Although our kids might think otherwise, we weren’t around in 1840 when William Harrison of the Whig party became our ninth president. He was catapulted into office by a sagging economy and by a catchy campaign song, Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.
Tippecanoe is a river in Indiana, the site of Harrison’s military victory over the Shawnee Indians in 1811. John Tyler, in his early fifties, was Harrison’s running mate—the younger candidate in the campaign jingle.
Harrison, our oldest elected president until Reagan, died at age 68 on just his 32nd day in office—not our finest example of being young enough to serve! He was better known for his presidential campaign rather than accomplishments in his shortest-ever, truncated term of office.
For campaign naysayers who had argued that Harrison was too old to serve, his early demise left them feeling quite prophetic.
Life expectancy then hovered around 40 years---so in reality 68 was pretty old. Average life span in America has since doubled.
While Harrison succumbed to pneumonia complications (and didn't necessarily die of old age), his death still points to the wisdom of intergenerational pairing in leadership. With the younger Tyler ready to step in, the Whig party's influence in the office of the President stayed afloat. Tippecanoe tipped, and the younger Tyler took the helm as our tenth president.
Leaving this short history lesson from a couple centuries ago, let’s paddle our canoes back a couple millennia. The new lyrics may seem a bit over-the-edge, but you’ll soon catch our drift as we venture on with ‘Tip-a-Canoe and Titus 2.’
Is Your Canoe Tipping?
Tipped canoes? We see a lot of churches with lopsided congregations, favoring an older or younger demographic. Turns out, the word “lopsided” is actually a nautical term, describing a tilt to one side. It favors one side and droops (like the ear of a lop eared rabbit) accordingly on that same side.
Wait! Is there anything inherently wrong with lopsidedness? As long as people are getting saved and nurtured in their faith, shouldn't generationally lopsided churches be celebrated? So what's the big deal if our canoes tip dramatically to the side of a particular age group? 'Whatever floats your boat', right?
(Before insisting I'm all wet, let's acknowledge that there are some strong, generationally lopsided churches reflecting the demographics of their communities. Intergenerational ministry may not always be practical, just as an intercultural mix is difficult to achieve in mono-ethnic communities.)
Sustainability is the most commonly mentioned concern for older congregations. Will the church still be around in ten to twenty years, or will the church simply dissolve as the elderly die off?
And on the younger side of the age wave, what's ahead for young adults when they begin celebrating birthdays beyond their church's targeted youthful demographic? Do they simply follow a new current to another church that targets a slightly older age group?
While sustainability is certainly a concern going forward, we're missing the boat if we think primary dangers lurk only years downstream. Truth is, the water can get pretty murky right now in our peer-only ponds.
Missing out on generation-to-generation dynamics (in both directions) should be a great concern for all of us. "I have no need for generations apart from my own" conflicts with how God designed His Church. This declaration of generational independence limits our perspective, development, outreach and joy in the present, both personally and corporately—while moving us closer to treacherous rapids for the ride ahead.
Balancing Our Boats
Although I haven’t spent much time in canoes, I did compete on the rowing team in college at Seattle Pacific. Rowing in a four- or eight-man shell is an ultimate team sport—with no superstars. In fact, standing out is not a good thing in races that demand synchronized movement and sustained power from every oarsman— first with the legs, then lower back and finally with the shoulders and arms to finish the stroke.
If a racing shell (or canoe) tilts to one side, you know instinctively something is wrong. Imbalanced vessels do not win races. And you don’t counterbalance by adding extraneous weights to the opposite side of these sleek shells. The source of the problem is usually human behavior.
In rowing, even a slight turn of the head creates imbalance. Heads and torsos must stay centered, with eyes fixed straight ahead, attentive to the commands of the coxswain. As the smaller framed leader without an oar, the coxswain is the only one facing in the direction the racing shell is headed. Guiding with a very loud and commanding voice, he or she keeps the team in rhythm and on course.
Timing is critical. An oar submerged for an extra split-second can cause a disruptive event known as “catching a crab.” The oar blade gets stuck in the water, while the handle of the oar smacks the oarsman in the sternum. The racing shell quickly tips to the side of the submerged oar and embarrassingly sputters to a crawl, while teammates mutter unmentionable words in disgust.
In an instant, the prospects of winning that race all but disappear.
So, both Tippecanoe and tipped canoes demonstrate a clear need for balance, but who asked young Titus to come aboard?
Empowering Titus with coxswain-like authority, the Apostle Paul lays out a compelling racing strategy in Titus Chapter 2. His counter-intuitive, God-ordained plan offers balance. It helped avert generational lopsidedness in the Early Church, and we think this plan still has merit today.
Paul the elder asks
Titus the younger
to teach the older
—so that they can influence the younger.
With the rhythm of this back-and-forth, older-younger/younger-older leadership paradigm, no single generation dominates the boat from bow to stern, or from port to starboard. It’s truly a team effort, with everyone pulling together.
Notice the breadth of Paul’s language in Titus 2: WHOLESOME teaching, honoring God in EVERYTHING you do, bringing salvation to ALL people, TOTALLY committed to doing good deeds.
We easily recognize Paul's coaching toward wholehearted commitment. What we Americans seem to gloss over, though, is the intentional inclusion and interaction of each generation with other generations. Each generational part is engaged with the whole—with clear understanding that body parts are not meant to be whole by themselves!
Every generation has strategic value beyond its own generation. In mainstream American church contexts, we often emphasize wholesome and wholehearted love within generations but less commonly between them.
Titus 2 encourages us to strive for wholesome living within a wholesome church paradigm in which every generation impacts other generations. The older become role models for the young, and the younger Titus is instructed to offer both encouragement and spiritual challenge to the older, including admonitions to correct older adult behavior.
Staying in the Race
For several years in his twenties, one of our sons attended a young and vibrant church focused on Twenty Somethings. As he began to approach thirty, though, he started feeling a bit in the margins and out of sync.
Fortunately, church leaders began to recognize the shortsightedness of their over-emphasis on a singular age target—especially with a void of seasoned mentors. Wisely, they have since made a deliberate shift toward an intentionally intergenerational approach.
As we propel through life's seasons, many of our personal identities won't change (e.g. birthdate, birthplace, ethnicity, gender), but our age number, attaching like a barnacle to the side of our boat, keeps getting bigger until the day we die.
Church hopping/shopping every couple decades makes sense if we are called to be independent, self-centered, consumer-driven adults, looking for the perfect environment for each stage of life. In many ways our market-segmented culture can lead us down this tributary, but it conflicts with God's bigger picture and better plan.
As we grow older, we can't allow younger generations to become invisible to us, nor do we want to become irrelevant or invisible to younger generations. We all share an innate need to be valued and to glean from others—at every age and stage of life.
In spite of our generational differences, we're all in the same boat and benefit by winning this long race as a cohesive team. Let's move beyond the tipped canoes of generational favoritism or isolation, synchronizing our oars with the broader Christ-centered reach found in Titus 2.
We sang that song as kids—now let's practice it as adults!
Be a steady oar in your church, with your eyes fixed on Jesus—pulling not just for your side of the boat but for the whole team.
Let's row, row, row our boat together---courageously down the stream.