By Rick Chromey
The next two decades will produce unimaginable change.
By 2040, much of what we now call “modernity” will be history as the digital revolution finalizes its reinvention of commerce, communication, and education. In 2010, Amazon e-books outsold print books, and in 2011, Borders booksellers filed bankruptcy, signaling an end of the age of Gutenberg. The iPad and Kindle are changing how we read. The CD and DVD are dead media (and books are next), while Google, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter continue to flex digital muscles.
In the midst of this cyber revolution stands a generation waiting to lead.
Born between 1961 and 1981, this no-nonsense, no-name generation has largely worn a cultural black (and blank) eye. Generational experts Neil Howe and William Strauss named them “13ers” for their general unluckiness,1 because they’ve occupied a historical time frame between John F. Kennedy’s “Camelot” and Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America.” This generation was born to mothers who took pills to prevent pregnancy; they were “day-cared” and “latchkeyed,” and their siblings were aborted. Through it all, they watched their parents divorce at record rates.
Born too late for Dr. Spock kids and too young for “Baby on Board” Millennials, this group of 80 million Americans was slapped with nonsensical, negative labels: Gen X (coined by boomer Doug Copeland), Busters, Boomerang, Blank, or Dumb2 generation. In popular films they were portrayed as Bad News Bears, Goonies, or Children of the Corn. Demonized as infants (Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist) they matured into Breakfast Club and Reality Bites delinquents. However, these Bart Simpson underachievers with cultural chips on their shoulders managed the last laugh, reinventing culture (rap, grunge), communication (texting, tweeting), commerce (Amazon, MySpace) and even Christianity (emerging church).
The generation of baseball caps, tattoos, and piercings has made many nervous, as their no-nonsense pragmatism produces friction. Among those leading the Tea Party is Gen-X politician Sarah Palin. Barack Obama (born in 1961) is our nation’s first Gen-X president, while Glenn Beck (1964) blossomed as his archnemesis. Meanwhile, in the church, some of the most celebrated and controversial leaders were born between 1961 and 1981, including Francis Chan, Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, Rob Bell, Mark Driscoll, and Dan Kimball.
Gen X is rising, but to truly understand, a deeper historical perspective is required.
The Mega Boomerang
The Jesus Movement of the early 1970s reinvented the modern church. As former hippies found Jesus, they sparked revival, particularly in California nontraditional churches like Calvary Chapels. Worship and youth ministry were the two church programs most energized, and Gen-X kids benefited from both.
The “mega boom” exploded when pastors like Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, and Bob Russell discovered the wider Woodstock generation had “boomeranged” back to church. Boom families of the 1980s were generationally divided between Gen X and Millennials (born after 1982) so youth ministry, worship, and relevant preaching determined their choice of church. Churches who shifted to these Boomer desires grew quickly as families flooded their congregations.
Also in the 1980s, entire church leaderships shifted when the Depression-era, GI generation (born 1901-24) elders and deacons retired, leaving the reins to their next-juniors—which Howe and Strauss appropriately nicknamed the “Silents.”3 Unfortunately, the Silents (born 1925-43) were also silent in the church (preferring avoidance and passivity), and consequently, created a leadership vacuum that 30-something Boomers gladly filled. As a result, the Baby Boom generation has guided church boards and staffs for nearly 30 years.
Boom leaders quickly initiated change in the church, particularly in congregational spending priorities and worship experiences.
Unlike their GI elders, who brandished Depression-era sensibilities, Baby Boom-era leaders never experienced want and enthusiastically emptied coffers to hire staff, bolster salaries, and renovate facilities. In the 1990s and 2000s, Boomer elderships guided building campaigns and worship enhancements. They expanded professional staff to include ministers and directors for ministries to children, young adults, and seniors. They sparked bloody “worship wars” between Boomer “praise” and GI “hymns,” pushing a Woodstock-style worship—featuring live instruments, professional musicians, praise teams, and PowerPoint—that replaced hymnals and organs.
Of course, emerging Gen-X leaders—primarily leading youth ministries—embraced and celebrated Boomer improvements. But that didn’t last.
Mid-1990s Gen-X youth workers suddenly felt something amiss. The new generation (Millennials), suckled on the finest children’s ministry resources, curricula, and events ever produced, had emerged as worldly, bored, apathetic teenagers. “Whatever” and “been there, done that” attitudes reigned as teens chased the latest fad, from chat rooms to laser tag to file sharing.
Furthermore, a 500-year societal shift unleashed a postmodern culture that presented new dilemmas. Aided by emerging technologies in personal computing and communication, the 1990s Millennial teen confused many Gen-X youth workers, and these leaders discovered they weren’t alone. Massive change had rocked every corner of culture, and 30-something youth workers now felt the tsunami waves washed beyond just the kids.
