They are known by many names: Generation X, postboomers, baby busters, twentysomethings, slackers, whiners. Perhaps "Generation X"—taken from the title of Douglas Coupland's hip 1991 novel—is the moniker of choice since it signifies an unknown variable, a generation that is still in search of its identity. But whatever one calls these 38 million young men and women born between 1963 and 1977, we cannot assume they are simply the next round of alienated youth. What makes them unique is that they are the first generation to grow up in a post-Christian America. In this special report, we explore what effect they may have on society and how the church can reach out to them.
Androgynous, somber, and bored-looking, outfitted in Doc Marten boots, all-black, ripped T-shirts, baggy pants, and leather jackets, a twentysomething crowd streams late one night into Cabaret Metro, an alternative dance club in Chicago. Disheveled hair hides the women's faces, while the men sport crisply cut hair or shaved heads. They have come to hear Liz Phair, an up-and-coming grunge punk rocker.
Phair's sixties-style electric guitar squeals out dissonant notes to accompany her vulgar, honest, and cynical lyrics about gender wars and institutional hypocrisy. The band's beat moves the smileless ticket holders to gyrate and bop, eyes closed, tuning out the world as they surrender to Phair's rock-driven poetry.
Cabaret Metro's scene represents only one subculture of twentysomethings. The young men and women who make up Generation X are as diverse in outlook and style as the baby boomers before them. But what makes Generation X unique is the spirit of their age -an age widely regarded as postmodern and often as post-Christian. Social phenomena like AIDS, MTV, environmental catastrophe, and the lingering economic threat of a multitrillion-dollar federal deficit confront Xers; at the same time, they lack even the memory of a hope-giving gospel to help them face the challenges.
Many of those working closely with twentysomethings warn that because of these changes, what once worked in evangelism and discipleship is failing with large numbers of Xers. "In terms of evangelicalism, we have a generation coming up that doesn't speak the same language, doesn't go to the same places, doesn't have the same needs, and isn't looking to Christianity to answer their spiritual concerns," says researcher George Barna, author of Baby Busters: The Disillusioned Generation. "We either change or we lose them."
RAISED IN CHAOS
If, indeed, the church must change its approach to reach the Xers, it must first understand the essence of the brief but complex history of the 38 million individuals who make up Generation X. They are the children of divorce, with 50 percent coming from broken homes; and they are the children of two-job families, where parents often were not around.
In their book "13th Gen" (for the thirteenth generation to grow up under the U.S. flag), Neil Howe and Bill Strauss predict that given their dysfunctional family background, Xers will be incarcerated and executed at a higher rate than any previous generation in U.S. history. According to their statistics, every day 13 youth commit suicide, 16 are murdered, 1,000 become mothers, 100,000 bring guns to school, 2,200 drop out of school, 500 begin using drugs, 1,000 begin drinking alcohol, 3,500 are assaulted, 630 are robbed, and 80 are raped.
These sobering realities have produced a generation pessimistic about its own chances. Barna says baby busters "are the most ignored, misunderstood, and disheartened generation our country has seen in a long time." Richard Peace, professor of evangelism at Fuller Theological Seminary, calls this a "clinically depressed generation."
This pessimism may be warranted by the economic outlook. After decades of rising expectations, Xers face the prospect of doing worse economically than their parents. Jobs are hard to come by, and often they are what Coupland calls "McJobs"—low paying, low tech, dead end.
According to U.S. News & World Report, the median income for those under 25 declined by almost 11 percent in the 1980s (for all others, it rose 6.5 percent), and 58 percent of those between 20 and 24 still live with their parents. Xers will also have to pay a higher percentage of their incomes to social security than any other generation before them.
When the boomers were twentysomething, they were ready to save the world; busters feel they are barely able to save themselves. Survival is the goal. A composite statement of Xer frustrations might go like this: "Boomers had free love; we have AIDS. They had the War on Poverty; we have a trillion-dollar debt. They had a booming economy; we have downsizing and pollution." This is why "Die Yuppie Scum" has become de rigueur graffiti in Xer hangouts.
The pain of divorce has made this a generation gun-shy about commitment. The median age for marrying has gone from 21 to 26 in the past four decades and continues to climb. Having grown up amidst headlines about fallen televangelists and crooked politicians, Xer trust in authority figures is low, and cynicism of anything organized, like the church and political parties, is high.
