Generations @ Church

Originally posted on 19 February 2005

Based on a chapter in my 2004 book, ‘Mind the Gap’, here are some insights into the generation gap in church.

The era in which you were born shaped your value system more than you probably realise. Your value system is that part of you which helps you decide what is right or wrong, good or bad, normal or weird. Your value system is largely cemented in place by the time you turn ten years old, and the events and forces that shape you in those first ten years are critical in shaping your value system.

Over the past century, global events have become more and more influential on people across the planet. With increased communication, telephones, television and now the Internet, its possible for single events to influence billions of people at the same time. ‘Where were you when” type questions become increasingly familiar. Where were you when the planes crashed into the twin towers on 9/11? When Mandela was released in 1990? When the Berlin wall came down in 1989? When Neil Armstrong stood on the moon, or when JFK was shot?

Global events like these can shape the value systems of all the young people of a particular era. That means that people about your age may have a similar worldview to you. And you probably differ dramatically in outlook to those people older and younger than yourself.

Generations @ Church
There are few areas in our lives where the generation gap is greater than it is in the church. The church throughout the world is in crisis as an increasingly greying clergy is not attracting youthful priests and pastors. Youngsters don’t relate to people a generation or two older than them as role models, and the older generations boycott ‘youth services’. And so we see a vicious cycle of falling figures, both in church attendance and people prepared to don clerical robes.

Part of the solution is to understand what is causing this shift in values. But in order to understand other people, you actually need to understand yourself. And to do that properly, you not only need to be aware of your gender, culture and personality, but also of your generation.

A Blast from the Past
Those people born in the 1930s and 40s were shaped and moulded by the twin crises of the Great Depression and World War II. Regardless of which country or community a person was born in, these two major world events affected every person one way or another. Young people who grew up during these tough times naturally came to view the world as a tough place. To survive, you had to be disciplined and committed. ‘Get a good job in a big company and stay there’ was the career advice they were given (and the advice they followed, most of them having recently retired after 40 years long service in one company). Its not surprising that they value stability, predictability and consistency. They have a ‘waste not want not attitude’, and really battle to spend money, saving everything ‘ even reusing the Christmas wrapping paper, and ignoring expiry dates on tins of food. Sociologists have labelled this generation the ‘Silent generation’, mainly because they grew up at a time when children were to be seen and not heard.

In church, this generation loves the ‘sanctuary’. They want church to be a quiet place of awe and reverence (‘Be still and know that I am God’ is a verse often prominently displayed on the front wall). They love old hymns, sung to the organ out of ‘real’ hymnbooks.

Drugs, Sex and Rock n Roll
The 1950s and 60s dawned bright around the world. Societies were driven by grand visions, from capitalism to communism. Even apartheid. Not all grand visions were good, but they were certainly grand ‘ they were about rebuilding the world and recreating society. The struggle for freedom was also a grand vision that swept the world, from Nelson Mandela and Albert Lituli to Martin Luther King, Jr’s, ‘I have a dream’. There was also the dream of putting a man on the moon, first articulated in 1960 by John F Kennedy, and then realised by Neil Armstrong in July 1969. Through most of this era, countries were growing (South Africa’s GDP was growing at over 10% per annum for most of the time), gold was over $1,000 an ounce, and the Rand was stronger than the dollar.

Its not surprising that the young people who grew up in these idealistic decades have become powerful leaders themselves. This generation of ‘Baby Boomers’ leads with passion, vision and mission. They dominate the world, requiring everyone to conform to their way of thinking.

In church, they use the same approach. There are very few Boomer churches that don’t have a prominently displayed vision, mission and purpose statement. They’re into excellence and image, and the church service is required to run flawlessly, with lengthy mid week practices. They preach about success and believe that ‘bigger is better’ as they build mega churches in every city.

Things Fall Apart
The idealism of the age of the Boomers began to show serious cracks as the 1960s drew to a close. From the Profumo scandal in England, to Watergate in the USA and South Africa’s own Information scandal, governments proved themselves untrustworthy. From the Rivonia trials to the Angolan war, from Vietnam to June 16, 1976, the world descended into chaos.

Young people growing up in the 1970s and 80s got a sense that the adults didn’t know what was going on. They became used to chaos and change. After all, many of them were children of divorce. They didn’t grow up on the playing fields of their schools, saying ‘my daddy’s bigger than yours!’ They were able to fight by saying, ‘I’ve got more daddies than you’. And if you can change parents, you can change anything! They love change. They need change. And if they don’t get change, they will make change. If constant change can feel like chaos, then they need chaos, and will make it, too. They’ve been called, ‘Generation X’, where X is the variable, the thing that can change.

In the workplace, they’re demanding a new contract. No longer will they swap loyalty for security. Companies are not providing security and long term jobs, so these young people are therefore refusing to offer long term commitments.

In church, they want more change more often. They want relationships, preferring small groups and cell churches to the big Boomer mega churches.

