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The 'Generations Thesis': What's a Church Supposed to Do?
It is challenging to have everyone happy in church when four or five age groups coexist within each congregation. Can we learn to appreciate each other?

Back in 1991 two authors proposed a theory about recurring cycles of generations that seemed to explain a lot about today's culture. William Strauss and Neil Howe's Generations book has been scrutinized and battered but it still can serve as a "think piece" for churches to understand at least some of the challenges facing them.

In fact, Strauss and Howe may have triggered a focus on passing generations. In the United States Tom Brokaw heralded the "Greatest Generation" and Leonard Steinhorn responded in 2006 with The Greater Generation, a salute to the Baby Boomers (1946-64) for implementing progressive social changes from the fitness craze to a more democratic workplace. Reginald Bibby applies Boomer psychology to Canadians but in a less positive vein than Steinhorn.

Typing generations

Strauss and Howe's remains the most comprehensive theory and can offer valuable insights to churches and ministers dealing with more diverse congregations than ever before. Most have heard by now of Gen X (or "Thirteeners"), the Boomers and the G.I. (or Greatest) generations. Simply insert a Silent Generation between the WW2 veterans and the Boomers, add on today's young up-and-comers (the Millennials) and you have the Strauss-Howe take on the many broad trends in the culture.

Realizing that all theories leak at the edges, let's try to move this scheme north of the 49th parallel. The purpose of this exercise is this: to help Christians grasp how complex our world has become, the world we are trying to reach with the Gospel. The Generations approach may spur us to more readily meet the challenge inherent in the apostle Paul's mantra "all things to all men" (1 Corinthians 9:22).

In Canada, a "Generations" theory might end up looking something like this:

Veterans (born 1901-1924). They're the proud, poppy-wearing, ramrod-straight Canadian Legion members you see on parade every Remembrance Day. No doubt of their cultural allegiances. Their leading spirits stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944, and liberated Holland. This makes them the most identifiable of the generations. They are the ultimate "can do" types. No wonder two of their cohort (one a Canadian from Toronto) invented the comic hero Superman.

This generation defied a Depression and fought a world war. They don't let you forget it either and it's good to hear their stories. They were the WACs, the WAVES and the WRENS (ask them to explain) who came home, bought affordable houses, raised 2.5 kids and paid the taxes to pivot NATO, help rebuild Western Europe and stare down Communism. They also knew how to relax—they helped start CBC-TV and Radio-Canada in 1952 with such war-trained comedians as Wayne and Shuster tickling the nation's funny bones ("I told him, Julie don't go!"). Tommy Douglas and Judy LaMarsh helped pivot the welfare state. Oh yes, these were builders, heroes, achievers, par excellence and their values still resonate with us today.

Adaptives (born 1925-1942). Living in the shadow of heroes, this generation grew up valuing competence, community, institutions. Calm, thorough, logical, this cohort surfaces in William Shatner from Montreal who saw his glory days as steady but tough Captain James Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, or Anne Murray who has never forgotten her roots in Springhill, Nova Scotia. This group loves dialogue—think of Pierre Berton and Charles Templeton, two provocative intellectuals. They don't get much "safer" than Lloyd Robertson and Knowlton Nash of national newscasting fame or Madame Jeanne Suave, first female Speaker of the House of Commons and first female Governor General. Then there's Rene Levesque, another institution builder, in his way. This generation has clearly left a mark.

Baby Boomers (born 1943-1960). Question: "What are you rebelling against?" Answer: "What have you got?" This movie quote sums up a lot of the tumultuous generation that grew up quietly watching Timber Tom on Howdy Dowdy or listening to heartthrob Paul Anka croon "Diana" before they exploded across the campuses in the 1960s. Often set at years 1946 to 1964, the Boomers are nevertheless identified by their questioning of received traditions. In this they exasperate their Veteran parents and bewilder their Adaptive older siblings. Think of Yorkville coffee houses, the Beatles at Maple Leaf Gardens, Rex Murphy's intellectual rants, and Margaret Trudeau and you've got the picture. I know them well. They're my generation, perhaps the most privileged and most questioning cohort yet raised.

Boomers … have left perhaps the most indelible mark on the culture.

However, the Boomer penchant for dissent and raising a little Cain is often a way of getting things done. Boomers like to champion causes and rebels and have left perhaps the most indelible mark on the culture. Women's rights, the environment, safety belts, flex time at work, racial equality, a decent wage—these are all causes Boomers have advanced that were conspicuously missing in the good, grey 1950s.

Reactive or Gen X (1961-1981). A most interesting tribe. This is the age group that remembers the energy crisis, an age of limits (the 1970s), a population bust and a not-so-subtle anti-child culture. Result? These are the born survivors. They helped make "Staying Alive" the hit of 1979. Like icons Terry Fox and Steve Fonyo they learned to heroically go it alone while in their 20's. This is a cohort used to life "on the edge" as in Rick Mercer and his often anti-Boomer humour. The young and healthy Michael J. Fox was emblematic of this era in both Canada and the United States. Frenetic, fast-moving—they were a "party-hearty" crowd willing to push the envelope and live by one's wits. Nike's "Just do It" was a mantra and "Go for it" expressed their in-your-face, eye-of-the-tiger realism. Meanwhile high rates of community voluntarism and concern for often overlooked younger children is just part of their saving graces. Unlike Boomers, they don't need the limelight. Take Wendy Kopps, who started a Teachers Corps for young graduates to work a year in underprivileged schools. Unlike Adaptives, they shun peer approval before forging ahead on their own, youthful problem-solvers.

