The Generations: Can A Church Have the Wrong Eyes?

“I’m not sure they have the right eyes.”

It was terminology I hadn’t exactly heard before, yet I was certain I knew what it meant.

As a faculty member at a public university, I often talk to my students about their perceptions in moving to a new community. When I learn one of my students follows Christ, I’m interested in their experience finding a church. More specifically, my background in leadership and organizational development makes me curious about how congregations are connecting – or not connecting – with young people.

“So tell me about your experience visiting (Church X),” I asked a student whom I knew was church shopping.

The student paused, took a visual swipe at the ceiling as if the words would be found there, and said, “I’m not sure they have the right eyes.”

She explained, providing an account of her experience. But I would have known what she meant without explanation.

Like people and other organizations, churches have points of view. These are paradigms about what a community of faith must BE. They tend to become comfort zones that form a kind of stylistic path the church follows in its polity, programs, and presentation. Whether or not a church’s paradigm is explicitly stated in a mission or vision statement, it becomes obvious to any stranger observing a Sunday morning service.

My student was graciously concluding that the leaders of the church she visited didn’t apparently see the world through the eyes of a 20 year-old. I don’t doubt that they wanted to reach out to this member of what’s been termed the “Millennial Generation” or “Millennials” (those born between 1981 and 1999), but their approach to church – their vision – was through the lens of someone older, perhaps a “Baby Boomer” (1946-1964) or a “Generation X” (1965-1980) pastor.

Fine eyes, surely, just not quite the right eyes for focusing on a Millennial.

Beautiful Eyes

While it’s true that the central purpose of the church and the Church is the pursuit of God and His glory, and while the Gospel must not (indeed, will not) be acculturated or diluted, church leaders already acknowledge that there are differences between the way groups of people approach worship and community and, therefore, different styles or preferences represented by those who are part of the church. Those leaders, therefore, rightly make decisions based on those differences. Thus we have nurseries, childrens’ churches, youth groups, marriage classes, senior adult ministries, etc.

Such leaders read a New Testament that teaches the breaking down of barriers. They hear Jesus’ command to “Let the little children come to me, and stop keeping them away…” (Matthew 19:14a, ISV) and Paul’s counsel to Timothy not to let “anyone look down on you because you are young” (1 Timothy 4:12a NIV). They worship a God of heroic oldsters Moses, Aaron, Zechariah and Elizabeth. But they also follow a Messiah who built the Church itself on the shoulders of 12 men who, relatively speaking, were kids.

God is clearly “intergenerational” in His purposes. Those who nurture His Church are aligned and submitted when they desire communities of faith that follow His lead.

And so, these pastors acknowledge the importance of young people. They don’t view truly intergenerational ministry as optional. Indeed, many covet these young people, seeing them as a barometer of the body’s vitality. It’s certainly evident in the church I attend.

As a late Baby Boomer (emphasis on late), I was influenced by circumstances common to many of my aging brethren (you know who you are). As the largest generational grouping, we were faced with 80 million people in the same job market so we became competitive. Our Great Depression-influenced parents convinced us that we could make the world different, so many of us became idealists. We trust institutions, like churches, because they are part of how we built our identities.

On the other hand, if you’re a pastor, you may be part of Generation X. The Bureau of Labor Statistics pegs the median age of a full-time graduate-educated minister at 45. If the Boomers are optimists, X-ers are skeptics. In these folks’ formative years, institutions proved un-trustworthy and their role models even less so. Media – which became pervasive in their formative years – reported leaders from presidents to ministers, actors to athletes, failing in every imaginable way. On top of that, the divorce rate tripled during their birth years. It would be difficult for these factors not to influence the way Gen-Xers perceive their world.

BarnaMilliannialsInfoGraphic1

Of course some of the issues that relate to the study of these intergenerational perceptions are the result of stereotypes. Authors Lynne Lancaster and David Stillman conclude, “We’ve all been exposed to too many media images of the annoyingly precocious Millennial kid, or the tattooed Generation X slacker, or the guilt-ridden workaholic Boomer… …The media puts negative images into our minds, and these affect how we view each of the generations.”

Stereotypes they may be, and of course each individual is unique, but these perceptions are responses to actual behaviors and attitudes reflecting how a person experienced life, particularly during their formative years.

And that brings us to the Millennials. As you consider leading a church that is impactful intergenerationally, I’d suggest seeing four factors that influence how a Millennial sees you.

The first is the Millennial’s sense of failed promises. For Boomers, the concept of “The American Dream” gave us assurance, a persistent cultural hope. The recent economic downturn and joblessness have been just a phase for us. But for someone who is 18, the culture of hopelessness has colored their entire adolescence. BusinessWeek recently called them “The Lost Generation”, noting that they are the most unemployed generation in history.

Think about how you would view your formative years if they in essence began on September 11, 2001. It’s no wonder that one student told me, “We’re to the point that we’re used to not being able to trust. We desperately want and need God (and people) to come through.”

The second factor influencing a Millennial’s approach to life is related to the first. It’s the pursuit of what’s real. It’s no coincidence that this generation was weaned on reality television. And it’s one reason they are rejecting “religion” in record numbers. (A Christian Boomer is much more comfortable being described as “religious” than a Christian Millennial.) A Millennial’s anthem might be the YouTube video entitled “Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus”, which is on its way past 20 million views.

A Millennial believes that the Gospel should make a real difference in your life and theirs. Therefore, appealing to a 20-year old is likely just as much about helping people across the globe get clean water as it is including a Gungor song in the worship mix. It’s as much about operating a food bank as it is having a website that leaps off the screen. One leader at a highly-regarded Christian university told me, “I see over and over again, students want practical and real world ways to express their faith – often through tangible ways of caring for the disenfranchised.”

Thirdly, this is the “Everyone-Gets-A-Trophy” generation. Perhaps due to the insecurities of their Boomer or Gen-X parents, they grew up in a world where everybody plays and everybody wins. As a result, many expect to be directly involved in what impacts them and they expect some kind of reward. Church should have an impact, prayer an answer, faith a response, etc. Of course this may mean they will struggle to learn the concept of waiting on God, but that’s an idea for another essay.

Finally, the Millennial Generation covets connection and relationship. That’s not to say that they always understand how properly to build relationship, but they are certainly connected.

According to C&R Research, 22% of 6-9 year-olds in the United States has a cell phone. For 10-14 year-olds it’s 60%. The average 14 year-old sends 70 text messages per day. There is even a name for the concept of the 16 year-old who spends the evening alone in his bedroom “connecting” with his 176 Facebook friends. Some sociologists have termed this “Connection via Isolation”. This generation invented the idea of “un-friending” someone. You get the idea.

A church that connects with a Millennial will do just that. The Millennial is looking for opportunities to be “plugged in” on their own terms, perhaps because they have never known a life otherwise, no matter what we may think of the quality of that connection.

Perhaps the best news is that, if you’ve read this far, you care. The perspective of the young person matters to you; You’ve probably already determined to think differently about doing church, asking God to provide fresh vision through new eyes. And while there may be programs you will adopt or changes you will make to ensure the church’s relevance to this generation, a Christ-mind determined to understand will always be the first and most important part of a leader’s plan for intergenerational ministry.

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