By Anthony B. Robinson
Introduction: Where Are We
Passing faith as well as congregational leadership from generation to generation seems
to be becoming mission impossible for an increasing number of congregations. Here's what I mean:
Recently, I found myself working with a mid-sized congregation in Pennsylvania. Most of the congregation's members were of the so-called "builders" generation, aka. "the greatest generation." There were men and women who had been born between 1910 and 1935. Wonderful people, pillars of the church, but getting up there in years. Some way up there! Meanwhile, the congregation's leadership group was, by and large, made up of people from the front edge of the boomer generation. If that generation comprises those born between 1946 and 1964, most of the congregation's leaders were the early boomers, born 1946 to 1952.
"With a few exceptions that prove the rule," I said when I addressed the congregation at a luncheon following worship, "you are missing the next two generations, those born between 1964 and 1982 (Gen X) and those born since 1982 (Generation Y). Since chances are good that both the builders and the boomers are not going to be increasing much in numbers (in the general population), you have a challenge."
This situation is not atypical in many long-established congregations today. There are two dimensions to the situation. One part of it is simply attracting people in Generations X and Y so that your congregation doesn't begin to look like a retirement home. The other part is getting a new generation involved in congregational leadership. Some congregations face both challenges. Some face primarily the latter problem, that is, they have at least a fair number of younger people but they can't seem to get them to take leadership roles.
We might wonder, and ask, how we got to thinking of things and people in such generational boxes and categories and why there does seem to be such a cleavage between the generations? What accounts for the seemingly pronounced differences in style, sensibility, values and life-experience that so separate the generations? Is it a technological divide, pre and post personal computer, Internet and all that goes with them? Is it modern and post-modern culture or experience?
What is to be done?
Such questions are worth pondering, but the immediate question for many faith communities is, "What is to be done?" How do we get people under 40 in the door? And if we manage that, how do we get them engaged in the life of the congregation? There are no easy answers. I have observed a couple of responses that don't seem very productive. Let me note those and then offer some suggestions for congregations that want to connect to people in the generations under age 40.
There are two common responses that, in my view, fall short. One, popular among some builders and boomers, is to play the blame game with its corollary, the guilt-trip. "What's wrong with these young people? We did our part when it was our turn, now it's their turn to step up! They (younger generations) seem to want everything done for them!"
Seldom is it that simple. One dimension of the problem is that the builders have had such a long run, living in large numbers into their 80's and 90's and wielding influence in their churches whether they are still in official positions or not. This is a generation that has lived twenty and thirty years longer than its predecessors who faded from the scene in their sixties or seventies. What may seem to builder members as "serving on faithfully" may look to others like "holding on way too long." It's tough to take over the family business if Gramps insists on running the show at the age of 85 or 95!
To fault the 30-somethings for not stepping up and taking their turn is not likely to motivate many to do so. Probably it will drive out the few that are there.
Which leads to the second option that many Gen-X'ers are taking: start our own church. The so-called Emerging Churches are by and large a Gen-X phenomenon. There's lots going on there that's exciting and good, but it does seem a shame to create a new church for every new generation. The X'ers are not alone in this, of course. By and large the mega-church movement, which gathered steam in the 1970's, was a boomer thing. Some of those congregations are now feeling the undertow of their own aging.
Seven Suggestions for Opening Our Doors to the Next Generations
So, if the blame game or doing your own thing are not your preferred choices, if you think generational mix is important, what can congregations do to open the doors to Generations X and Y? Here are seven suggestions:
1) Make it spiritual. The core business of religion is religion, not being a social club, a civic organization or a political party. Honestly ask, "Are we growing spiritually?" "Are we offering others ways into opportunities for spiritual growth?"
2) A corollary of #1, make it about God. You remember God? People want to experience the divine, the sacred, the holy. They are dying for want of grace, wonder, mystery, and not for want of by-laws, committees, and sign-up lists. At least they don't want those things instead of God.
3) Make it personal. Faith has to mean something in my daily life. If church or synagogue only deal in vague abstractions or faith language without personal connection, forget it. If words of faith like, "Jesus Christ Lord and Savior," or the words of Doxology are just the liturgical version of Muzak, you have a problem . . . and an opportunity!
4) Make it real, authentic. We no longer live in the world where very many people go to church out of a sense of social obligation, to keep up appearances, or to see what others are wearing. Just going through the motions, checking off the box, won't cut it.
5) Make it work for busy lives. In many, probably most, families today both parents are working full-time, and often more than full-time. For single parents, it is worse. Time is the new currency. Don't ask people to waste it. Offer more short-term ways to engage, by doing a mission project on a Saturday morning, or a two-evening study experience.
6) Get over the idea that every member of the congregation has to be on a committee or somehow involved in managing the church, the property or building, the money or personnel, the church program or policies. Hire staff to do more of that, and minimize the number of volunteers required for church management. The primary job for those who sit in the pews is not to manage the church. It is to live their faith in the workplace and home, as citizens and as family members.
7) Make congregational leadership a spiritual growth experience. That means preparing people to serve as spiritual leaders, not bean-counters or money-changers, and then allow them to function as spiritual leaders. You may also need to consider putting a limit on the number of people over 55 who can serve on the governing board and the like.
There are no easy answers to the generational challenge. But one thing is sure, integrating younger people in church life and leadership will not happen just because or by accident. For long-established congregations, intentionality will be crucial. And if you succeed, expect that your church will not be exactly the same way it has always been! If that's a problem for you, change the sign now from "Church" to "Museum."
Then here's another option: do a series of ads targeting those hitting 60. Say something like, "Turning 60? Feeling gray or old? Come to our church where the median age is 83! You'll be a youngster again!" (Note to the observant: if 60-year-olds are your young folks, what does that make a 40-year-old?)
Lines from a hymn of the Civil War era ring true: "New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth." Being a community or congregation that endures from generation to generation is a challenge, but it's important. We need each other!