Missing Generations (part 1)

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?

6 thoughts on “Missing Generations (part 1)”

  1. This resonates with me and my attempts – with others – to interest our Parish Grouping in effective team ministry. I only came across Builders, Boomers, etc. in a report presented this last week to Aberdeen Presbytery and I think there is a lot more to be said and analysed – including the effect of the Thatcher years and the Church’s failure – with a very few honourable exceptions – to address that challenge, which caused a real disjunction between the Church and young people and activists. Will attempt to say more in due course, but this deserves circulation and attention.

  2. Thanks for your comments Jim.

    I tend to think the generational descriptions are to some extent overly generalised, perhaps even stereotyped, but they do provide a helpful glimpse of the motivations at play.

    I would also agree that the Thatcher years have had a massive influence on the church and its relationship to communities. That needs much more attention, but I think perhaps its roots are in the tension between the Builders socialism born out of the two world wars, the Boomers social conservatism and the more liberal and direct activism approach of Xers and Yers. Lots to think about!

  3. Very thought provoking Stewart. Rings true with my experience in school. Youngsters are interested in matter which we would call spiritual; but not the way most churches present themselves. And approaching 65 I am part of the lost generation. About 10 of us joined the Church at the same time when I was 17. I think most of us are still alive – but I am the only one left with any contact with the Church.

  4. I’m guessing you’ve had many similar experiences to me where people come to you and say “We want more young people involved in our church/organisation and can you help us?” Perhaps unsurprisingly you nearly always find that it is coming from a survival instinct but also genuine goodwill that they want younger generations to have the same interesting experiences that they have had. However, when you ask the most important question (why do you want young people involved?) and discuss it a bit further then you start to look at the factors which got them involved in the first place. At that point you can point to sociological issues and say that the equivalent of those factors today is something a bit different and if they genuinely want younger people involved on their own terms then maybe they need to be considering changing their focus towards that. I often say that different generations like to engage in things in different ways and that means that you can either change the current models (difficult to take people with you) or start new ones (difficult to find the people to do it) and that actually either of those are valid but you need to accept you can’t appeal to all generations and that’s ok.

    To give two examples – Holy City started off as something for young people and perhaps ended up more focused on those working with young people (I wasn’t around at the start so I’ll leave the fine details to someone else). What has happened is that the same generation who it started with are still the ones at the centre of it with some younger additions. That doesn’t mean it should change to be something for younger people but perhaps there needs to be something different to attract the type of people Holy City originally attracted who are in the young generations. And an example of an organisation which should think about changing is the Church Service Society who when we had the discussion as above we realised that a lot of their current members were the ones doing innovative things when they were younger but are now establishment figures. So the possible route to change was not to focus just on the current interests of members but to invite speakers and members who are the current innovators and give them a space in which to share ideas and engage with each other.

  5. The problem with traditional ‘church’ and the desire to drop the average age of attendees is they are asking the younger generation to engage with an aging practice.

    Is the church trying to pull the wool over our eyes if they really think that Jesus wanted us to all sit in stiff, uncomfortable benches, all sitting in file. Asking us to all simultaneously answer with ‘well kent phrases’ and pray like we are all brainwashed? Harsh comments I know but let me justify what I am trying to say.

    As a ‘new comer’ to the church I have to admit I enjoy the experience. Its my weekly ‘top up’ if you like. I enjoy the tradition side of things but as someone falling into the stereotypical ‘Y-ers’ generation I can also see the other side of the coin. I often find it uncomfortable to recite the lords pray all together with the rest of the congregation…I get nothing from that. Pray is suppose to be engaging, dynamic, meaningful and spiritual. I just don’t get that from a few rehearsed lines all said on mass with the rest of church, the words lose their meaning. And for someone new to the church, its just weird!?

    I enjoy the sermons, if a little drawn out sometimes but they really let you become and engage with the word of the lord….I find it difficult that this is the part where everyone else in the congragation switches off, often hearing a few sweet wrappers being opened…obviously because its so boring and they are finding it difficult to stay awake? Either that or its to enhance the experience, if thats the case…..where is the popcorn!?

    Then another awkward moment, the ‘offering’. I know this is vital in sustaining the church, we all need money to run, dare I say it, a business. I come to God’s house to pray and to hear the word of the lord. If I am in to position to ‘offer’ a few pounds then I will happily do so, but don’t pass a velvet bag around and all peer at me to see if I am putting in notes or coppers!?

    Then we have the hymns….I know the population of the church enjoy all the traditional stuff but if you really want to appeal to the ‘X-ers’ and ‘Y-ers’ then please, review your playlist…..

    Now, this has all be so negative so I guess I better try and balance things. My church has been a great support in my spiritual journey. I have had opportunity to attend a number of events including evening prayer and various reading groups on community and growth. I also spend regular 1:1 time with the minister exploring my doubts and fears. This to me is the real ‘church’….

    If you want to appeal to a new generation, then you need to change…not just a bit, everything.

    I read a saying recently about church and its struggle with this kinda thing;

    Old maps don’t lead to new roads……

    Its time to starting writing our own chapters of the Bible, it wasn’t suppose to end with Jesus…well thats my opinion anyway, but what do I know, I’m just a newbie ‘Y-er’ Christian.

Comments are closed.