The Generation Gap

By this point, I’ve probably said most of the things that I think are at the real heart of the matter about music in church. Nevertheless, I planned to have one final post about “bridging the generation gap.”

Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, a generation gap is what this finally comes down to. Whether it’s defined by age or not, there are two different groups, one in a certain kind of continuity with the past, one representing new developments. Since the “traditions” of our churches were all at one point “new,” this should not be an impossible problem. But we are often unable to see across generation gaps like this one.


It’s been said that the “teenager” as we know it came into existence in the 1950s. In some ways, the movie Rebel Without a Cause (with James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo) typifies what it means to be a teenager: to feel misunderstood by the older generation (especially parents), and as a result to live for a while with a feeling of instability. As we watch the movie we identify with the teenage characters, and feel that there’s an unbridgeable chasm between the kids and the adults. It’s the ultimate tale of the generation gap. And it ends in tragedy, because no one is able to see across the divide.

When it comes to church music, it’s often been the same way. We see things in harsh black and white. “Either your music is going to dominate, or my music will dominate.” But those can’t be our only options. If they are, we have a grim future. Churches will split themselves into “churches for the young” and “churches for the old” or “churches for the traditional” and “churches for the contemporary.” Not only does this make music more important than it should be in our church life, it also (I’ll say it again) destroys the unity Jesus accomplished for us on the cross. The truth is that “in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, no slave nor free, male nor female.”

Learning from the 1960s

For many people the 1960s was a time of uproar. The generation gap portrayed earlier in Rebel Without a Cause became full-blown in the era of the Beatles, rock-n-roll, hippies, and the Vietnam War. In all of this, music was a lightning rod for the differences between the older generation and the younger generation: the sound of “my music” vs. “your music” sort of symbolized all of the differences between the generations. The attitude behind those quarrels didn’t do a lot to strengthen the relationships between those generations.


In the church, relationships are crucially important. We may not like what a younger generation likes. But as older Christians (and I know I’m writing as someone who hasn’t even reached middle age yet) it may be our responsibility to reach out in a certain amount of accommodation to those who are younger. I’m sure it’s clear by now that I don’t mean that we do this by throwing away our musical heritage–I think we need to embrace it and to encourage younger folks to come to appreciate it as well. But we should also recognize the possibility that some of the songs that appeal to younger people in our churches may have a lasting role in the church. Not all of them, that’s for sure, but some of them. One day, it’s very possible that “How Great is Our God,” “Here I Am to Worship,” “In Christ Alone,” and “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us,” will be looked back upon as real contributions to the music of the church.

This is where my plea for sanity comes in: most people now between 60 and 75 years old were, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the “younger generation” whose parents were on their case about “all that noise” they listened to. Here, in the ongoing struggles churches have over music, is the chance to do what your parents may not have done: to welcome with open arms what a younger generation has to offer. And if we do open our arms to these contributions, it’s much less likely that we’ll ever have to make the black and white choice between “their music” and “our music.” And in doing that, God will be honoured, the accomplishment of Christ’s cross will be lifted high, and the older generation–who already appreciate the musical heritage of the church–will be able to share that great heritage with a younger generation that may need a little help to see how wonderful our musical past is, and to realize how much it has to offer.