Thursday, June 26, 2014

On reaching 'Generation Citizen'

In a spate of newspaper articles (here, for example) on the youth of today columnists have drawn attention to 'Generation Citizen'. Apparently today's bright young things are more likely than self-indulgent 'Baby Boomers' to get involved in voluntary activities. When choosing a job they are more interested in a company's ethics and values than its lucrative bonus offers. Reportedly, being raised during the 'Great Slump' has given our young people a more serious and determined outlook on life. They know that if they are going to make it they need self-discipline and hard work. Today's youngsters are not so much hedonistic ravers as altruistic world savers. What's not to like?

My question in this post is how may we contextualise the gospel to appeal to 'Generation Citizen'? John Piper's well known championing of 'Christian Hedonism' could be described as an attempt to contextualise the Christian message for hedonistic 'Baby Boomers', for whom the quest for pleasure was the main thing in life. Admittedly, Piper attempted to reorientate pleasure seeking towards God. He famously proposed a tweak to Answer 1 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism to the effect that, 'Man's chief end is to glorify God by enjoying him for ever'. But I wonder whether earnest 'Generation Citizen' types will find all that talk of theological pleasure seeking a little bit frivolous and self-indulgent?

The Christian faith lays great importance on personal responsibility, virtuous conduct, stable family life and hard work. Community service is also important for believers.  'Generation Citizens' have grown tired of the narrow individualism of the previous generation. Today's young people want to get involved in their local communities. It needs to be stressed that being a Christian is not an individualistic spiritual quest. It draws one into the shared life of the church, where people of all ages and backgrounds care for each other and bear witness together to the good news of Jesus.

Churches at their best are deeply embedded in their local communities. They run Parent and Toddler Groups, clubs for children and young people, ensure that the elderly are visited, and so on. Aside from the direct activities of the church, believers often get involved in activities like serving as hospital link drivers or school governors, for example. They do so because they want to contribute to the wellbeing of their local community, or 'seek the peace of the city' to use Jeremiah's words, (Jeremiah 29:7). Christians want to make a difference and that in itself will speak volumes to contentious young people.

If the church is to engage with 'Generation Citizens' we will need to deploy what I call the 'Titus Strategy'. By that I mean that we implement Paul's programme for developing thriving gospel churches on the island of Crete. The newly planted churches on that island were in something of a mess. They had become too much like the world to win the world to the different and better way of the gospel. Paul sent Titus to Crete to ensure that the churches were well led by godly and able elders. The task of the elders was to root out false teaching, preach the gospel with clarity and show how the faith should be worked out in every area of believers' lives.

Teaching on practical Christian living was to be applied searchingly and discriminatingly to older and younger men and women. The conduct of believers in the world of work was to 'adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things' (Titus 2:10). Paul wanted believers on the isle of Crete to stand out from that notoriously corrupt society (Titus 1:12-13). They were to be 'zealous for good works', (Titus 2:14), 'ready for every good work' (Titus 3:1), and 'careful to maintain good works' (Titus 3:8, 14).

Paul's 'Titus Strategy' wasn't a 1st Century equivalent of do-goodery. All of the apostle's imperatives on doing good works were rooted in the the grand indicative of the gospel, Titus 2:11-14, 3:4-7. It is the life-transforming power of the gospel that impels the believer to do good both within the life of the church and also in the life of the community, Galatians 6:10. What 'Generation Citizens' need above all else is the gospel in all its fulness. They need to see the gospel embodied in the lives of believers as they faithfully play their roles in the drama of redemption. But they also need to hear the message of salvation boldly proclaimed that they may believe it and be reconciled to God.

We welcome a new emphasis on young people becoming engaged and active citizens. That's all well and good. But the Christian faith is not about changing the world by human effort, but the salvation of the world by God's grace. Receiving that message involves accepting that however well intentioned we may be, that we are all sinners in need of forgiveness and a fresh start in life. That's a hard thought to take on board. It humbles our pride and exposes our spiritual brokenness. But the fact is that it is often those who have surrendered themselves to God's free offer of mercy in Jesus who have then gone on to make a big difference in society. Think of William Wilberforce's campaign to abolish slavery or Lord Shaftesbury's agitation for better working conditions for ordinary people, or John Howard's prison reforms. Those whose 'citizenship is in heaven' have repeatedly been among the most active citizens in their generation. We have a message for 'Generation Citizen' that needs to be powerfully preached and practically performed by the people of God today. 

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