by John Seel
Published on June 7, 2022


David John Seel, Jr.

There are no church youth groups that are currently being led by grandfathers. Why is that? For many years now the church has segregated its services and programs by age. This is a mistake.

The Uvalde school shooting has cable news pundits once again acknowledging that something is seriously wrong with American society. They also acknowledge that the complexity of the problems we face are beyond easy and quick political fixes.

Grandfathers know better in that we have a sense of history. We remember times when pickup trucks were routinely parked in school parking lots with guns on their rack. We remember having our hunting guns under our beds in the college dorm. Any of these behaviors forty years ago would have us arrested today. Guns are now more than a tool. They now carry more than bullets. They symbolize the reality of a culture in crisis. They are more than a personal tool or Constitutional provision.

Culture reflects the shared values and norms that hold society together. Culture reflects the assumed authority that these norms hold over individual lives. We live in a world where all transcendent norms have been erased. Do you smell the smell of God decomposing?

This is the world of which Nietzsche foresaw in 1880, ” Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition?” More recently University of Pennsylvania sociologist Phillip Rieff called this a “deathwork culture.” He concluded, “No culture has ever preserved itself where it is not a registration of sacred order. There, cultures have not survived. The notion of a culture that persists independent of all sacred orders is unprecedented in human history.”

 All it takes to create a mass shooter is to place a lonely boy in the twenty-first century and leave him there. The lack of a family system, the Internet, and the vapors of culture will do the rest. This was the conclusion of poet Edwin Brock at the end of World War I:

There are many cumbersome ways to kill a man:

you can make him carry a plank of wood

to the top of a hill and nail him to it. To do this

properly you require a crowd of people

wearing sandals, a cock that crows, a cloak

to dissect, a sponge, some vinegar and one

man to hammer the nails home.

Or you can take a length of steel,

shaped and chased in a traditional way,

and attempt to pierce the metal cage he wears.

But for this you need white horses,

English trees, men with bows and arrows,

at least two flags, a prince and a

castle to hold your banquet in.

Dispensing with nobility, you may, if the wind allows, blow gas at him. But then you need a mile of mud sliced through with ditches,

not to mention black boots, bomb craters,

more mud, a plague of rats, a dozen songs

and some round hats made of steel.


In an age of aeroplanes, you may fly

miles above your victim and dispose of him by

pressing one small switch. All you then require is an ocean to separate you, two

systems of government, a nation’s scientists,

several factories, a psychopath and

land that no one needs for several years.

These are, as I began, cumbersome ways to kill a man. Simpler, direct, and much more neat

is to see that he is living somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century, and leave him there.

The point of this critique is not to create paralysis, but clarity. You cannot address a problem until it has been identified. We have a cultural crisis rooted in a widespread religious disaffection. It is systemic, ubiquitous, and metastasizing.

Among the reality-defining institutions and national elite gatekeepers of America wiping away traditional norms and assumptions about reality is a conscious mission. They champion a morally upside-down world. Regarding the Supreme Court leaker, MSNBC pundit Laurie Kilmartin stated recently, “I would like to find out who the leaker is. So I can make sweet love to that person because that person is a hero. A lot of people are saying the leaker could be a conservative. If the leaker is a Republican, and if I get pregnant during our love making, I will joyfully abort our fetus.” If we live in a deathwork culture where such comments are made on national television news and thought to be funny by the host, we can expect the emergence of school shooters.

Grandfathers have something that they can uniquely do in such a world. We need to be present in the lives of young boys—not simply our own grandchildren, but any young boy who comes across our path. We need to stop the systemic isolation of grandfathers from young people—of which, the church is culpable. In our society those who are most vulnerable to this deathwork culture are fatherless boys. There are three times more boys growing up without a father in the United States than in any other country in the world (25% versus 7%). That is over 18 million children who do not live with a father figure. Add to this statistic that we have 5% of the world’s population and 40% of the world’s guns. This in a society where transcendent norms have been abandoned. Individualism, fame, violence, and wealth celebrated. The contours of the problem emerge.

But as grandfathers we can be present in the life of some boy in our neighborhood. We can mentor teens on the three keys to avoiding poverty: finish high school, get a full-time job, waiting to get married until after 21 and do not have children till after being married. We can help young boys in all these areas, through gentle wise counsel.

It is my experience that you do not have to be an expert on youth culture to make a difference. All young people want is presence and non-judgmental listening. Several years ago, I wrote a book on millennials, The New Copernicans: Millennials and the Survival of the Church. My millennial son, Alex, suggested that I share the findings of my book with his New York friends. I asked them to be my “crap detectors.” After sharing they asked a few thoughtful questions and then declared, “Can we continue to meet with you?” I have gone back several times. I just show up and let them talk. My affirming presence is all they long for in a world where most of them do not have fathers or are estranged from them. I don’t argue politics or religion. I listen. I just try to demonstrate before them a certain kind of grandfatherliness. There is nothing hip about me. I’m as old school as one can get. But I can love them, learn about their world, show interest in it, and answer questions when asked. Most of us have hobbies. We could easily invite young men to be a part of our hobbies. You might show interest in their hobbies. How else would have I learned about street skateboarding and met Tony Hawk?

School shooters are almost always fatherless boys with no older male connection. True religion is looking after orphans and widows in their distress, which in our world means fatherless men (James 1:27). We may not be able to solve our cultural crisis, but we do have time, life experience, social connections, past failures, and personal presence that is a much-needed salve in our social wounds. If we don’t have opportunities through our children or church to make connections with young men, we can easily join social organizations that do. Bill Bennet stated recently, “One thing is true in all civilizations: boys need men as fathers. You can’t raise boys without men. We see that every day.”

Why are grandfathers not leading church youth groups? It is not hipness that matter but presence. We have the something to give to our society. Boys need fathers. Boys need grandfathers. Grandfathers need to be present in the lives of emerging young men. We must overcome this generational segregation. There is something that we can do. It is time to get our cane and get off the couch. Grandfathers are the missing ingredient in meaningful social change. Can we afford to wait any longer?


David John Seel, Jr. is a writer and cultural analyst. He is the author of Network Power: The Science of Making a Difference. Seel has a doctorate in American Studies from the University of Maryland (College Park), an M.Div. from Covenant Theological Seminary, and a B.A. from Austin College. He is a grandfather of four grandchildren and lives with his wife, Kathryn, and dog, Malibu, on a 250-year-old farm in Philadelphia.


Feature Photo graciously contributed by Joseph Redfield Nino from Pixabay



Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Discover more from Christian Grandfather Magazine

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading