One of the cool things about pastoring a church in D.C. is that our members do incredibly interesting work. For instance, one woman is a part of a consulting firm that specializes in foresight, strategy, and innovation. They have job titles like “Futurist” (How about that? I’ve decided I want to be a futurist when I grow up).
Anyways, I’ve found that her work has some parallels to mine, especially as she thinks about generational issues. She gave me this article (sorry I can’t link to it) from Harvard Business Review, which talks about customer and workforce attitudes in the next 20 years.
The article points out a lot of interesting things, for example:
People do not “belong” to their age bracket. We can’t understand a 20-year-old today by remembering what it was like when we were 20. Furthermore, we can’t anticipate what 20 years olds will be like by looking at today’s 40 year olds. Instead, we must recognize people as members of distinct generations. As generations, we have deeply felt associations to certain events, and how old we are when these events happen form who we are as people.
So, in our churches, we won’t get far if we keep saying, “Well, when I was a young mother, I loved going to Thursday night suppers….” Our expectations have to be different for another generation, because they’re distinct. I’ll talk about Gen X today and discuss the Millennials tomorrow.
According to this study, Generation Xers (My apologies. I hate using the term, but for sake of this conversation, I will) were born in 1961 to 1981. We (I was born in ’71) grew up during failing schools and failing marriages, surviving as latchkey kids. We distrust institutions. We’re tough, gritty, and practical. We prefer free agency over corporate loyalty. We’re constructing our families late, but we’re building them with fierce strength. We’ve made little impact on civic life (will Obama change that?), and we believe that volunteering or working one-on-one has more impact.
So how does the church relate to GX? Three things.
First, we can begin to understand that Generation X is “already the greatest entrepreneurial generation in U.S. history.” That’s not me being arrogant. That’s a quote from the Harvard article. Our “high-tech savvy and marketplace resilience have helped America prosper in the era of globalization.” We create, dissolve, and reorganize overnight.
This is obvious in our churches. All of a sudden, we have a crop of thirty-somethings who are itching to start their own congregations. They don’t need a lot of money, or land, or any of those things that we’ve always had to have. They just need a computer and a couple of rented hours in a building space.
So denominations can respond by letting innovators go. Let them start congregations. Let them create, dissolve, and reorganize. After all, we’re closing all kinds of churches, and at the very same time, we have an entire generation of pastor/innovators who know how to start-up. It’s part of our DNA.
Second, we can build up our social justice ministries. Since volunteering and working one-on-one is important to the Xers, this is an important place to focus energy and opportunity as congregations. By and large, we’re not checkbook missionaries. We like to get our hands dirty.
But make sure that the volunteering is meaningful. If you put an Xer on a board where s/he is debating a dead issues for hours and hours, s/he will flee. The important idealism that the Boomers have can be incredibly frustrating for Xers when debates go on forever (i.e., homosexuality in the church). Most of us don’t want to sit around a table and discuss and discern.
Please, please, please, don’t make me sit with a bunch of anti-gay people to try to find some common ground. It’s not that these things aren’t important to me, it’s just a waste of time for me to try to paint a red person blue. We spent our lives fighting, and we’re tired of it. For me, I would rather tell you where I stand, and if you’re still willing to work with me on poverty, environment, and AIDS, then let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work. We can find our common ground in our action.
Third, if we look into Harvard’s crystal ball, Generation X is going to be Generation Exhausted soon. I’m feeling it. With our economic pressures, we’ll be going into midlife focusing “on reconstructing the social frameworks that produce civic order.” Our aversion to institutions may subside a bit, as we’ll be working on fortifying our social environment.
And where does this happen? If we’re smart and we make some space, it could very well happen in our congregations. That’s what Tribal Church is about, making the social connections strong in our denominations.
I’m putting my money on Harvard. We’re going back to church.
Another Gen X trait? We hate when people label us with certain traits. So what do you think? What resonates and what doesn’t?