"What's so sad," says Brenda Salter McNeil, an urban specialist with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, "is that when politicians or church leaders fall, busters aren't even shocked; they've come to expect it." It is no wonder that MTV's Beavis and Butthead's cynical, irreverent, and nihilistic views of the world are so appealing to Xers.
This pessimism and apathy in busters leads many boomers to complain about "those spoiled slackers." But countering accusations of laziness is the fact that volunteerism among Xers is high—a survey by the National Post-secondary Student Aid Study reported that a quarter of the nation's undergraduates volunteered an average of five hours a week for a community-service program—creating a ripe environment for President Clinton's Service Corps and for missionary agencies seeking fresh recruits.
Xers are the first digital generation, having already mastered laptop computers, the information highway, CD-ROM, faxes, and modems. Many are highly educated and well traveled. And, unlike their workaholic boomer predecessors, busters put a high value on community and relationships. With this unusual combination of factors, it is not surprising that many Xers are eager to rewrite the rules in all of society, including the church.
THE AGE OF ANTI-ENLIGHTENMENT
The distinctive nature of Generation X results not only from massive changes within American society, but also from a paradigm shift in Western culture—the transition from modernism (the Enlightenment's legacy) to postmodernism (a radical reaction against the Enlightenment understanding of truth).
Generation X is the first generation to grow up amidst this postmodern world-view. To know Generation X, it is important to understand two competing paradigms—one exemplified by the apologetic style of Josh McDowell's book Evidence That Demands a Verdict; the other by MTV.
Modernism. "The key assumption of modernism is that knowledge is certain, objective, good, and obtainable," says Stanley Grenz, professor of theology at Carey and Regent Colleges in Vancouver, Canada. In this school of thought, the modern knower can profess to stand apart from the world and be an unbiased observer. Information processing is linear; one's outlook is optimistic; progress is inevitable; and the focus is on the individual.
University of Notre Dame historian George Marsden observes that today's evangelicalism, with its focus on scientific thinking and common-sense philosophy, is a child of early modernity. It is from these assumptions that evangelical presentations such as McDowell's Evidence have derived their persuasive powers and popularity for so many years.
Postmodernism. "In postmodernism, the primary assumption is that truth is not rational or objective," continues Grenz. "In other words, the human intellect is not the only arbiter of truth. There are other ways of knowing, including one's emotions and intuition." In this relativistic environment, meaning depends on the perceiver. Truth is defined by each individual and the community of which he or she is a part. And so, as is the case with Generation X, information processing is nonlinear and fragmented; the idea of progress is illusory; and the focus is on community. It is from these assumptions, and not just hipness, that MTV derives its power.
While this cultural transition might portend some alarming trends in the minds of many, Grenz cautions that we avoid falling into the trap of longing for a return to the modernity that gave birth to evangelicalism. "We cannot turn back the clock," he says. "But we can claim the postmodern context for Christ."
So far, only a handful of churches and a few student ministries have philosophies of ministry targeted to busters (see "X-ing the Church"). But reaching Xers is more than addressing the needs of a new generation. It means coming to terms with a major cultural shift that, for better or worse, is going to change the landscape for many generations to come.
THE SPIRITUAL X-FILES
Late last year, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Leighton Ford Ministries cosponsored a Baby Buster Consultation where several evangelical leaders ministering to Xers were invited to discuss how to reach Generation X with the gospel. The tenor of the conference's discussions pointed to five main characteristics that Xers are looking for in faith groups: authenticity, community, an abandonment of dogmatism, a focus on the arts, and diversity.
1. Authenticity. "We don't want no frills, no dog-and-pony show, no dancing-girls gospel," says twentysomething Piper Lowell, a Christian in the Washington, D.C., area. "What we want is unity, love, and acceptance."
Danny Harrell, a pastor to Generation X at Park Street Church in Boston, has observed that the Xer view of life demands more than nice words and attractive packaging. "Since they have been burned by so many broken promises, they're not into fads," says Harrell. "Rather, they want to know the bottom line. They prefer honesty over politeness."
"Xers want to deal with the facts head-on," says Dieter Zander, who founded the Xer fellowship NewSong in California and now works with busters at Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago. "What they tell me is 'Don't give me six easy steps to keep joy in my life. I know life is not easy.'"