They were right. Statistics revealed a growing disconnect with church. To the dismay of many, the people of Generation X failed to “boomerang” back to church in their late 20s and 30s, and this caused a questioning of the Boomer ecclesiastical model. Other disconcerted Gen-X leaders simply quit their Boomer-led congregations to plant postmodern churches with relevant vision, experiential worship, image-soaked teaching, and deep community lifestyles. Suddenly churches like Mars Hill (Bell), Vintage Church (Kimball), and Solomon’s Porch (Pagitt) made noise. Gen-X young adults flooded to such churches and sparked an “emerging church” movement, primarily in swanky urban areas populated with twentysomethings.
This “emerging” didn’t arrive without controversy. And it didn’t help when Boom leaders like Leonard Sweet and Brian McLaren sided with the younger voices. The church, argued Sweet, needed to surf “aqua culture” and master postmodern vocabulary. McLaren suggested a “new kind of Christian” was required, one tattooed with “generous orthodoxy.” Sweet and McLaren proved popular, and unleashed a torrent of books that envisioned “future church.” These Gen-X visionaries forced Boomer leaders to rethink assumptions and empowered Gen-X and Millennial pastors to pioneer new ministries and models attractive to postmodern culture.
Then an economic recession dealt yet another blow.
In 2008, as America was gripped by recession, troubling statistics emerged: many megachurches had stagnated, even declined, while the unchurched population had blossomed to 30 percent.4 Suddenly, it was no longer a mainline or smaller church problem. Despite valiant efforts to engineer Gen-X worship experiences—which failed for many—it grew evident the Boomer-populated megachurch model wasn’t attracting younger ages either. Not only did Gen X not return, but also countless churched Millennials, spiritually nurtured in supposedly healthy children and youth ministries, went surprisingly AWOL. In 2005, Christian Smith released his extensive study of American youth and summarized their faith as simply “moral therapeutic deism.”5 This conclusion also proved accurate for many twentysomething Millennials and Gen Xers.
It wasn’t simply that culture was evolving; the whole church was “emerging” too. Unfortunately, many Gen-X ministries in the 1990s and 2000s were nothing more than “pouring new wine into old wineskins.” Postmodern Xers found this “youth ministry for adults” both lame and unattractive. They were drawn to deep worship and biblical teaching that was experiential, interactive, and visual, and the Boomer-led church offered few of these amenities.
Consequently, Gen X largely stayed away.
Born to Lead
Today, few Boomer-led churches target unchurched Gen X (now in their 30s and 40s) and either operate business as usual (with Boomer models) or have turned their attention to disillusioned twentysomething Millennials (hiring Millennial pastors to lead). Gen X, like its name and heritage, seems largely abandoned again. Meanwhile the graying on Sunday morning in even the largest congregations remains evident.
A second reality may bite harder. Many Gen Xers who remained faithful to their churches still wait to serve as elders and spiritual leaders, as boards remain well weighted with Boomer influence. Unfortunately, when Xers finally wrest the reins from their Boomer seniors, they’ll have little time to lead. It’s nothing new, and only history repeating itself. Gen Xers aren’t the first generation of its type. In fact, Howe and Strauss’s theory argues for generational cycles, and Gen X (a reactive, nomad cohort) is quite similar to the Lost (1883–1900), Gilded (1822-42), and Liberty (1724-41) generations. All these generations faced common crises, negative labels, and little opportunity until their historical and proverbial “moment in the sun” happened.
It was Lost leaders like Dwight D. Eisenhower and George S. Patton who fashioned boys into soldiers to protect American sovereignty and save Europe from Nazi socialism. Hardscrabble Gilded icons like Ulysses S. Grant and Stonewall Jackson developed battle plans during the Civil War while Gilded writers Mark Twain and Louisa May Alcott penned American classics in Reconstruction. The Liberty generation of George Washington, John Adams, and Daniel Boone rose from utter economic destitution to pledge their family fortunes so 13 colonies could experience independence.
In each of these generational cycles, Lost, Gilded, and Liberty preachers rallied troops, inspired hope, and sparked change.
Since 2001, America has been rocked by crisis and calamity. September 11 brought America to her knees, and packed churches hinted at cultural revival. But the fervor soon faded. A few years later, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. The church streamed into Louisiana to serve, but other crises eventually stole headlines. America teeters on the brink of economic collapse, and the American church likewise struggles to retain members, fill offering plates, and pay mortgages.
Meanwhile, the thirtysomething and fortysomething leaders no longer wait for invitation.
Whether as Tea Party activists or emerging church leaders, Gen X is rising.
And the change they’ll bring will tattoo and pierce both country and church for generations.
NEXT WEEK: Gen X Rising—What Tomorrow’s Leader Will Do
1Neil Howe and Bill Strauss, 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail? (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 12.
2Gen X was tagged the “Dumb” generation after the U.S. government issued “A Nation at Risk” (1982) that cited how American education was in disrepair.
3Howe and Strauss charted generations according to cultural events and memory that created personality. In the 20th century, they identified five generations: GI (1901-24), Silent (1925-42), Boom (1943-60), 13er (1961-81), and Millennial (1982-99). Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584-2069 (New York: Morrow, 1992).
5Christian Smith and Melinda Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 162-70.
Rick Chromey is an inspirational trainer, cultural analyst, and leadership consultant living in Eagle, Idaho; www.leadingfromtheedge.net.