“The only thing that is constant is change. Churches are changing as new people take on leadership, and we might not agree with these new leaders, but we must always tolerate them.” This idea was presented by one of the attendees at February’s Coffee Talk on intergenerational worship. As we were nearly out of time, my co-panelist the Rev. Scott Kinder-Pyle was just able to pose the question, “How do we tolerate those who are intolerant?” in response. Such complex and ever-relevant ideas and questions deserve a response, so rather than allowing the end of the Coffee Talk to be the end of the conversation, I will address them here.
As my dear church friend and I met for brunch one weekend, we vented our frustrations about older members of our church. It seemed as if they simply couldn’t understand us. They were so stuck in the past, we said, so unwilling to change or see things our way.
Then, as I dug into my hash browns with self-righteous indignation, my friend said something quite profound.
“It gives me hope to think that someday that will be us,” she said. “Someday, my kids will tell me that I don’t understand. I won’t be the progressive one anymore. I will be stuck in my ways, but the world will keep on progressing.”
It is easy for me as a Christian millennial to think that I can see the world in ways that my older mentors cannot. I see myself as the broadminded hero fighting for justice and relevant biblical inquiry. But that won’t always be the case. The very people my friend and I were frustrated with were once the young people in their church communities, and someday we’ll be seen as the stubborn curmudgeons stuck in our own ways.
Age is different from identities like gender or race in that as we age we experience different stages in our identity. To be a “millennial” won’t always mean to be 20-something. Someday, millennials will be the new baby boomers.
Remembering this can help us be more empathetic to members of other generations. It is a bit easier to tolerate new and seemingly crazy ideas when you remember that you once had new ideas, and it is easier to tolerate hesitancy when you imagine people in the future fighting to change the very things you are currently fighting for.
Of course, while this sort of tolerance would be ideal, it’s not very realistic. So, what do we do when we encounter intolerance?
In his book “Befriend,” pastor Scott Sauls gives a fresh perspective on the classic parable of the prodigal son. People who grew up in Christian churches like myself are familiar with this tale: There are two brothers, and the younger takes his inheritance and squanders it in wild living. When he comes home to beg his father to take him in as a servant, his father welcomes him home with an embrace and a party. The older brother is upset that he has never been rewarded for his obedience with any kind of celebration, so he sulks outside. When his father comes out and asks him to come into the party, the brother refuses.
A moral often presented for this parable is that we should accept and love others, even when they’ve done something wrong. We look at the older brother as a villain, as a person who is unwilling to accept his own brother. The story is somewhat of a trap in this way. Sauls notes that, in regarding the older brother as the bad guy, we are behaving exactly as he did toward his younger brother. This is often the case when talking about tolerance – we argue that we should tolerate everything but intolerance. But when we look upon our proverbial older brothers with complacent resentment, as I did some of the members of my church, we are practicing the very intolerance we claim to be against.
Churches are constantly changing, whether they are dying out or actively bringing in new members. Regardless of whether we resist or campaign for change, we are all susceptible to standing in the way of truly loving other people. We can become so defensive of our own ideas that we end up arguing with and passing judgment on each other, rather than working together to build a stronger, more inclusive, more tolerant, more loving church.
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