This isn’t working! There, I’ve said it. I feel better already. I’ve been meaning to say it for a long time – in fact I can’t remember a time in the last 30 years when I haven’t thought it. Oh – it’s the Church I’m talking about, by the way.
‘The Emporer’s New Church’ by Stewart Cutler in Inside Verdict, 2003
It’s ten years since I wrote those words. Inside Verdict was a book that was supposed to tell a hopeful story about the state of the Church of Scotland as a response to Outside Verdict by Harry Reid. I remember being asked to write about the good things happening in adult education at the time. The problem was that there wasn’t much happening.
Instead of making something up I wrote about my concerns. I haven’t read that chapter for years so I picked it up this morning to see what I was worried about then. I wasn’t surprised to see that the issues I was concerned about then are the same issues we were still talking about last night. A disconnection with 3 or 4 generations, the lack of spiritual practices, a reticence to say what we stand for and the inability of people to escape structures that inhibit and just to get on and make change.
It’s funny how self interest sharpens focus.
The generation gap in churches has been evident for years. I remember my sister and I being the youngest people in our church at 15 and 18 years of age. The next youngest was my mother and father and then there was another 10 year gap. That wasn’t in any way unusual. At a succession of Youth Assemblies young people would consistently say that they were the only people of their age in their church.
This has become a big issue for churches now because people aren’t going forward for training for ministry. Peter Johnston has blogged about this and about the various characteristics of the generations; the builders, boomers, Xers and Yers.
It would seem that Builders (65-80) were committed to rebuilding the post-war world and the church was at the heart of their institutional world.
Boomers (48-65) grew up in that post-war landscape with huge prosperity and opportunity. They have also known massive change in almost every area of life.
Gen X (30-45) is also known as the lost generation. They see the commitment their Builder and Boomer parents had to work and how their parents’ relationships suffered because of that. They are less likely to commit to leadership roles and value their own relationships much more highly. X-ers expect support structures and like team working.
Generation Y (Under 30s) are the children of Boomers so have experienced support and security. They look for meaningful interaction and fulfilment and expect to be able to question.
The wake up call around a lack of ministers makes me want to scream! Sociological analysis of the changing generations has been around for years and yet the church only gets interested because those changes threaten the organisational structure of an institution which caters primarily for Builders and Boomers.
One of the traits of Builders and Boomers was a need to work hard and provide a better life for their children. The impact of that was for Builders and Boomers to keep hold of responsibility and create institutions based on their perceptions of what their children would need, security, structure and consistency. However, those are the very things that Gen X and Gen Y kick against.
I’ve written about Bored Adults before. My theory is that we are still reasonably good at working with children and young people but that church is almost completely opposite to the active and engaging world of children’s and youth work.
This chart is based on Honey & Mumford’s work on learning styles.
It illustrates my belief that there is a significant difference between the things we do with children and young people which lean heavily towards the activist and the things we do in church where we lean the other way towards the theorist.
If learning styles are an indication of the kinds of activities people are likely to prefer to engage with then it doesn’t seem at all surprising that so few young people make the jump from youth work to church?
Activists learn best when:
- involved in new experiences, problems and opportunities
- working with others in team tasks or role-playing
- being thrown in the deep end with a difficult task
- chairing meetings, leading discussions
Activists learn less when:
- listening to lectures or long explanations
- reading, writing or thinking on their own
- absorbing and understanding data
- following precise instruction to the letter
Theorists learn best when:
- put in complex situations where they have to use their skills and knowledge
- they are in structured situations with clear purpose
- they are offered interesting ideas or concepts even though they are not immediately relevant
- they have the chance to question and probe ideas
Theorists learn less when:
- they have to participate in situations which emphasise emotion and feelings
- the activity is unstructured or briefing is poor
- they have to do things without knowing the principles or concepts involved
- they feel they’re out of tune with the other participants, for example people with different learning styles
Chalk and Cheese.
Of course these are preferences and people can work in both preferences as well as Pragmatist and Reflector. We each have elements of all four preferences but the leanings towards opposite ends concerns me.
But I think this confronts us with a fundamental question: what is the church for?
The different generations might answer this question differently and that’s the source of the problem. The Builders and Boomers got there first, so we have a church built in their image.
Gen X and Gen Y are not interested in hanging about until things change. They are much more likely to go off in search of something that fits better, start something else or just walk away completely.
So, I’m left with some big core questions:
- about the balance of what we do as church and the real possibility of change while Builders and Boomers hold the reigns
- about how the things we do and how we do them says so much about who we are, and who we are not, who we are for and who we are not for
- why would people engage with something so far from their needs, wants, preferences and comfort zone
So, that’s the context as I see it.
Does it ring true in your experience? Am I asking the right questions or are there other more important ones?