Module 1: (Common Lens) Understanding Generational Differences… 2015

On-Demand Webinar Recording

“The Future of Faith” by Carey McDonald
Recorded at the Metro New York Religious Professionals gathering, Spring 2014

Did you complete this module in the Fall 2014 Semester? Click here for new materials!

This playlist contains 6 videos for a total length of 50 minutes.
Video 1 is 6:39
Video 2 is 8:55
Video 3 is 4:56
Video 4 is 3:33
Video 5 is 12:26
Video 6 is 13:39

Valuing the Resources of the Young

by Carol Howard Merritt
Excerpted from Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation , copyright © 2007 by the Alban Institute.

We often disregard the important assets that adults under forty can offer us. In the denominational church, leadership positions are given to people who prove themselves in some way. Usually they’re people who have a great deal of influence, time, or money. This makes sense. As a church builds its leadership, as pastors and committees search congregations for elders and deacons, they look for the strongest possible links to make up that leadership chain, and if that person has established themselves in a community by gaining power, donating time, or giving money, then it’s likely that they will be a solid leader in the church. They will use their influence positively, put in the valuable hours, and devote their resources to the work and mission of the church. Every congregation needs these important commodities to minister effectively.

The problem is that young people usually do not have power, time, or money. But they have other things: potential, creativity, imagination, vision, and ideas. As the modern philosopher Hannah Arendt explains in The Life of the Mind, if we look at a person’s lifespan in a linear fashion, we can see that a person at the beginning of the line looks forward, while a person at the end of the line looks backward. Younger people have a natural orientation toward planning while older people have an inclination to reminisce.

If we follow Hannah Arendt’s logic as a general rule—a rule that has many, many exceptions—we might understand that young people are planners, while older people are historians. Since our denominational churches have so many older people in leadership, we become trapped in a pattern where we desire the past: conservatives pine away for the 1950s and liberals long for the 1960s.

This becomes clear in the photographs we display in our fellowship hall. We place the black and white photos on our walls, and look at how our congregations used to be, with hundreds of people lined up in front of the doors of the church, with all of the young families and children, hands to their sides, hair neatly combed, and leather shoes shining. It’s wonderful to learn about these important periods in our history. But if the energy, vision, and wall space of the church focuses on recreating a time when the congregation’s present young people were not even alive, trying to be part of a church becomes understandably frustrating for those in their twenties and thirties.

I remember being in seminary, constantly hearing about the days of mainline denominational glory, when prominent Protestant theologians made it on to the cover of Time magazine. I heard so many stories about the civil rights movement that I felt like I was sinking in the midst of this institutional longing for the past. A popular song by Jesus Jones was getting a lot of air time on the radio, and although Jesus Jones isn’t one of my favorite artists, each time this particular song played, I turned up my stereo as loud as I could bear it and would belt out the chorus:

Right here, right now, there is no other place I’d rather be.
Right here, right now, watching the world wake up from history.

You see, I wanted to enjoy my youth while I was still living it. I didn’t want to spend my time yearning for someone else’s glory days, and I was certainly not interested in going through an institutional midlife crisis in my twenties.

A leadership crisis exists, but it’s not because of a lack of talent and resources from younger generations, it’s because the church can get so caught up in trying to recreate those Norman Rockwell days that we forget to look at where we are—right here, right now.

Other Materials:

The Church Needs More Innovative Pastors like MTV Needs More Twerking by Patrick Scriven, Director of Communications and Young People’s Ministries, The Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Methodist Church

Tips on How to Greet Young Adults at UU Churches (PDF)

Additional Resources

4 comments on “Module 1: (Common Lens) Understanding Generational Differences… 2015

  1. Scott Mulder on

    The most important element of these conversations is the following comment by a participant: every day, ten thousand baby-boomers are retiring from the workforce. This means a lot for our future, from how we approach financial stewardship to the styles and tones of worship (and church branding and promotion) necessary to attract new growth.

    To use McDonald’s language, it is essential that we become network builders and curators of the talents and gifts of our fellow congregants, and that this is the means by which we can retain the “Nones”—through turning the practical art of building networks and curating gifts into a spiritually transformational experience.

    Our principles, specifically, the personal search for truth and meaning, provides a spiritual framework for this slight shift in our approach to membership recruitment and retention, and our faith in action projects should then become a de-facto product of the gifts of our congregations shared in union.

    The trouble is, there is complete heterogeneity among the Nones. In other words, there is no immediate consistency in terms of the emotional, spiritual, or covenantal needs from one member of the Nones demographic to the next. This is a field where further research and anticipatory behavior is essential, as the millennial generation (not the gen x’rs) are the body which we need to reach out to if we are to grow our churches.

    Lastly, returning to the topic of financial stewardship—a topic which this series skirted—we all know that financial giving is shifting, for as boomers retire, giving declines, even as the fiscal needs of our churches continue to increase. If we change the language away from the mid-term gifting language we usually use in favor of monthly, bi-weekly, or even weekly giving, we can make regular giving more accessible in the minds and perceptions of the generally less affluent members and potential members of our beloved communities. For example, for someone living on a month-to-month income, it’s easier to frame a financial contribution in terms of how much they’ll give a month, which will look smaller and easier to manage than an annual contribution. Or for someone who is working while putting themselves through grad school, framing their annual pledge in a weekly or bi-weekly amount will be much more reliable product to which they can commit.

    On the topic of the future of our faith, there’s so much more to consider than demographics themselves. Demographics cannot be ignored. It is the dynamic interface of demographics and finances, demographics and technology, and demographics and ministry, just for example, are crucial cruxpoints which will shape, build, or break our congregations as we move forward, so as we strive to foster and empower the 18-35 generations, we must not forget the needs of our retirees as well. Our best solutions, indeed, will be those which ask not who we can serve be

    • Scott Mulder on

      (Comment was inserted incomplete…)

      Our best solutions, indeed, will be those which ask not who we can serve better, but, how can we serve our whole congregation better by tailoring and personalizing all that we do for all of the members of our beloved communities.

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