The theme this year for the annual Labor Day Retreat that my family and I attended at Menucha Retreat and Conference Center was intergenerational formation for the church. I could not help but resonate with the importance of that topic. Presentations, activities, and community building program times we experienced last weekend have given me ample reflection concerning experiments toward answering my Doctorate of Ministry question, which is: why aren’t there younger generations in the Presbyterian Church (USA) here in the Pacific Northwest? I am also discovering the same question is apropos for other mainline Protestant brothers and sisters in our little corner of the world.
As I suspected from my research this past year, some of the reasons have to do with findings in the field of generation theory. I want to touch on some highlights. First, do we have anyone present today born before 1920? How about between1920-1940? How about 1940-1960? 1960-1980? These four chunks of time correspond (although somewhat arbitrarily for ease of designation) to four generation “types” which follow a pattern that is repeated with surprising regularity through history. There is a generation who, in their most productive years of leadership in society, government, and religion, shape culture profoundly for a period of roughly 50 to 80 years. This generation is called the Civic Generation. You may remember them, they were (and in some cases are still among us) the G.I. Generation, the last “Great Generation.”
Following that one is a generation that supports, improves upon, sometimes rebuilds, (for example after a major war) and maintains what they built. For most purposes, including spiritual, they mirror the previous Civic Generation’s cultural and spiritual worldviews. The current iteration of this second group is called the “Silent” Generation, those of you born roughly between 1920 and 1940. For you, there is often a definite “right” and “wrong;” across the board, most of you agree on a specifically Christian moral fabric that up to current times has held together our society. Church growth in the US flourished with your leadership.
Following that group is the generation that has been labeled the Boomer Generation, those born roughly from 1940-1960. Their generalized characteristic as a repeating generation in the cycle is sometimes termed Idealist, sometimes Prophetic Generation. An interesting thing happens between generation two and three in the cycle, however. In the bigger picture of generation theory’s cycles, this third generation in the order occurs at the point where the previous stable 80 years or so begins to break down. For the Boomers, leaning on what was a rapidly growing field of social sciences focused on the self, a shift occurred which has ushered in an unraveling, if you will, of all that has gone on before. This general cultural unraveling breaks down what the Civic and Silent generations carefully built and maintained as the foundational fabric of US culture and life, including the life of the church.
The shift moved away from consensus on moral issues with definitive communal rights and wrongs to a sort of therapeutic outlook: what feels best to me, what is best for me – which spilled over into experiences of church-going and in whether or not the children of Boomers grew up considering church – and all it stood for – mandatory or elective. Some shifting around and “church shopping” inevitably happened as Boomers “searched” for the church experience (or not) that felt “right” for them.
Consequently, the next generation, here born between 1960 and 1980, a Nomad Generation as they are cyclically termed, has overall had a more remote understanding of God as “out there” somewhere (transcendent), and has the unfortunate position in socio-cultural life to be the ones who inhabit the bottom dregs of the last 50-80 year devolution of a once stable society, culture, and church. The current iteration of this kind of Generation has been labeled “Gen Xer’s” by some. Now comes the hard part because I have to hold up a mirror to myself.
Why do we Nomads sort-of drift? Overall, we have taken a long time “settling down;” sort-of drifting from job to job, career to career, home to apartment then back home and finally on to our own homes. We are the 13th generation to be born in the United States of America, and we are the fifth such “Nomad” generation of America’s short history.
The previous iteration of this generation type was called the “Lost Generation” for good reason. Of concern for the church today, Nomads are a product of both preceding generations’ understanding of spiritual relativity. For those of us with close connections to our grandparents, we learned and appreciated some spiritual characteristics as absolutes. But we saw (or in some cases read about them later via picture albums and US History courses) our own parents question these same absolutes – searching for something else that felt more “right” for them. Spilling over to other areas of socio-cultural life-changes all around us; this awareness has caused Gen X’ers to become somewhat jaded concerning all manner of what had been built by generations before us. For example, politics, corporate America, and institutional bodies-including the Church.
Another part of generation theory says every other generation in the four-generation cycle sets the tone and overall ethos of collective society and culture in the United States for around 50-80 years, roughly two generations worth. So the constant questioning and searching of the Boomers is echoed further by the X’ers as the moral fabric of our spiritual society devolves around the eroding socio-cultural reality within which we currently live. That is the back history. But something even more fascinating is happening-for we are in the midst of the Fourth Turning; that is, ending the fourth iteration of the four-generation cycle and beginning a new one. That means the next generation, another Civic generation has the potential to be the next Great Generation.
