Generational roadblocks

December 28, 2011

A Hartford study came out and the news is not pretty.


  • From 2000 to 2005 the average percentage of participants over 60 years old increased.
  • Over the same time period the average percentage of participants 18-34 decreased.  
  • From 2008 to 2010 the average percentage of participants over 65 increased slightly.  
  • From 2008 to 2010 the average percentage of 18-34 year olds continued to decline.
  • A third or more of the membership in over half (52.7%) of Oldline Protestant congregations consists of seniors (65 years old or older).
  • Seventy-five percent of Oldline Protestant congregations said that less than 10% of their regular participants were young adults (18-34 years old).

First of all, I could not be more annoyed with the term “Oldline.” While people are working hard to create intergenerational denominations, Hartford has practically put a sign over our door saying, “you can’t enter without your AARP ID card and your discounted senior coffee from McDonald's.” I agree that Mainline isn’t a good term, but surely we can do better than “Oldline.”

Aside from that neon sign roadblock, what else do we do to signal to a new generation that they're not welcome in our churches? Usually congregations don’t mean to create these obstacles, but that doesn't keep younger generations from seeing them. What are the signals?

The leadership is from one generation. This is a difficult issue, but it’s the most important one. We have a great deal of democratic representation in our churches, so committees meet to make decisions and get things done. When women didn’t maintain careers outside of the home, this could work well as an intergenerational model. Now a person might need to be retired in order to be an active part of the church leadership. Even if there’s a younger pastor, his or her opinion is easily drowned out by the majority of people around the table. When crucial decisions need to be made about mission, programming, worship style, stewardship, evangelism, we rarely hear what younger generations want or need.

When we nominate people, do we look for men and women from every generation? Do we pay attention to the average age of our leadership? Do we take into account that many young adults have to change jobs every 2.7 years? Do we assure them that we would understand if they can’t serve their entire term or is it assumed that every commitment is a life-sentence? Do we nominate people early (or do they have to be a church member for three years before they can be considered)? Do we use technology wisely so that committee members can SKYPE or conference call into meetings?

The leadership lacks diversity. The churches that grow the fastest and innovate the most are often made up of underrepresented racial ethic communities. And even with tremendous success, when we open up a conference brochure or look at our seminary faculties, we rarely see people of color in teaching positions and leadership. In my daughter’s generation, whites will be a minority. Many of us have families that are made up of all different skin colors. In this day and age, it feels creepy when I see educational events that are only led by and geared toward white people.

What can we do to encourage diversity? Do we notice the pay disparity between our white pastors and our pastors from underrepresented racial ethnic communities? What are we doing to close the pay gap? Do we open our doors to immigrant congregations that could share our buildings and spaces? Are we learning from each other how to spread the good news and start new churches? Are we paying attention to second-generation immigrant issues and needs? 

Our congregation disregards technology. We don’t need Power Point presentations during the sermon. But too often I come across eye-rolling disdain when technology is even mentioned. Yet, social media is vital for a new generation. We have to realize that a new generation uses their smart phones and computers to gather information and communicate. 

If you see a person tapping away on their phone during the service, what do you do? Do you assume that they are being disrespectful, or do you assume that they are taking notes? Does your church have an Internet strategy? Does your church have an interactive website with up-to-date information and fresh content? Do you spend most of your advertising budget on your Internet presence (you should—it’s cheaper and more effective for a new generation)? Do you do pastoral care on Facebook?

The church ignores its physical spaces. Church members can be hoarders. We’re concerned about the environment and money, so we end up keeping and stashing away everything until our public spaces begin to look like somebody's attic. Our nurseries become an island of misfit toys, made up of twenty-year-old castaways. The cribs and highchairs may be beautiful antiques, but no one wants to place their child in those deathtraps.

What is our physical space saying? Is there fresh paint? Do the floral arrangements look vibrant? Is the storage out of sight? Is it clear of lead paint and other child-safety issues? Are there cracked windows? Is it accessible for people with disabilities? How does it smell? Is the art on the walls dated? If your church was a home, what age would you imagine the homeowners were?

The congregation focuses its ministries on traditional families. When I say “families,” that often mean a grandparent and a grandchild. We regularly ignore the parents in the equation. We have long relied on our adult sons and daughters to come back to church so that their child might be baptized. But now people are getting married later, if they marry at all.

Are people expected to walk into our congregations two-by-two? Do we have ministries for and with people who are not married or who are in same-gender relationships? Are there single people in our leadership?  

