A couple of further thoughts…

    1. I can certainly think of Moses warning the new generation when they enter the land not to take the blessings they have inherited, by God’s grace (but also through the hard work of the elders, Joshua and Caleb) for granted. See Deuteronomy 7-8, esp. Deut 7:7-11 and Deut 8:17-18.

    2. In regards to the original saying Scott raises, I have not typically heard it being offered from a position of “looking down” from older leaders, but as a warning against complacency or taking important biblical doctrines (hard fought for in earlier contexts) for granted.

    That is, I have not heard it coming from ‘him above’ to ‘us below’, but from ‘me’ (not speaking personally but of a current leader)  to ‘us’ (also the current generation of listeners of various ages).

    3. All that said, I like how Scott challenges the potential oversimplification of the axiom and encourages us to learn lessons by more careful learning from the past and reflection on the present.

  21. Scott, re the creeds.

    Do the creeds cover adequately the justification by faith alone?  Do they adequately teach the theology of ‘Trinity’? Do they speak of the authority of the word of God? Perhaps it could be argued (from history) that the creeds could even have lead people to trust the authority of the ‘church’ over the Word of God?

    The Roman Catholic church have held to the creeds and yet have ‘mass’, Papal infallibility, prayers to Mary and saints….

    Are you suggesting that knowing the scriptures well is not enough to develop a ‘memorable, deep, robust fashion trinitarian theology … for the whole church?’

    Many a church with the creeds have evidenced a poor theology of the Trinity eg evidenced by the spread of ‘charismatic’ belief and practice, Roman Catholic church and many Anglican churches. 

    The reciting of creeds is one of many ways of teaching doctrine.  One could mount an argument, for example, that it is preferable to memorise lots of Scripture.

    Shouldn’t we explore the limitations of creed reciting as well as the benefits?

    I think you are being insensitive to those brothers in Christ who hold to sound Trinitarian theology yet do not recite the creeds.


  22. Martin,

    You eating pork is a human behavior, not God’s. So your comment does not address the issue. And of course God’s interaction with his creation is not static, but this also is irrelevant. I guess you don’t have grounding on your morals as you believe God’s morality is relativistic. If you think God changes his behavior then it is possible that nobody will be saved…

  23. Di – your point is well made. Let me try and make my point in a more respectful way.

    I think the aphorism as presented is incorrect and unhelpful, and I would urge those leaders who have taken to using it to stop doing so.

    Regarding it being incorrect, I have never heard anyone give offer any historical evidence for the aphorism. And I can easily think of many counter-examples.

    For example, in this simple model, John Calvin must be considered part of a “2nd generation” – ie. someone who takes the gospel for granted. Absurd idea!

    Or consider the evangelical revival in England. There were outstanding men (and women) in each generation –

    1st – Whitefield, Wesley
    2nd – Newton, Venn, Grimshaw, Scott
    3rd – Simeon, Wilberforce, Thornton
    4th – Buxton, Shaftsberry, Sumner

    There are many more names that could have been included. If they are not all known to us, they should be! Generation after generation of extraordinary people, committed to the gospel of grace.

    I say again to my elders, that the “3 generation” model is simply incorrect from an historical perspective. Even finding one example of it would not be enough to establish it as normative.

  24. Now, regarding it being unhelpful, I’d make the following points –

    1. Who is willing to identify themselves as the “first generation”? Surely we all stand on the shoulders of those who have come before. With respect, it does not sit well with Christian humility.

    2. Why is it that only the 3rd generation is in danger of losing the gospel? Why do the 1st generation believe they are immune? Look at men like Moses and David, who had terrible falls after lifetimes of faithful service. The aphorism could easily give someone a false sense of security and superiority.

    3. Contra Sandy, I’ve heard of this being used in a superior way. A friend at Bible college had a respected leader, 2 generations his senior, repeat the aphorism to the class. My friend interpreted it this way, “xxxx told us that we are the generation that are going to lose the gospel.”

  25. To conclude, the aphorism is historically suspect, and it carries with it a host of unhelpful side-effects. I know for myself, if I considered myself a “1st generation” and I said something like that, it would feed a sense of pride. Others might face a similar temptation.

    If you want to encourage young leaders to stay faithful, there are better ways. You might, for example, teach on Acts 20:28 – “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.”

    This would be a much better approach.

  26. Thanks for that fascinating ref to Glanville’s essay, Sandy.
    I’m interested that he lists Josiah and Hezekiah as breaks to the pattern. I take the point in that they are individuals standing against the tide – but the tide still comes. All the good stuff they do doesn’t reset the board at all. The collapse still happens, Josiah is killed, Hezekiah fails. There seems to be no way around the sins of Manasseh (eg. 2Kings 23:26, 24:3)… just delay.
    Which on gloomy days is how I think about our situation.

  27. Scott,

    My take on the aphorism is that it is pointing to the sad reality that because a group of Christians who are alive at any given time (which is what I think the Scriptures refer to when it talks about generations?) believe the gospel; this does not guarantee fidelity to the gospel in the future. (Though I have just read back over what I just wrote and I think about God’s sovereignty, election and perseverance of the Saints and how this does not abbrogate human responsibility – how the mind boggles – well mine does anyway!) smile
    I must confess to being a wee bit cynical about the whole generational classifications (eg. Builders, Boomers, Gen X; Gen Y; Gen Z; Cotton Wool Generation; etc) as I think people are pretty much the same from one generation to the next. Sure there are differences in taste, music, fashion, and technology changes, but total depravity is what it is.
    As for God’s people who are alive today, be they in their tweens, teens, young adults, middle aged retirees, twighlighters (as in; in their Twighlight years, not the movies) we are all called to contend for the Gospel and to learn from Church History; its triumphs and its tragedies.

Comments are closed.