Posted: Mar 13
Generation X: Coming into Leadership
This is the fifth in a series that discusses William Strauss and Neil Howe’s theory of generations in American history, and its implications for stewardship. Click Here to read Part One: Generations of Faith. Click Here to read Part Two: Stewardship with the GI Generation. Click Here to read Part Three: The Silent Generation: Not So Silent After All. Click Here to read Part Four: Stewardship with the Baby Boomers.
Most generations hit their leadership stride about age 45-50. In almost any era, the major leaders of the time are people in the 45-65 age range. Look at US presidents: candidates who are younger than 45 are subject to criticism that they are “too young” (e.g., John F. Kennedy); candidates who are older than 65 raise concerns that they are “too old” (e.g., Ronald Reagan, John McCain). People somehow understand and believe that it is appropriate that leaders should be in the magic leadership age range: 45 to 65.
What this means is that Generation X is moving into leadership now, as the Baby Boomers begin to retire. Gen X under our definition is composed of folks born between 1961 and 1982, and they are now ages 30 to 51 (our current president, Barack Obama, is the first Gen X president). Over the next few years, we are going to see leadership in politics, business, and the church shift from the Baby Boomers to Generation X.
For churches, the generational shift is going to require big changes in our way of doing things. Baby Boomers were rebels in their youth, but settled down to be yuppies and then leaders in the church, as their parents had been before them. For Gen X, the shift may not come so easily. They are a much smaller generation than the Baby Boomers, for one thing, so there will be fewer leadership-age folks available in the church.
And this is a skeptical and difficult generation. (Full disclosure: I am a Gen Xer, and quite fond of my generation – but I am also fully aware of our challenges.) Many Gen X kids were the children of divorced Silent Generation parents; many grew up with no religious background at all, as those parents “let them decide for themselves.” Born in a time when schools were beginning to crumble, raised in uneven economic times in the 70s and 80s, coming of age in a post-Watergate era, living in the shadow of their more celebrated Baby Boom siblings, Gen Xers don’t trust the established way of doing things. And in a church steeped in tradition like The Episcopal Church, we need to be ready for some wary, skeptical folks as Gen X begins to take leadership.
So what’s different about this generation? For one thing, they tend to live away from extended family; they are mobile and disconnected from their roots, often lacking community. Where older Baby Boomers searched for meaning in their work (living to work), Gen Xers see work as a necessary obligation (working to live). They tend to have two-career households with lots of debt, having come of age at a time when debt was encouraged. They don’t have a lot of disposable income as a result. They are technologically fluent and expect transparency and the ability to interact and respond. They are individualistic, weighing religious claims to see if they ring true rather than accepting the traditions of previous generations. They are increasingly consumeristic, looking to churches to meet their needs instead of automatically understanding, as older generations have, the value of working together toward a greater goal. They have grown up with a shopping center full of religious options, and some have tried many of those options, while others have never stepped into the religious marketplace at all.
The coming generational shift might sound like gloom and doom for our churches. But it doesn’t have to be. Generation X is a group of searchers, a group who won’t settle for less than the best. These folks won’t join your church because it will be a good thing socially – because it won’t – other Gen Xers don’t see church membership as a social requirement. There won’t be as many “religious, but not spiritual” folks in the pews, folks who in the old days would volunteer for ministry so they could list it on their resume.
These Gen X women and men will search for spiritual authenticity. They will appreciate a God who suffers. They will understand visual and experiential worship (which we Episcopalians have!). They will look askance at slick mega-churches who put on a big show. They have a deep hunger for tradition and rootedness, though they will need Christian education to understand what they are experiencing. They will respond to a genuine community that can provide the extended family that they are missing, which can model in pragmatic ways the concrete reality of Christ’s love.
One thing you can be sure of in a family headed by Gen X parents: they will want the best for their children. These are parents who likely grew up as “latchkey kids,” who went to shabby schools with worn-out materials. They won’t put up with the same thing for their own children. This generation of parents insists on homework; they want their children supervised; they want the best instruction and the safest environments. If you want to appeal to Gen X parents – don’t start by asking for their money. Start with the nursery. How long has it been since your nursery was painted? Does it smell bad, are the toys worn out, are there sullen teenagers staffing it? Would you be willing to pick up a Cheerio off the carpet and put it in your mouth? Get these things in order before you even try to reach out to young families.
How is your Sunday school? Is it glorified baby-sitting, or do you have a truly dedicated staff of teachers who can articulate passion for what they are teaching? Do you have a way for families to connect with each other, to make friends and support each other through a challenging time of life? Have you made youth programs a priority? If you cannot answer “yes” to these questions, then you really can’t ask why Gen Xers and their children aren’t flocking into your congregation, or making substantial pledges.
Our churches need to evangelize this generation before we can even think about teaching them the discipline of stewardship. These folks are wary and skeptical, yes, and their automatic reaction to a request for money might be to assume the church is just another money-grubbing institution. But if your church can convince them that you care about a mission that includes nurturing their children and teaching them not only how to relate to God, but also how to live ethically in a difficult world, you’re halfway there. If, on top of that, you can give Gen Xers a mission of their own – short-term projects to help the poor, the homeless, the disadvantaged; or a ministry teaching children or youth, or helping to lead worship – they will begin to feel the personal rewards of being a part of the Body of Christ. This is a concrete-minded, pragmatic generation – help them to make it real.
Gen Xers don’t want to hear about the budget. If you drone on about the budget when you are making your stewardship appeal, they will see the appeal as self-serving and their anti-institutional bias will rise to the front. Instead, talk about stewardship as a spiritual matter. How does it improve people’s lives in concrete ways when they give to God’s mission? How does it help them grow as disciples? How does it tangibly affect other folks? Gen Xers don’t want to hear about the light bill. They want to understand how the church is changing lives.
Don’t forget to talk about stewardship as a holistic issue. This over-committed generation needs to understand how to be better stewards of their time. They care about the environment. And many of them need training on personal finances. They may be over-extended on mortgages, car loans, student loans, and credit cards. What does the Christian tradition have to say about that problem, and how can we help? This may be a time to run a Christian personal financial planning course.
Don’t talk about paying dues to an institution. But do talk about how the church makes a difference in people’s lives, starting with the generation just now coming into leadership. Gen X is coming, and it’s a great opportunity for transformation in our church.
The Rev. Susan B. Snook is Vicar and Church Planter of the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, Phoenix/Scottsdale, and is a member of TENS' Board of Directors.