What would you add? What roadblocks have you seen in your ministries?


Shut the Young People Out

Why would many young people want to come to our churches?  The older people want to preserve the model that ran the church 50 years ago.  The older people constantly shut down the new ideas of the younger generation.  It's all about "Control".  Women's groups are gossip and complaining groups in most of our churches.  Why would a young woman want to be a part of that kind of group?  But when a young person wants to start a MOPS group, the older people say "we've never done anything like that in the church before". Younger people are out working every day and don't have time to get on the church chat line to complain to each other about what they don't like about the church or the pastor. Older people are also very judgmental when it comes to people of different faiths and lifestyles.  Young people don't want to be part of an atmosphere like that.  It's all about community.  And the community the young generations see is not very appealing.


Call to Create?

So come into our churches and create the community you want to see.  It's happening in our mainline church.  It's not easy.  But the young adults here are working hard to create the church they want for themselves and their children.  I can tell you the change will never happen if you are not here.  We, the older adults who agree with you, are eager for your help and your presence.  Are you called to "be the change you want to see?"

Waiting for 'Creative' Approval

Almost two years ago at this point I, a young single Millenial female, was called to create.  A church and I connected and had the same vision of building a university and young adult ministry in a small city where the town has largely been built around a major university.  The session--made mostly of boomers and older adults--was excited for the potential of new faces and growing numbers.  What they weren't ready for was to actually do what it takes to follow through with a new ministry.


There were a few people very driven to see this program succeed, but not enough support to make it work.  And despite the fact that the average number of 18-40 year olds who attended worship each week tripled throughout the nine-month period of time I was there, the program was not given enough financial backing or congregational support to continue.


Initially the church allowed for something new to happen. They provided a pastoral staff person to strengthen and oversee the program. And still when it came to making decisions about continuing to provide a ministry for this age group and supporting a staff person for this ministry, numerous times and in numerous ways the prospect of continuing was shot down.  It is a sickening feeling to know that those young adults--single, married, college-aged, everyone--will no longer receive the same amount or type of care.  The current pastoral staff does their very best, but it's not the same as devoting an entire full-time staff position to just that demographic.


One major problem I see with a situation like this is that churches are concerned about 'return of investment' for this age group and also move too slowly to get anything off the ground and running.  So then, this call for creativity begs the question, now what? It seems that many times, our hands are tied up in slow committee decision-making and lack of vision (or trust in that vision) even when positive results are present.

You're right...

Of course, it can be very discouraging. But there are many things that I love about our churches and good reasons why we can minister in a new generation.

We've often been on the forefront of social justice concerns--women's rights, immigrant reform, peace seeking, racial reconciliation, economic disparity--to name a few. I joined the Mainline church as an adult because of their witness on gender issues.

We practiced spiritual disciplines that are extremely important, not only in nurturing our connection with God but also for our easing our anxious souls.

In the years to come, we will need to be aware of the dynamics your describing and learn how to reach out. 

Yes, but why Christian?

When you joined the church because of its witness on gender issues -- were you already a Christian?

While I'm happy for the church's interest in social justice, many of the young people who care about these matters don't feel particularly captivated by the faith. They can find profound social commentary in the Nation and plenty of opportunities to volunteer and Occupy without joining a Christian church. I just don't see us getting very far with a "we're progressive democrats too" sales pitch, although I agree it is better than the alternative.

When we talk about young people, are we talking about retaining the mainline kids we already have, (in diminishing numbers) recruiting evangelicals who have a vibrant faith, but feel like the traditional evangelical churches are too narrow --or have we been thinking about those young people whose church connections are tenuous at best.. Their babyboomer parents checked out long ago -- so why wouldn't they also find meaning elsewhere?

Yes, I was an Evangelical

Yes, I was an Evangelical Christian. And no, I didn't join because the Mainline was a Democrat's expression of faith. It was more that social justice issues became a part of the act of living out my faith and the Presbyterian Church was saying things about poverty, homelessness, gender, etc. that took my struggles seriously.

I don't think that Christians should be too closely aligned with either party. There's too much weird power mongering and co-option that can happen in this town...

When we talk about young, we should think about all the people you mention--retaining those we have, welcoming disaffected evangelicals, being open to emergents, and finding ways to reach out to those who have never been to church (fun fact from R. Putnum: 18% of college students have never been to church).

You're doing great by recognizing any of these groups!

