Gen X is rising.
From the Tea Party to the emerging church movement, a new breed of leader is operating.
Unlike previous generations in recent history, Americans born between 1961 and 1981 don’t feel a need to work within institutional frames. In the 1990s they pioneered dot-com companies to launch a World Wide Web. During the past decade they’ve revolutionized dig-
ital learning, wireless communications, reality television, and thousands of “third place” cultural experiences from coffee shops to fantasy sports to “emerging” churches. Now in their 30s and 40s, this generation rides the leading edge of unemployment, foreclosure, and economic recession.
Nothing has ever come easy for them.
Unlike the Boomers (born 1943-60, give or take a few years) and the Millennials (born 1982-98), this has been a generation without a name, usually just an X. Historians William Strauss and Neil Howe, noting their place as the 13th American generation, dubbed them 13ers:
The tag is a little Halloweenish, like the clothes they wear—and slippery, like their culture. It’s a name they can see as a gauntlet, a challenge, an obstacle to be overcome. The thirteenth card can be the ace, face down, in a game of high-stakes blackjack. . . . The ace—like this generation—is nothing subtle, but it’s nice to have around when you’re in a jam.2
Since September 11, 2001, America has been “in a jam,” and Gen X3 continues to rise to the occasion. In the war on terror, Gen X fielded the leaders who single-handedly changed the way of war, from napalm strafing, bayonets, and D-Day assaults into “smart bombs,” cyberspying, and high-tech battle gear. The recent economic crisis has launched millions of Gen-X entrepreneurs to captain their own destiny, whether in cupcakes, candles, or consultations. In the church, Gen X continues to reinvent worship (Dave Crowder, Chris Tomlin), preaching (Mark Driscoll, Doug Pagitt), and family ministry.
Like the Tea Party, Gen-X pastors lead from the edge, and in the next decade will guide the church to greater revival, restoration, and reinvention. As Boomers gray and release their 30-year grip on church leadership, Gen X will emerge to call the shots.
What can the church expect from Gen-X leadership? The answers lie within their own generational slang.
Just Do It
Gen Xers are pure pragmatists. Whatever it takes to gain an edge, buy time, or cheat consequences, X marks the spot. The steroid generation has juiced its fortune and fame in scandal (Jesse James, Tiger Woods), addiction (Charlie Sheen), and even death (Kurt Cobain, Princess Diana). Cast originally as cartoonish Bart Simpson underachievers, they’ve matured into desperate housewives seeking the next “deadliest catch.”
Maybe that’s why Nike (Greek for “victory”) invited this generation to “just do it.” Gen-X pragmaticism wears well and Gen Xers don’t aim to disappoint or lose the battle—in politics, education, commerce, entertainment, or religion.
As Gen-X leadership emerges in the American church, there’ll certainly be fresh battles between idealist Boomers and pragmatic Xers. However, as Boomer-centric congregations and institutions age, lose numbers, struggle financially, and even die, reality will force most to recognize Boomer strategies are failing (and fading) fast.
Gen-X pastors and church leaders will embrace this ecclesiastical crisis and install massive change that only fuels more conflict. However, when younger generations rally to the Gen X point of view, the elderly Baby Boomer generation will reluctantly resign. Gen-X postmodern innovations, heavily weighted by experiential worship, participatory preaching, image-soaked learning spaces, and missional service opportunities, could forever finish performance-based, passive, brick-and-mortar, lecture-driven models.
In tomorrow’s church, Gen X will
reimagine the “faith community” as 24/7/365 using social media, mobile technology, and digital communication. Consequently, the microchurch—creatively contextualized to a community—may lead the way in the 21st century. Churches (including many venerated large congregations) that can’t adapt will likely follow the secular path of Borders, Circuit City, Blockbuster, and other chain stores that failed to embrace change.
Gen X knows that reality bites. Authenticity is a cherished character trait and radical transparency (getting “naked”) to reveal your true self is part of life in postmodern culture—good or bad. In a web world, everybody knows everything about everyone, and Gen X simply accepts it. Reality television, a Gen-X produced format, has forever altered the small screen (Undercover Boss, Survivor, American Idol). Gen X reveals an uncanny comfort about its own skin—whether it’s tattooed, pierced, or shaved. Gen X makes bald truly beautiful.
