by Thomas Billings, Jr., @TBillingsJr
There are many ways to go about attempting to best understand generational differences. In our every changing world, with the rate of change speeding ever so quickly, just when you get a handle on one generation another one is rising. For myself, just ten years ago I was spending as much of my free time studying Generation X and the worldview of post-modernism. Now in my spare time I find myself studying Millennials. Yet, I am also very aware that the generation behind the Millennials is already in our youth ministries in churches across America! So one might ask, “Why study generational differences if it’s just going to change? Why not spend our time studying the Bible more?”
That’s a great question. And while I don’t want to advocate not studying the Bible, I think there are great reasons why we need to study generational differences and raise our cultural awareness. In the twentieth century, generational differences and divides became important in every facet of our culture: marketing, music, ministry, etc. For more than a decade there has been talk and research done on how the 18 – 35 year olds (which now might be even older) are not returning to the church like they once did. Many churches have a much smaller percentage of this key demographic than any others. But how did this generational gap come about and what does it mean for the church?
Frankly, Baby Boomers have dominated every aspect of their lives, even to the detriment of other generations, just because of their sheer numbers. The largest generation ever recorded at the time, when growing up it was imperative that America invested in infrastructure and education. When they entered their professional careers, it was imperative for companies to invest and expand for this growing workforce population that had money to spend. Now that they are close to retirement, they are dominating politics like never before to keep interests rates low to help them save and make final purchases for retirement.
In the church, Baby Boomers were able to remake the church in their image as well. Sermons transitioned from exegetical sermons to topical sermons in series with several easy life application points. Worship services transitioned from the organ and piano to a band with a guitar leading and drums accompanying it, and from hymns to praise songs. Many churches quickly had Baby Boomer pastors by the time they were in their twenties and early thirties; many of which, those same pastors are still preaching and pastoring today.
Generation X, in contrast, is roughly 2/3 the size of Baby Boomers. Due, in part, to their mothers entering the workforce, gaining ground in education, and the introduction of birth control and abortion, they never had the numbers to influence our society like Baby Boomers. Job opportunities and promotions have been bottle-necked by Baby Boomers holding on to employment in an ever slowing job expanding economy.
In contrast to the Baby Boomers, Gen Xers had very little influence on a church dominated by their predecessors. Church positions that were available to Baby Boomers in their twenties and thirties were not available to Gen Xers until they were in their thirties and forties. As the generational and cultural divide increased, with less opportunities to remake the church, Xers became disheartened and eventually left the church, further diminishing their influence and needed cultural impact on the church.
Today we have the rise of the Millennial generation, which is quickly having an effect on our culture similar to that of the arrival of the Baby Boomers and which will quickly wrestle influence away from them. Larger than the Baby Boomers, they are similar in their hope and their desire to control their own destiny. Yet with a different economic environment, different life events, and different perspectives on how best to express their faith, they will be quite different from Baby Boomers.
Many churches will transition leadership positions from Baby Boomers to Millennials because there are so many of them and they will seize the opportunity that was not available for Generation X. They will have the gumption and numerical power to influence and change the church in ways that X-ers never could. Having fully embraced the post-modernization worldview that the X-ers introduced and struggled through, they will embrace paradoxes in their family life, their work life, their theology, and their application of their faith in new and exciting ways that will seem incongruent and confusing to the right/wrong, modern worldview of the Baby Boomers.
Where Baby Boomers looked for the comfort of certainty and X-ers looked for the comfort of mystery and indifference, Millennials will fully embrace the complexity of the Christian faith. Millennials will embrace cultural diversity in their neighborhoods, their workplace, and their churches. They will support the basic rights, dignity, and freedom of all people, even if they don’t agree with their lifestyle. They will embrace a holistic environmental theology that prioritizes the well-being of the planet above commerce.
Essentially, they will change the expression of our faith in their adulthood in the same way that Baby Boomers did. The Christian faith will be different because of them. Inequality, participation, creation, authenticity, transparency, and relational connection will all be major themes that will drive and influence how they express their faith in the world. They will be driven less by the “right answer” and more by the “right relationship,” completely throwing upside down the faith that many Boomers have been comfortable with.
The final question will be, “Will we gracefully allow them to shape and influence those of us in power positions in the established church today, or will they have to leave and create their own church, without our participation at best and with a fight, at worst, because we are too determined that we are right and they are wrong in how they express their faith?”