Instead Campus Ministry funding typically gets cut. We spend most of our time keeping the people who are in the pews and giving money happy. In God's Potters (117), Carroll talks about how much time pastors spend with each age group. Only 4% of pastors spent time with young singles while 69% of pastors spent time with older adults. 

Thank you. I find it

Thank you. I find it interesting -- how many of the youngish people in our mainline churches, or in the emergent world, began their stories in the evangelical church. It was there that faith was born--and began to matter decisively. It takes on more progressive values, and some education, and moves into the mainline or emergent world. So the question for me is what has to happen for the faith to matter decisively.

That's a wonderful question...

There's a different ethos of commitment. I admit though, as I try to think of something positive, I keep thinking of the manipulation.

Some of it is even abusive. I'm not exaggerating. When I was 15, I was used by Teen Missions to engage in highly dangerous and illegal activities. There were kids as young as 13 involved. When we questioned it, we were told that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church."

It was cool at the time... but now I'm shocked that they would put young lives in jeopardy like that... 

By the way, I smiled when I reread my answer to you about not being too aligned with a particular party. I'm sure a lot of people who know our church rolled their eyes, especially considering the second photo flashing on our site

Defying Gravity

I think if a church is going to reverse this trend they have to overcompensate. One author I've read (can't remember who) says that every church has to fight 'gravity of the self." If we try to make an equal balance between the wants of the older generations and younger generations, then we are going to be pulled to the those who are already here (older). So the only way to fight this is to tip the scales to the younger generation.  Don't seek equal or token represantion on committees and governing boards. I don't see real change happening until younger adults make up the majority in power in key places.

I also think that embracing video technology in worship can't be dismissed casually with comments like "We don’t need Power Point presentations during the sermon." Maybe that was not your intent, but this kind of comment occurrs over and over in these conversations and it's almost always by mainline seminary trained pastors. The fact that 80% of the time Power Point is mentioned by name demonstrates a certain level of luddite-like unfamiliarity with how video technology can be used. The thousands of churches that are doing video well in worship haven't used Power Point in years.  It's kind of the equivalent to someone saying, "That internet is just a distrcation. We don't need to use America Online to do ministry these days."

I think the sheer amount of time that younger generations spend watching and sharing Youtube videos should be enough to clue us in that there is something there that can really grab the heart, mind, and attention of younger generations.

Thanks, Shawn. Great comments

Thanks, Shawn. Great comments about balance.

No, that wasn't my intent when I said that "we don't need Power Point presentations...." I'm all for them, in certain contexts.

Sometimes when I say "technology" people's minds automatically only think of big screens and PP in the sanctuary, and that becomes an overwhelming hurdle for traditional congregations.

In my opinion, there's a lot you can do without screens in worship. It's important to make sure that a church has a good web design, email outreach, Facebook presence, Yelp/Google reviews, etc. 

technology in worship

All the technology in the world is no substitute for a personal relationship with others in worship.  That's my gateway to God.  I'm an old fart and I constantly use my iPhone to take notes and post comments on Facebook during worship.  That's nice and I love it, but interacting with the preacher during the sermon and commenting along with other worshipers is what rocks my boat.

Remember the Elders


I would agree that we need to be willing to use more
technology in church and that most churches have been way too slow to
use it.  Before I came to my current call, the church had a horrible
website and nothing much else.  And we should consider using multi-media
in worship as well.   But I also suggest a bit of caution.  There was a
time when I would have said some of the same things here about how the
old generation holds on to power and all that.  There is a lot of truth
in this.  But I worry that we start to see our older folks as the enemy
or as an embarrasment that best be kept off to the side.  My knock
against some of the more growing evangelical churches that do use
multi-media and other forms of technology is that it's so geared towards
youth, that older folks have been written out of the picture entirely. I
want our churches to appeal to youth, but not if it means ignoring our

A lot of my experience of late has come from working with
older folks at First Christian and the fact that at my tentmaker job
with a Presbytery, the stated clerk is 78 years old.  As the
communications/techonolgy guy, I have to balance being high-tech with
the fact that one member of our staff doesn't pick all this new stuff so
easily.  She's not a luddite, but it is hard to teach a old dog new
tricks.  I think she tries the best she can to keep up.

You are
correct, Shawn, that we can't please everyone and we shouldn't try.  If
our churches are going to live we as pastors have to be more agressive
in placing young folks in positions of leadership.  But we have to do it
in a way that honors the elderly in our midst as faithful servants and
doesn't simply push them aside to make way for the new.

