The Last Waltz:

how the Church never made it past 1967 [part 3]

One of the major legacies of the 1960s and 70s was innovative and culturally engaged youthwork, born in the realisation that teenagers needed something different if Christianity were to reach them or retain its appeal. Youthwork had existed as a specialism before then, of course, but the 'generation gap' of the 60s gave it a new urgency and a new agenda. It moved from being an activity guided by the educational or developmental stage of the subjects to having more the nature of cross-cultural mission. But the assumption was that this was a holding operation, that when young people reached their mid-20s they would be sufficiently knowledgable and accepting of church to fit into its established patterns.

Youthwork has been a privileged space within the culture of the church, where church leaders are prepared to tolerate almost any innovation or practice if it can be shown to retain teenagers in the church or to reach out to unchurched young people. But as those young people enter their 20s and move beyond this space they find their freedoms abruptly curtailed. It is not expected that innovations or new practices be brought forward with them into adult church, still less that older adults should experiment to achieve the cultural connectivity that is lacking. Many put up with this, just to retain involvement with a church. Many leave as church ceases to seem relevant or even a worthwhile distraction. Some stay but fight to create relevant worship for adults, in forms such as 'alternative worship'.

This problem should have been foreseen and prepared for in the 1970s when teenagers were first provided with ministry enculturated into post-60s culture. But the Church was fighting internal battles over the charismatic movement, which was itself more cultural revolution than many could stomach. Some believed charismatic renewal would render the Church exciting and accessible to the secular world. Others found the very idea that church culture should change foreign and disturbing. Yet others saw the Church's duty as opposing the new secular culture, not accommodating to it. But it became clear, as the dust settled during the 80s, that any changes had been neither big enough nor in the right direction. The much-lamented 'missing generation' begins as the graduates of 70s youth ministry emerge to a church that neither connects with their world nor allows them the freedom to do so themselves now that they are no longer teenagers.

It is tragic that many of those who were most open to experiment with worship in the wake of charismatic renewal were also prone to theologies of separation from secular culture. The arguments over the holiness of rock music would be funny in hindsight had they not prevented so many musicians from developing a culturally connected form of worship when it mattered. By the time rock had been declared safe for Christians the wider world had moved on, and so had the talented musicians denied an outlet for their gifts. Church concerns for 'safety' remain a major source of cultural drag, delaying many an innovation until it is out of date and therefore no longer threatening to the conservative ones on the church council.

For many of the Easy Listeners, church became a 'last refuge' of the world and values of their youth. As such it is bitterly defended against the incursion of post-60s culture. It is also a refuge for those too young to remember life before the 60s but preferring the past to their own times. Institutional inertia has in part aided and in part been created by these people. A culturally conservative body in a time of change becomes attractive only to those who are culturally conservative. The more they predominate in such a body, the more culturally conservative it becomes. The spiral of disconnection becomes ever harder to break, since the majority are there precisely because they don't like the new world outside. And so the Church becomes a niche market, or dies out along with those to whom it is still relevant.

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