Those working with Xers all agree that making themselves transparent about their own personal struggles and doubts goes a long way toward explaining the success of their outreach. "They are more drawn to someone's honest failure than trumped-up successes," says InterVarsity's campus ministries director, Bob Fryling.
2. Community. "I am homesick for the home I've never had" screams out the lead singer for the rock group Soul Asylum on their hit song "Homesick?" Those lyrics reflect Xer angst over the broken, dysfunctional families that many busters hail from. As a result of such dynamics, much of the ministry to Xers will be centered on emotional healing, and it is genuine relationships that create an atmosphere conducive to this. "Busters need to see the gospel lived out in community," says Leighton Ford. That's why meditative prayer or quiet times are not popular with Xers. Being alone with a Father figure is a scary proposition.
This has a direct impact on conversion. "It takes a lot longer to see students in this generation come to Christ," says InterVarsity's Chicago-area director, Rick Richardson. "Rather than conversion happening in a day, it's more of an ongoing process where people get socialized into the faith."
There is also the possibility that Xers will play down family obligations, which, Gordon Aeschilman says, can mean so many Thanksgiving Maalox moments. "We need to be careful with how we use a term like family, which, for many, is not a safe concept." The buster focus on relationships over achievement is precisely what leads some boomers to complain about buster laziness. On the other hand, many Xers see boomers as driven, isolated individuals who missed the concept of embracing the body of Christ. Says Zander, "If you give a buster a ministry manual and say, 'Okay, go do it,' he or she is going to ask, 'So, where's the relationship?'"
For Xers, "the Great Commandments are much more compelling than the Great Commission," says Fryling. "They do want to serve the Lord, but they need the relational dimension of worship and affection to capture their imagination and zeal." At the same time, campus minister Jimmy Long cautions Christian workers to ensure that people convert to Jesus and not to the community.
3. Lack of dogmatism. "Eighty-one percent of busters don't believe there's absolute truth" reports Barna. For the Xer, experience trumps dogma.
"Apologetics is going to have to be more than intellectual," says Ford. As part of a postmodern mentality, "talks about the inerrancy of Scripture just aren't going to connect," explains Harvard InterVarsity staff worker Andy Crouch. "The exact historical truth of a biblical book is not the burning issue, but rather how the Scripture speaks to their situations." Adds Long, "Today an Xer, even if confronted with compelling evidence regarding the validity of Christianity, is likely to say, 'So what?'" "This is why, given their propositional and nonrelational nature, door-to-door and contact evangelism will continue to lose effectiveness," says Peace.
"Busters are tired of being judged and pushed to conform," says Zander. This is very likely compounded as they witness the very authorities who preached at them—like religious leaders, parents, and politicians—exposed for wrongdoing or failing at their own relationships. Rules do not have the weight they once did.
The Xer experience makes certain evangelical tenets more difficult to understand or live by. For example, since Xers are growing up in a more pluralistic, multicultural society (Generation X contains the highest percentage of naturalized U.S. citizens of any generation born in the twentieth century), they have a harder time accepting a theology that says their Muslim, Buddhist, or New Age friends and neighbors are going to hell.
Grenz provides some historical perspective for this shift. "The previous generation of evangelicals were responding to the atheism of that time," he observes. "So they set out to prove that there was an affirmative answer to the question 'Is there a God?' But today the question to answer is 'Which God?'"
This is why Harrell finds teaching from the stories of Jesus in the Gospels to be more effective and relevant with Xers than Paul's theological writings. "Too often the church has used Paul to interpret Jesus, but I think we'll find it not only more effective but a better starting point to use Jesus to interpret Paul."
4. Focus on the arts. "I'd rather be at a U2 concert than at church singing hymns," says Rudy Carrasco, 26, managing editor at the Hispanic Bilingual-Bicultural Ministries Association. Carrasco's nontraditional preferences are not an exception among Xers. Even Christian members of Generation X are finding certain pop culture artists to be more in tune with their concept of religious expression than traditional evangelical modes.
The centrality of music and TV in Xers' lives cannot be overestimated. VCRs, 24 hours of MTV videos, Walkmans, CD players, and channel surfing "are all part of the air they breathe," says Fuller's Peace. One caller to Chicago's WLS call-in show put it this way: "Music for us is our lifeblood; I'd rather buy music than eat." "One of the things the church is afraid of is that we're too in touch with the culture," says Paula Esealuka, 29, associate director of InterVarsity's Urbana Missions Convention. "Yes, we watch a lot of TV. Yes, we listen to a lot of music. But I'm not afraid of it. It's our culture, and I'm always asking myself, 'How can I use this culture to reach my generation?'"