Millennials (1982 to now). Nice kids, most of them. Called "the millennials" because they will come to responsibility in the 21st century, these are the young up-and-comers raised by the cocooning parents of the 1980s, couples who preferred staying at home to winning corporate success, much like Diane Keaton in the movie "Baby Boom." A smoke-free environment, Neighborhood Watch, soccer classes, a Children's Summit at the UN, stepped up activism against drugs and violence—these kids have been the recipients of these efforts. Strauss and Howe think the cycle will start all over with these, our young people, hoping they will become the new group of Heroes, like their great-grandparents.

Just maybe. As a part-time College instructor, I find today's youth do have a remarkable capacity for "openness," for hearing both sides of a story. They are almost vociferously non-political but are attentive to true stories of people who made a difference. "Make a difference" is almost their mantra. They chase expensive toys but are willing to knock themselves out to work at getting them. The number who consider law enforcement as a career is noticeable. They are growing up with some in-built advantages as bosses and corporations are now beginning to seek them out in the face of dropping birth rates in Canada. There's nothing like feeling needed to make you less snarly and competitive. We're rooting for you, millennials. (How's that for a pompous Boomer attitude?).

The Church challenge

Our denomination, the Worldwide Church of God here in America is trying to mentor and nurture the millennials with our "Generations" ministry. In Canada, the success of our well-run summer camps is a noticeable bright spot boding well for the future. Not as questioning as the Boomers or as automatically reactive as Gen X, these young people are not our future, they are here now.

But think of the challenge it is for churches to reach audiences composed of five different generations. What's a church—what's a church pastor—supposed to do?

In church congregations of four or five thousand the answer would be easier: simply tailor programs for each age group's interest. Most of us however aren't dealing with those numbers, which means it's harder to find the trained and savvy staff to reach them all. What to do?

First, each age group has to remember a line I hear a lot around our fellowship lately: "It's not about me!" Sounds simple but it reminds today's Christians of all ages and generations that none of us can afford to stay locked in place. Change is nature's law. The Christian faith is ours to share, not to keep to ourselves. Jesus famously said, "A city on a hill cannot be hidden … You are the salt of the earth … You are the light of the world." Salt spreads, is meant to permeate. Light is for others. The Gospel calls us all out of our comfort zones to learn how to relate to others.


In order that we might influence their coming to Christ, of course. Jesus famously said: "For the Son of man came to seek and to save that which was lost" (Luke 19:10). Never did He discriminate. Never did He condemn (except uptight religious leaders). Nor should we. Trouble is it is so very easy for us to judge by the outward appearance. It's so easy for those in the Veteran or Adaptive generations to misjudge today's young people. That earring in the ear, that iPod dangling in the jacket, the torn jeans, the scruffy hair, or the skinhead look—these are things that can set up negative reactions in those who think June Cleaver's 1950's dress code was God's ultimate standard.

Outward appearances

Oh, yes. It's so easy to reject people based on the outward appearance and we all do it. Yet that is exactly what Jesus told us not to do. "Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly" (John 9:24).

A pastor friend tells the story of his going back to university in 1989 in a large Canadian city to finish his degree. He had heard the inbuilt prejudices expressed against young men wearing earrings. "Surely," he used to hear around his church, "this is the ultimate rejection of masculinity." He soon saw that the biggest, bulkiest hockey players in his class were all wearing earrings. The concept seeped in: "Hey, this is just a matter of style."

Many of us Baby Boom ministers to the Gen X world in the 1970s can remember the battles over long hair in that funky decade. Or music. Or dress. Sigh—we live and learn. Now look! Twenty years later the style has completely changed around. Now bald is in! How silly to get stressed out about matters of personal style.

That's why clinging to 1950s standards of dress honed in a more settled era can be such a barrier to accepting the much more casual approach of Gen X or Millennials. "What? Child care at church? Why back in my day kids were taught to sit still." These may have been great values but the reality is so different today. And above all things the church must learn to face reality.

Stoop to conquer

It works the other way too. Boomers and Xers cannot really expect the Lawrence Welk generation to adore everything represented by Contemporary Christian Music. Certain in-built prejudices are just ingrained and may never disappear. But then again, rose bushes have thorns. Reform-minded Boomers caught in the middle have to realize that sometimes it is good to "stoop to conquer."

This takes us back again to the fact that church isn't really about us. "Pastoring," said one veteran minister, "is often like driving a van load of seniors. You've got to take the curves very slowly."

The Generations Thesis, then, can serve as a call for tolerance. How challenging it is to have everyone happy in church. Boomers who believe in "having it your way" and Adaptives who cherish decorum have to respect each others' points of view or those coming along behind them will soon go home as the debate rages.

Teachers know this: There are always new generations coming along for whom traditions may not mean much. It was a wise church leader who said: "The last eight words of the church may well be: 'This is the way we've always done things.'" After all, this is the first time in history when children now know more about the practical application of technology than their elders. Does the word PowerPoint ring a bell? The profound changes we see about us signal one of the most tumultuous upheavals in human history. There are now four or five age groups inside each congregation who are experiencing future shock differently. Can the church rise to the occasion?

Originally published in Northern Light Magazine, January/March 2007.




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