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Understanding, Engaging, and Deploying the Generations Present in Your Church, part 1

We can learn from different generations by knowing the important trends and distinctions of each.
Understanding, Engaging, and Deploying the Generations Present in Your Church, part 1
Image: Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

This is my first post of five dealing with generations. Let's start with a generational quiz. Can you name this show based on its opening song?

"Here's a story, about a lovely lady." If you know this from childhood and not reruns on Hulu, you recognize it as the Brady Bunch. And you are likely a Baby Boomer.

Here's another:

Do you know who KITT is (the car) and recognize the name Michael Knight? If you wanted a car like that as a child or knew that David Hasselhoff played Knight and became an international sensation, you are most likely a Gen Xer.

One more:

As a child, did you watch Mr. Feeny and the escapades of Corey, Topanga, and Shawn? If you grew up enjoying Boy Meets World, you might be a Millennial.

We live in a world of over seven billion people, half of whom are under age 30. In the United States, we now have four different generations functioning together in the workplace, which brings its own challenges and opportunities.

A Disclaimer

Since this is the first of a six-part series on generations, let me give the disclaimer at the beginning. Every generation has both identifiable trends and a number of outliers as well. Howe and Strauss, researchers on generations, describe the "peer personality" of a generation, which is "a caricature of its prototypical member." They add, "A generation has collective attitudes about family life, sex roles, institutions, politics, religion, lifestyle, and the future."[1]

Think of a great river like the Amazon. There are a number of unique tributaries joining the river as it flows to the ocean. But the river itself is clearly distinguishable from the tributaries. We can argue a bit over starting and ending dates and recognize exceptions in each generation; a peer personality –– like a great river –– is apparent when you step back to look.

Some resist attaching importance to generational distinctives. We might argue over the depth of importance to place on the differences between generations, but we can't deny they exist.

Generations of the past century

It's true that there is evidence today that the digital age has caused generations to be a bit more blurred. Because of that, some use generational terms like MilleXZials. Still, most understand generally-established differences between generations like these from the Pew Center:

  • Builders (also The Silent Generation): Born 1928-1945
  • Boomers (also Baby Boomers): Born 1946-1964
  • GenXers (also Baby Busters): Born 1965-1980
  • Millennials (also Gen Y): Born 1981-1996
  • Gen Z: Born 1997-present

Different researchers tweak the years just a bit. Builders have moved off the scene for the most part as leaders. Boomers and GenXers are mostly in leadership among churches and evangelical institutions, but a lot of Millennials now lead. Most church planters and new missionaries today are Millennials, though some in Gen Z are joining in as well.

We do sometimes see false stereotypes and inaccurate generalizations. I'm a GenXer, yet I’m no slacker. I didn't like the movie Reality Bites with Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke. But I did go to school wearing a suit and tie and carrying a suitcase because I wanted to be Alex Keaton from Family Ties.

We can learn from different generations by knowing the important distinctions of each. And like it or not, we will be turning — and in many cases already are turning — leadership over to the younger generations.

Again, we now have four generations populating the workforce today, which makes things interesting.

Scripture and Younger Generations

In Scripture, we find references to both older and younger generations. We find positive statements about youth like "Don't let anyone look down on you because of your youth."

If you look across the whole of Scripture you will find more positive than negative things said about young people. Sometimes, young people played a key role in God's plan or made important choices as youth that would affect their later impact. Think of a 17-year-old Joseph, sold by his brothers, who honored the Lord in Egypt.

Or look at Esther: as a young woman she made choices that helped her rescue her people the Jews. God called Jeremiah as a young man, and most of the disciples were young. There are many examples.

Then, there are the negative ones. King Rehoboam speaks to the people according to the council of the young men, saying, "My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to it. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions." That leadership approach would not produce the best practices. King Rehoboam listened to the counsel of the older and then listened to the younger, and by listening to the younger in this instance divided the kingdom.

Hope for the future

We can’t be afraid to hand over our future agencies and our leadership to people who are substantially younger than us just because Rehoboam was a train wreck. If we don't know how to engage, or we lack the trust in the next generation, nobody wins.

Leading people in various generations doesn’t mean to pit one against the other, but to leverage the uniqueness of each for the flourishing of an organization. Every generation is unique, and every individual is also unique. But generations do tend to have certain patterns. As we recognize and acknowledge those patterns, this can help us to think differently about engaging culture.

More in the following posts.

Ed Stetzer is executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, serves as a dean at Wheaton College, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group. The Exchange Team contributed to this article.

[1] Howe and Strauss, Generations, 63.

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