For many Christian Xers, the issue is not the evils of pop culture but how stagnant the arts seem to be within the evangelical church. To the buster crowd, Christian music often feels old-fashioned or, if contemporary, not up to the highest standards. There also seems to be a yearning for art that is not didactic, like Carrasco's spiritual connection with U2. For Xers like Carrasco, art that provides an emotional experience of God is more important than its theological content. Carrasco explains: "U2 might not be doing their spiritual yearning the right way, but neither am I. I like my music passionate and honest." For this reason a growing number of churches are reviving the coffeehouse concept as a vehicle for using the arts to reach friends who don't want to come to church.
Generation X also sees art as a primary vehicle for worship. And this generation likes to worship. At Harvard, out of a two-hour weekly fellowship meeting, a half-hour is given to talk; the rest of the time is spent in worship through prayer, singing, and drama.
"It is in these worship times that students give God meaning in their lives," says Crouch. "And I say hooray! because this is going to make them more open to Christianity's depth and mystery."
5. Diversity. For a generation seeking authenticity in a society and church notorious for its racial divisions, a racially diverse body of believers goes a long way toward authenticating the gospel. In recognition of this, says Richardson, outreach ministries will need to get serious about reconciliation within the body of Christ. InterVarsity, for example, already has deliberately set out to "reach the campus in all its ethnic diversity," according to its mission statement. Striving toward this goal has meant turbulent times for the organization as it worked out racial issues within the movement itself. But the efforts are paying off—currently 25 percent of InterVarsity students are nonwhite, and at last year's Urbana Missions Convention, 25 percent of the attendees were Asian-American. InterVarsity staff across the country tell stories of many busters coming to Christ precisely because of this intentional witness of racial reconciliation.
A CHURCH FOR THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY
Generation X's unique view of life poses significant challenges for the church that will require wrestling with some basic questions: Which of our beliefs are culturally bound? Can we learn from the postmodern mind with regard to issues such as community and transparency? Do we need to make racial reconciliation a higher priority? "We have to look to ways to become relevant without compromising," says Barna.
With so much change and pressure for more change, Grenz feels that this is a unique time to reevaluate our evangelical faith. "The essence of evangelicalism is not only doctrinal statements; it's also a unique vision of the Christian faith—a personal encounter with God. This focus will not change—there is something timeless and cross-cultural about it—but its packaging and terminology may need to."
Secular writer and Generation X spokesman Douglas Coupland reveals just how timeless the quest for God is. In his latest book, "Life After God," following a 360-page spiritual journey looking for meaning in his life, Coupland concludes: "My secret is that I need God -that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem to be capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love."
It is on this Xer longing that those advocating changes within the church are focused. But will the church take to these adjustments? Fryling appeals to his peers to listen beyond the surface sounds of Xer rage and nihilism and hear instead their deeper cry for meaning: "Christian Xers need our encouragement to serve the Lord in their generation, not ours," he declares.
"We need to put spiritual venture capital into the younger evangelists' way of doing things," says Ford. "We have to remember that in the late 1940s, when Billy Graham, Youth for Christ, and Young Life were finding new ways to reach the new generation of that time, their new ways were not always accepted. But now we see that if it weren't for the risks they took, we would not be where we are today."
Strategies aside, Christian and non-Christian Xers alike take great comfort and strength from the Jesus of the Gospels, with whom they have much in common. Jesus was in his early thirties when he began his public work; he had no career path and no place he could call home. His greatest battles were against the dogmas of his day, and he showed little faith in institutions and rules and regulations. Rather, his message was of a Father full of grace, and the context of his work was his personal relationships. He built community, first with his small group of 12, and then across class, gender, racial, and lifestyle lines. He liked a good party, even turning water into wine to keep one from ending prematurely. He spoke against injustice and did not have the stomach for inauthentic people. He thought globally but acted locally.
As we confront the gnawing irrelevance of the church among many Xers, we must wrestle with the idea that Jesus would have felt very much at home with the MTV generation.
Andres Tapia, who at 34 lives in postboomer-prebuster limbo, is associate editor for Pacific News Service.
Copyright © 1994 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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