07 January 2013

The Church's Generational Log Jam is Making Everybody Cranky

Posted in Emerging, Culture, Church, Tagged with church culture generations leadership millenials tribes

logjamMinistry leaders can be so busy lamenting the fact there are fewer people in our churches these days that we often miss how the people who do attend are crammed together generationally.

We are unwittingly cramming six distinct generations into three traditional roles, and it causes all kinds of congregational tensions, which present persistent challenges to ministry leaders.

That’s the important point that Carroll Sheppard and Nancy Burton Dilliplane make in their helpful book Congregational Connections: Uniting Six Generations in the Church. I had the pleasure of co-leading a conversation on generations in the church with Carroll at a recent gathering of the Philadelphia Area Ecumenical Resource Network, and I appreciated this point:

“This is the first time in the world’s history when significant numbers of six demographic cohorts have all occupied the stage at the same time.”

“What is intensifying the problem is that these six generational cohorts are trying to squeeze themselves into an outdated three-generation model of elders, households raising children/career singles, and children.”

“In the six-generational cohort society, it is often unclear who is in charge, who will do the work, and who is raising the children.”

6 Generations Crammed Into 3 Roles

Sheppard and Dilliplane argue that we are trying squeezing the following six distinctive generations into the “old three-generation model (Elders, Worker-Bees raising children, and Children)”

  • Builders, born 1901-1924
  • Silents, born 1925-1942(45)
  • Baby Boomers 1943(46)-1960(63) - these three groups above are called olders
  • Gen X, born 1961(63)-1981(84) - these three groups below are called youngers
  • Millenials, born 1982(85)-2001
  • Gen Z, born 2001-

We can no longer afford to lump olders together and youngers together. They are distinct groups with their own needs, styles, cultural references, and spiritualities. The book does a nice job describing those in a congregational context. The conflicts they create, which are described in the book, will sound familiar to many ministry leaders.

Importantly, they say, people no longer experience “middle age” but, in fact, middle ages. “Adults are now experiencing multiple “middle stages” rather than middle age. Boomers are coping with two middle stages, and many have changed careers in their forties or early fifties, having already spent 20 or 25 years in their first.”

This has all helped to create a generational log-jam. People are trying to cram into these traditional categories, and either find themselves squeezed out or jockeying for room, airspace, and leadership roles.

The leadership challenge here is clear: "Congregational leaders are faced with having to be all things to each of the six generational cohorts: Builders, Silents, Boomers, GenXers, Millennials and the young “GenZers.”

Here are my takeaways for how to approach this ministry challenge:

Better Know Your Generations

Become more familiar with each of the six generations. What are the cultural references? Formative experiences? Spiritual needs? Churches are often steeped in the cultures of olders, because that’s who tends to show up in the church—but it was news to me in reading the book about the “Silent” generation—understandably, I guess, since they tend not to draw attention to themselves.

The church has much work to do on understanding younger generations—primarily because they aren’t present in our churches. Carol Howard Merritt’s book Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation paints a great picture of younger generations and their own hopes, spiritualities, and frustrations.

Tribes, More Important Than Ever

We need to move from larger general categories to more focused micro-communities within the congregation. Each generation is a tribe, but within each generation, or transcending each generation there are tribes of all sorts—gathered, or longing to be gathered—around ideas, interests, spiritual practices. Seth Godin’s book Tribes: We Need You To Lead Us is a great guide for gathering and leading tribes.

Program for Tribes

Church programming ministry tends to follow the traditional old three generation model. Our programs needs to be more tribal, offering learning, fellowship, and service opportunities to small, specific groups. We also need to bring these tribes together in inter-generational activities to build understanding and community.

Gen-X ers: Be the Bridge

As a Gen-Xer reading this book, it brought home an important role of our generation in building generational understanding. Gen-X ministry leaders can be a generational bridge between olders and youngers. We grew up with boomers (our parents) and perhaps lived closer to our grandparents in a time when families weren’t quite as far flung as they are today. And we also, in large part because of technology, inhabit a world very different from Boomers, and so we have much in common with Millenials and even Gen-Z. We have an opportunity to help build the bridge from olders to youngers, from the past to the future.

Community at The Core

Finally, Sheppard and Dilliplane write,

“Congregations that embrace community as their primary core value are the most likely to be able to create authentic multi-generational events and worship, no matter what their liturgical tradition.”

“The way of love will ask Olders to understand that they too must hand over the mantle of prophecy—not knowing what words will be spoken, texted or tweeted, what videos will be made or played. What they can ask is that the Youngers speak truth fearlessly and proclaim Jesus’ rule of love to the 21st century.

Love asks the Youngers to deeply respect the sacrifices and struggles of the Olders to preserve the best as their world has fallen apart.”

photo credit: Rudy Salakory

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