The Millennial generation, those born roughly from 1980-2000, begin the cycle of four generations again, marking them as those who will set the tone and ethos for the next 50-80 years of life in our country. Which means, Millennials will be voting en masse in the 2020 presidential election. Which means, their highest peak in leadership and productivity across the board in our country will hit somewhere roughly in the 2030s. In this iteration of Civics, Millennials may well begin to do what we might call an extreme make-over of our society, our culture, and our country (some sectors are already feeling this). That also means, if they choose to make a stand for religious faith, they will also inevitably make-over what it looks like to be the Church.
Taking aspects of all three of the previous generations’ explorations of faith-journeying has led them to piece together little bits of all manner of diverse world-views, including inter-faith hybridizations. Spiritually, some critiques are now calling their pieced-together spirituality “therapeutic moralistic deism.” Basically, anything goes, and if a Millennial is going to practice faith, they will blend all kinds of aspects of all the different world religions that have come to light and weave them together, perhaps even into something completely new.
Which leads me to wonder, what, specifically, does the Christian Church have to offer the future? We might begin by realizing Jesus was challenging the faith of his time in an intergenerational debate. Part and parcel of that time of fermenting angst is the reality that an established “old guard” if you will, had controlled the faith tradition of our spiritual ancestors in Judaism for some time. Jesus – and his posy of friends – had some new ideas and some different interpretations of what God was speaking to the people, and so the young began to instruct the old; and it didn’t go over very well.
In that context, we have now to look to what Jesus and his friends, disciples, and later apostles were teaching during the subsequent definitive break in Judaism that led to Christianity becoming a separate world faith.
According to Jill Duffield of the Presbyterian Outlook, a basic “top ten” in Christianity 101 pulled from today’s scripture readings looks like this:
- God created everyone. Every. Single. Person. We have that in common no matter our other myriad differences.
- Integrity is more valuable than material wealth in the eyes of God. Therefore, always choose a good name over great riches.
- The Lord pleads the case of the poor. Ergo, so should we.
- Generosity is a blessing all around, for the giver and the receiver.
- Don’t exploit the poor.
- A person’s value does not equate to their monetary net worth. A person is valuable because, well, see number one on this list. God does not care how much or how little is in your bank account. See number two on this list.
- Love your neighbor as yourself. Really. Not in theory, but in daily, tangible practice. See number 5 for more information.
- Faith is visible to all. How we live reflects our deepest beliefs, revealing what and who we truly value.
- When someone comes to you in pain and suffering, at the very least treat him with dignity, respect and kindness, even if you cannot do for him what he hopes you can do.
- When someone comes to you in pain and suffering, do what you can do to alleviate her pain and suffering, no matter who she is, where she comes from or how that pain and suffering came to be.
Those are Jill Duffield’s top ten. What I’d like to do in the next few minutes is have you all come up with your top three applied practical behaviors that mark contemporary followers of the Way, as the early Christians were called, then pick one of them that you will practice in earnest this next week. Move into small groups with your neighbors and share. In three minutes or less I’d like volunteers to share what you came up with. Do you have any questions? Ready? Go!
(End with prayer offering our actions to God)
Questions for Reflection
Try to recall the first time in your life when you did not retreat in the face of opposition. How is your experience like that of the Syrophoenician woman putting her case to Jesus? Where in your life today is that same courage calling you to speak out? What could you do this week to take steps in that direction?
Household Prayer: Morning
Holy God, I thank you for another day, whether it brings the sort of happiness for which I always hope or the challenges I sometimes fear. Each day in your presence is a time to notice the marvels of creation that surround me. Help me to see them today and to move gracefully from one hour to the next, in the name of your holy and miraculous ways. Amen.
Household Prayer: Evening
Giver of all good things, you have been at my side, beneath, above, and within me all day long, and I thank you for your presence. I thank you now, as well, that as I grow weary, you have given me a place to lay my head. Watch over all who sleep this night, especially those who have no shelter. Guard them and keep all your people in safety, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
 Jill Dufield, “Looking into the Lectionary,” Presbyterian Outlook, September 3, 2018 (http://pres-outlook.org/category/ministry-resources/looking-into-the-lectionary/).