A New Millennium
Sometimes referred to as ‘Mandela’s children’, these Millennial kids, born in the 1990s and 2000s, are being forced to grow up very quickly. Whilst on the one hand, they’re growing up in a world of unprecedented opportunities, with a wonderful sense of diversity in the global village, on the other hand, they’re exposed to serious pressures, including terrorism, ecological collapse, sexual pressures and a world that constantly demands new skills in order to find jobs in the future. Yet, these young people are civic minded, and want to make a difference.

In church, they will want to be involved, from an early age. They believe that its not by might, nor by power, nor by experience or gender or race or age, but by the Spirit, who gives spiritual gifts, that ministry is accomplished.

If the generational theory is correct, it will be helpful in thinking about all aspects of church. Of course, it is a generalisation, and should not be applied without thinking and careful analysis of your local situation. Nor does it replace prayer and godly insight. But, it can nevertheless be helpful in showing us some starting points in our journey of ensuring that church remains relevant to all generations.

What follows is neither a comprehensive list, nor is it meant to be step by step instructions. But the following areas of church life and ministry are in desperate need of regeneration.

The issue of worship is one of the most divisive in most churches. The older generations want well known hymns, solemnly sung to organ accompaniment. The younger generations want medleys of repetitive, new choruses led by electric guitars, keyboards and drums. The younger generations prefer a more intimate worship style, with songs that speak to God. The Boomers enjoy lively, loud worship that celebrates God. The older generations prefer to sing formally, about God. Multi-generational churches need to work hard to have something for everyone. The focus needs to be on quality and sensitivity, ensuring a mix of styles, with a blend of old and new. There also needs to be teaching on tolerance and diversity.

In Mark 4:33-34, we read an interesting statement about how Jesus preached to the crowds who came to listen to him. Yet, the older generations still prefer the preacher to preach in a traditional style, using three point sermons based on systematic theology and hours of research in the Bible. Younger generations would prefer more practical sermons, peppered with stories. Both of these approaches are Biblical, and each has strengths and weaknesses. Again, the best solution probably involves finding a balance between the different styles (and many other styles in between as well). This can best be done by developing more preachers from with the congregation ‘ both young and old ‘ who can bring different styles to the pulpit. This would also fulfil the requirement of 2 Timothy 2:2 to allow more people into the pulpit and develop their gifts.

It is only relatively recently in history that anyone was asked, ‘Are you born again?’ or was instructed to ‘walk down the aisle’ and ‘say the sinner’s prayer’. The Silent generation believe that you can convince someone to become a Christian by logically and rationally taking them through a process of thinking. This is exemplified in the approach of Evangelism Explosion, and, to a lesser extent, Campus Crusade’s Four Spiritual Laws. Boomers have codified approaches like this and created systems out of them, taking them around the world, with slick training courses and manuals. Similarly, Billy Graham type ‘crusades’ dominated the Boomer’s early memories of evangelism, and the rock n roll style, stadium events are still favourites for them.

Today’s younger generations much prefer a more relational approach, that treats other people’s beliefs and other faiths with respect and love. That doesn’t mean ‘selling out’, it just means a different starting point, and a different approach. Today’s evangelism techniques need to focus more on helping people to experience a community of believers, and to connect with the ‘kingdom of God’ in tangible ways that go beyond explanations and arguments. The world needs to see more Christ-followers, not hear more rhetoric.

Sunday School
Sunday Schools were initially founded in the Victorian era to help children get out of the virtual slavery of child labour in Dickensian factories. They were given basic literacy skills to help them improve their lives. Today, most children view Sunday School as anything but freeing. Even the name is off putting!

We need to urgently look at the curriculum, the teaching techniques (and the training and support we give the teachers), and the goals of Sunday School. I am personally very disturbed that my two daughters tend to lurch from stories about Easter to stories about Christmas, with very little else except a few parables in between in a year. And if I see one more felt-board, I think I might cry.

Something for Everyone
The church has some tough decisions to make. There is a massive generation gap in the church and the world, and many of the strategies and ministries the older generations would prefer to maintain are no longer effective for younger generations. But we cannot simply abandon the older generations. The church must ensure that all generations are both ministered to and have opportunities to minister. This is a difficult task, but not impossible.

A pastor friend once told me that he did not just want to be an echo of his own generation, building a church that only catered for the needs of one particular group of God’s people. Like him, I believe its possible to build multi-generational churches, where each generation learns from all the others, as we reflect the diversity and unity of being the children of God.

Graeme Codrington is a business strategist and consultant, and co-author of the newly released book, ‘mind the gap!’ (Penguin, 2004). More information is available at his website

Great books to read:

‘Mind the gap!’, by Graeme Codrington and Sue Grant-Marshall, Penguin, 2004

‘The Church on the Other Side’, by Brian McLaren, Zondervan, 2003.

‘An 8-track Church in a CD World’, by Robert Nash, jr. Smith & Helwys, 1997.

‘Make Room for the Boom’ or Bust’, by Gary McIntosh, Baker, 1997.

‘Systems-sensitive leadership’, second edition, by Michael Armour and Don Browning, College Press, 2000.

‘Jesus for a New Generation’, by Kevin Graham Ford, IVP, 1995.

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