By Haydn Shaw
I was recently in a church talking with a room full of baby boomers (those born 1946–64) and millennials (born 1981–2001) who wanted to understand how to build community across generations. They realized that people tend to socialize with others of their own generation before and after the worship services, and they wanted to know how they might bridge the differences. They wondered if they should have intergenerational small groups.
The boomers and millennials want to spend more time together, but their different life stages create practical challenges. For instance, many baby boomer small groups enjoy big meals that often take an hour to prepare before the study begins. The younger generation, however, said they didn’t have interest in or energy for anything more than purchasing a bag of chips at the store.
Many churches that contact me would be happy to have either of these situations because their youngest attender is 58 years old.
Generational differences are a big challenge. Though each situation is different, I believe you and your church need to understand five things when connecting the generations together.
1. We Have Never Had Five Generations Before
In the 1970s we needed generational intelligence during what was known as “the generation gap.” We need it even more today when, for the first time in history, we have five generations in our families, churches, and communities. As I pointed out in my January column, that causes quite a shake-up as every generation pushes to be heard and understood, to find their own way, to recover what they feel the previous generation fumbled away, and to work out their parents’ unfinished business. When we start to understand another generation—rather than attempting to maneuver others into seeing things our way—we open ourselves to new possibilities of relating, helping, reaching, encouraging, and loving them.
Let’s face it, most of us are not good at something we’ve never done before. I have no doubt churches will learn to serve five generations, just as they learned to juggle different worship music and update their approaches to their children’s Christian education. Understandably it usually takes a generation or two before we get the hang of it, which is not helpful for the generation that gets left behind. If we realize that adjusting to five generations is one of our biggest challenges, we can get a lot better at it a lot faster.
2. Raising Our Generational IQ Makes It Easier to Love
Five generations at church and in our families create irritations, miscommunications, and misunderstandings. Just as it’s easier for two children to play well together than it is for three or four, it’s easier for two generations to get along at church than it is for five. The movies, music, television shows, and even the schools we attend all pump images and ideas into our heads that shape our generation and are at the crux of our complaints about other generations. Another generation’s behavior makes no sense to us because we don’t understand the images and ideas that shape their minds.
We can get especially upset when another generation questions the ideas and customs that are readily accepted by our generation. Of course we put the cell phone down when we’re having a conversation with someone. Of course we let the oldest generation determine the traditions for Christmas or family reunions. Of course we plan our family reunions through email because nobody has time to make 12 phone calls to get everyone on the same page (and if some people refuse to use it, then they will find out in snail-mail time). Of course . . .
Most people don’t realize that their own images and ideas are governing their lives just as other images and ideas are governing the people they’re criticizing.
We struggle to love people we don’t appreciate or understand. When we understand other generations, we will complain less and learn more from them. Increasing our generational intelligence doesn’t make the key teaching of Jesus to “love one another” easy, but it does make it easier. Many churches and families are trying to make themselves love people of another generation even though they’re frustrated or even angry with them, when understanding generational differences can make our hearts tender toward one another. Why make it harder than it needs to be?
3. You Are Asking the Wrong Question (More Likely than Not)
“Why won’t younger people come to my church?” is a question I am asked all the time.
“Because you are asking the wrong question,” I respond. “That question traps you in a dead end; it keeps the younger generations away.”
Why is this a dead-end question? Because the question is about you and not about them. I first faced this issue as a part-time youth pastor while attending college. My ministry was with good people who wanted to save their church, but while that’s admirable, it’s also wrongly focused: they wanted to save their church—the church they liked, the church they had grown up in, the church they were used to. So they asked questions that pushed the younger generation away. They spent countless hours trying to figure out what to do to reach more young people, but they asked the wrong question. Their story isn’t unique. I often see congregations deadlocked over the same question.
If the dead-end question (“Why won’t younger people come to my church?”) doesn’t work, why is it so popular? Here are the reasons I see most often:
- People don’t know the best question yet.
- Blame is easier. If the people we are trying to reach are the problem, God can’t hold us accountable if we don’t reach them.
- People are scared that if the next generation starts coming, they will want to change things until it won’t feel like the same church anymore.
- The present church members worry that they will be pushed into a corner for the next 20 years.
- They usually have hurt feelings. They wonder what is so wrong with their church that the younger generations don’t like it.
- They ask it when they feel guilty that they should be reaching the next generation, but they don’t want to. So they end up resenting the younger generations for making them feel pressured to give up the church they love.
In contrast, imagine how much more creative the conversations could be if you asked the best question: “What must we do differently to reach the younger generations?”
