When I was working on the Doctor of Ministry degree at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary one of our facilitators assigned a book that launched several of us into a whole new stratosphere of church leadership. It was written by a Methodist minister trying to comprehend some of the unique mysteries of leading a congregation in a rapidly changing world. Douglas Alan Walrath had written Frameworks: Patterns for Living and Believing Today (Pilgrim, 1987) as a primer on the generations. It was my first exposure to the research into the age cohorts and what made them tick. More than anything, this small book, perhaps a doctoral paper itself, introduced me to the dynamics of church life as determined by the various age groups within the congregation. That was in 1987. It was fresh new stuff then. The world has shifted enormously since. Even more, we have grown from a four generational world to six generations living all at the same time.
Each day I am totally astounded that so many ministers have never studied or even given a glance at the generational aspects of church leadership. Shepherding a congregation of six distinct age groupings requires more than a wing and a prayer these days. Yes, of course faith isn't age, gender, race, culture, or socio-economic specific, all of us being one in Christ. Still, the six living cohorts in America today have been shaped by their particular times and therefore possess preferences, biases, likes and dislikes, approaches, and even worship styles unique to their time frames. This age diversity has created a generation gap in many churches. Too bad. They could eliminate the gap if they'd just make note, understand, and teach generation maps.
It's been hot stuff in the book aisles these days. There are current titles about the generations at work, educating millennials and bridgers, anticipating the buying habits of the boomlets, and how America will fare when the boomers finally retire. Over in the religion section there is volume after volume of dealing with the generations at church, the faith tendencies of each cohort, the ways they prefer to worship, and what they will bring to the covered-dish supper. Researchers have compiled trunks of data on what the age groups are looking for in a church, a children's ministry, a mission project, a counseling center, a pastor, and a leader. This isn't a topic on the bottom shelves or in the dark dusty corner. The generations are top drawer stuff.
Still, many pastors and spiritual leaders haven't given a nod. And, that perhaps, is why the generation gap is wrecking so many churches. There's a couple of points I want to hit---
1. Age differences aren't a sign of church dysfunction. Read the Bible. See how
many chapters and verses are devoted to the unique functions of age. There's
plenty about gray heads, running races, being like a little child, not letting
anyone look down on you because you're young, and the dangers associated
with each. Hey, it's life.
2. Most of us are in denial about generational stresses. Over and over I hear
pastor's say they don't experience any of the age stresses everybody is talking
about. Ask your group what one breakfast cereal to serve at your next church
prayer breakfast and see how many answers you get. it woun't divide the
church, but somebody won't like Life cereal or Fruit Loops.
3. Each generation has a unique point of reference. Study the six generations
in the chart I'll provide later. Each has been shaped by events that have
occurred in their lifetime. These events, some of them catastrophic, provide
profound outlooks on life. We must know them as we lead the church.
4. Generational specifics don't have to be a problem. They're not identified so
we can pit them against each other or even develop a chart of their priority in
the church. Teaching them may raise their awareness of the need to be all
things to all people so that some may be saved. In fact, many very missional,
effective congregations view their age diversity as an asset. It should be so in
5. There are visible faith elements in the generations. It's a point most of the
researchers have verified over and over again. The trend line for Christian belief
and church involvements is downward from the oldest generations to the
youngest. Therefore, there is a need to be particularly aware of the attitudes
and practices of the younger cohorts if the church is to reach them.
Hey, pastor, church leader, Sunday School teacher, small group facilitator, children's and youth worker! Heads up about the generations. Give it some study. Learn the distinctives of the generations in America today, and join with so many in praying---
Young men and maidens together, old men and children!
Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name is exalted;
his majesty is above earth and heaven. Psalm 148:12-13, ESV
So even to old age and gray hairs O God,
do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might
to another generation, your power to all those to come.
Psalm 71:18, ESV
There are hundreds of great books on the topic of the generations, plus many very informative articles and web sites. You can access an informative chart that I truly enjoy here. Check it out.
Generation gap at your place? Learn the generation maps to navigate this great world.