In the coming years, as Gen-X leadership rises within the wider church culture, the masks will disappear on Sunday morning. Transparent spiritual testimonies might replace special music numbers. Attendance and giving counts might be abandoned in favor of advertising more realistic barometers of congregational spiritual activity, including service hours performed, lay baptisms, discipleship and mentoring meetings, and Scripture memorization. And don’t be surprised to see the Lord’s Supper become a fellowship meal experience, as originally designed and biblically directed.
Gen X will engineer authentic teaching and preaching experiences, laced with deep moments of interaction and images to enhance retention. Such changes will create friction with Boomers, who will naturally struggle within this new paradigm.
With the GI generation (born 1901-24) dying rapidly, courage now falls to a Fear Factor generation that embraces extreme sports, body modification, and socially risky behavior. Gen X grew up gaming; that is, playing video games with multiple lives, intense situations, and edgy themes. Consequently, people of that generation approach life like a video game: fast, furious, ripe for failure, and destined for YouTube airplay.
Perhaps their fearlessness stems from childhood, when they raised themselves as latchkey kids, rode bikes without wearing helmets, and survived single and stepparent homes. Gen X loves to push cultural limits. Gen Xers introduced gangsta rap and grunge music, provoked elders with sloppy fashion, tattoos, and piercings, leaned politically right, juiced with steroids, and made spring break a parent’s worst nightmare.
The current economic meltdown bothers few Gen Xers. They’ve lived lean—buried by educational debt, home mortgages, and credit cards—since their youth and harbor no delusions about Social Security, retirement, or financial stability. They expect the economy to sour and their generation to shoulder both the blame and burden.
In the American church, Gen-X fearlessness already ruffles feathers, particularly among Boomer elders. Nevertheless, the coming change these Gen-X pastors and congregational leaders employ will attack cherished Boomer traditions. Ironically, this radical rearrangement of Boomer church formats is reminiscent of how Boomers shifted change to their favor in the 1980s and ’90s. While it’s difficult to project what type of change might happen, it’s easy to predict the conflict. Gen-X pastors have struggled for years as “associates” under Boomer elders and senior ministers, forcing many to leave and launch missional churches.
When the ecclesiastical leadership shift from Boomer to Gen X is complete, the fearless reforms will leave a scar, but the body of Christ will surely have escaped cultural obsolescence.
Gen-X postmodern culture can be summed up in one word: whatever.
“Whatever happens.” “Whatever goes.” “Whatever you want.” “Whatever will be.” This generational philosophy is echoed in a similar cultural idiom: “It is what it is.”
Naturally, this ambivalent, even apathetic, generational personality irks older generations, but Gen X senses no entitlement or appeasement. As bored youth and narcissistic young adults, they’ve now embraced midlife as calloused, jaded, and cynical realists.
Scott Matthews summarized this sentiment in his book Stuck in the Seventies:
Unlike our sixties counterparts, we had very little to worry about in the seventies. There was no war, no Civil Rights Movement, no new drugs. All the great battles had already been fought; we were left only to languish in the boring aftermath, uttering, “Okay, now what?”4
Exactly. Now what?
Gen Xers grew up in a sitcom culture, but realize social problems can’t be solved in 30 minutes. They’re tired of a two-toned (red and blue) Rubik’s Cube political system (“can’t we all get along here?”) and realize life is no video game with multiple lives. It is what it is.
In today’s church, Gen X has grown tired of spiritual games, and its patience is wearing thin. As a generation, Gen Xers have been dismissed, disenfranchised, and disregarded, but many still remain conservative, loyal, and true to their faith, waiting in the wings for their turn.
Perhaps Gen Xer Eric Liu speaks for all:
As a generation, we’ve grown up in a time of accelerated history and experience. We are prepared for anything, surprised by little. When our turn comes to slay the deficits, to hold restive and separatist peoples together, to fight off economic competitors, to articulate national strategies, we will not wring our hands. We’ll just do it.5
Consequently, older church leaders would do well to mentor these 40- to 50-year-olds and prepare them for steering a congregation in the future.
After all, Gen X is rising.
1William Strauss and Neil Howe, Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584-2069 (New York: Quill, 1992), 324.
3For sake of clarity, I will use Gen X as the moniker for those born between 1961 and 1981. While 13er may be more historically accurate, Gen X is more commonly understood and attached to this generation.
4As quoted by William Strauss and Neil Howe, 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail? (New York: Vintage, 1993), 54.
5Strauss and Howe, 13th Gen, 223.
Rick Chromey is an inspirational trainer, cultural analyst, and leadership consultant living in Eagle, Idaho; www.leadingfromtheedge.net.