This question is the secret to better conversations because it takes the focus off you and places it on the people you are called to reach. It pushes you to quit going in circles and complaining about what is wrong with them and to start talking about your options. It is the best question I know to help you determine what God has called your church to do.
4. You Aren’t Equally Good with All Five Generations
People tell me they want their church to reach all five generations, but that may be beyond the gifts and calling of all but a few. In my business presentations, I tell salespeople they are good at communicating with their generation and maybe one other, but rarely all of them. In the same way, your church staff may be skilled at leading a more traditional congregation but not know how to relate to the younger generations.
I consulted with a church whose senior minister desperately wanted to reach young families. As I watched him interact with the congregation, I noticed how at ease he was with boomers and traditionalists, but how awkward he was with Xers and millennials. He was a good man, but communicating with the younger generations would never be his strength. In businesses and churches, it’s a mistake to take a person out of a job they’re good at and put them in a position where they are only mediocre.
If your church has classes only, people who like small groups will not stick. If the sermons go verse by verse, then the people who want practical, topical sermons will not relate. If the music is too fast, younger millennials will tune out. The point is, every choice you make helps you click better with some and less with others. It’s naïve to think you will be equally good at connecting with all five generations. That’s just too many for any church to relate to equally well.
5. Think about Your Boomers Before You Change to Reach Millennials
Traditionalists and baby boomers are living significantly longer lives than those who preceded them. But that creates struggles no other generation has had to face. It’s easy to miss how hard this can be.
I had finished speaking to church leaders one Saturday morning regarding how to help people who still struggled with the transition from traditional to more contemporary services. Two couples in their late 60s hung around after everyone left. All four of them talked about how excited they were that their church was reaching younger people. Then they glanced at each other and guilt spread over their faces.
They began talking about how this didn’t feel like their church anymore. They didn’t relate to the worship music, and they weren’t fans of small groups rather than Sunday school. They felt like everything was centered around the younger generations, but the younger generations didn’t give much money. Their generation still paid the bills, but that seemed all the church needed them for.
One of the men said, “The previous senior minister was 10 years older than me, but the new one is the age of my kids. Now I feel old every time I look at him, and I feel pushed off to the side when I had always been in the center of things.” One of the women said, “We know that supporting the shift to a younger church was the right thing to do, but now that it’s worked, we don’t like the church. If I were looking for one, I wouldn’t come here a second time.” The other man said, “We’re all healthy and going to be around for probably another 15 years. That’s a long time not to feel at home in your church. What are we supposed to do?” They all nodded.
They said out loud what so many people think but won’t say. They’re afraid that if they change to reach younger people, the church they love will be lost. Or they’re afraid it sounds selfish to say they would rather target their own age group because they don’t want their church to change. As a result, they often find themselves in the most precarious place of all—thinking they are a church for all generations yet watching their church decline.
When we fail to understand generational differences, we make it harder than it needs to be. We may dedicate 40 meetings to discussing how to change our church to reach younger people. But how often do we talk about what’s going to happen to traditionalists and boomers when we do? We need to start talking with boomers and traditionalists about their struggle to welcome the Xers and millennials without feeling like they’re losing their home, because our silence is making the changes much harder than they need to be.
If people can’t picture where they will fit in the new future, they will naturally resist change. But we don’t even talk about it until people are understandably upset. If your church will determine what it will do with the boomers before it plans how to reach millennials, it will save itself many unnecessary problems.
Boomers are such a huge generation that they’ve transformed every institution, and they’re already transforming retirement. Financial services companies are spending millions of dollars on ads that portray boomers as beginning their next adventure rather than settling into traditional retirement, because they know the worst thing they can do is make boomers feel old or irrelevant. Many of them have 20 or 30 years left in their second adulthood. What are they going to do with all that extra time?
Shouldn’t you and your church start talking about how you will help them figure it out?
Haydn Shaw has created seven free videos to help churches learn more and even begin talking about generational challenges. He’s included three questions for discussion at the end of each seven-minute video, but you can watch them on your own if you want to learn more. Go to www.Christianityisnotdying.com and click on the “Free Videos for Staffs and Boards” in the upper-right-hand corner. Shaw is a generations expert and the author of Generational IQ: Christianity Isn’t Dying, Millennials Aren’t the Problem, and the Future Is Bright. He wrote it so that leaders had something to give the people in their churches to help them understand how they can respond to five generations. Shaw helps churches plan for their future or get through growth barriers and businesses to cut their generational turnover in half.