Dennis Sanders

Remember the Elders

Thanks for this.  After spending most of my adult life actively serving my congregation, regional council, and national church - balancing this with a fulltime job, running a household, and being a mom as well as auditing seminary classes to learn as much as I could - it is insulting to be pushed aside because I'm no longer in the right demographic.  While I agree that it is important to involve younger adults in church leadership (as a congregation so graciously did for me), I do have a lot of experience that just might be useful.  As do many older folks.  And many of us are not standing intransigently in the way of change.  My congregation is still quite welcoming - my regional council, not so much.  I'm not clinging to "power" - I would just appreciate not being marginalized because of my age.   I'm resigned to leaving - but I take my knowledge, experience, and pocket book with me.

Suggestion: read "Quitting Church."

"Power Point"

first we've got to stop using this word "Power Point." There is more to it than this. Technology, graphics, images, are all rhetorical devices to engage the listener, connect the listener with the primary document (scripture). What goes in the name of Power Point IS good reason why people want no part of tech. It's too often sloppy and not simply streamlined which means you need a particular eye for the use of such rhetorical material in worship settings. And America Online . . . oh my?! What I'm saying is if we are intentionally using this material we need to use it rightly and powerfully and please don't name it under the rubric of power point for heavens sake.

Don't get me wrong, I am absolutely in line with the comments above just stay on the curve or a little ahead.

Naming the Unnamable

Yes, yes, yes. I have seen all these roadblocks and more. The greatest problem, though, is that no one wants to talk about them! I've had so many conversations where the church's problems have been boiled down to "not enough young families" and then move on to day-to-day details instead of taking hard looks at bigger picture including the leadership within the church and what/how the church ministers.

Also, as a single Millennial female in various church leadership positions over the past five years or so I find people love to talk about the young people but they're not so hot on talking to young people. Or they listen politely then say something to the point of "You're already here, so we don't need to hear what you think." Clearly this is not every church-goer, but there are enough people avoiding the hard work of envisioning a different Christian community where there is intergenerational leadership, the church building isn't a testiment to immovablity, diversity is honored without trying to make us all the same, and techonology is used thoughtfully to enhance the church's ministries. The hardest for me, though, is walking in to a church that claims to be a "family church." It doesn't matter if the church thinks of itself as a family or if the main focus of the church is family ministries. It makes me the outsider, even though I've gone to church most of my life and am planning a career in ministry. Certainly churches have some functions that you may find in some families, but the Body of Christ is a much bigger idea. It means we need to go outside our comfort zones and our ideas of "family" to see parts of the Body working in ways we never imagined!

There is so much hope and possibilty for Christian communities right now. We just need to do like Carol Howard Merritt has done and start talking about these issues which will lead to discernment and action!


Thanks so much for the

Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment, Emily.

I'm glad you're an insider. :)

Two words

I am a boomer, with sympathies for young adults and youth that run deep.  I appreciate Carol's observations, but I have a few myself.  Having pastored mainline congregations for several decades I can honestly say that the inclusion she/I seek is not primarily a matter of systematic exclusion by older folks.  In most cases, inclusion and innovation is simply a matter of young adults SHOWING UP and investing.  In most cases, I do not see older adults embracing a "50s" style worship or mission, at least with the kind of "death grip" you seem to characterize.  For the most part, older adults want to yield power, but want to give it to reliable people that will show up, pitch in, get their hands dirty, take their knocks, learn from mistakes--and not simply tweet their criticisms from afar.  

Two words: SHOW UP. 

I feel your pain.One of the

I feel your pain.

One of the first lessons I had to learn as a campus minister is that we should never rely on RSVPs. 

You're pointing to another reality as well... it is no longer a social or cultural expectation that people go to church. Depending on where you live, young adults don't often show up, and when they do it's for a reason.

In this time when younger generations don't naturally walk into our doors, we will need to reorient ourselves. We won't be able to rely on them coming to us, but we'll need to keep reaching out.

After all, now we need them more than they need us.

You miss my point

Of course we must attend to our forms of worship and ministry; and they must be faithful, engaging and relevant to young and old.  However, it seems to me that you primary point concerns how to yield power.  What sense does it make to surrender power to young people or anyone who either has so little formation that they imagine church as simply another commodity that demands nothing from them?  What sense does it make to surrender power to young people who demonstrate no capacity for long term or serious commitment?  In much of your writing you gloss over these serious points by framing the generational tension as merely recalcitrant old people refusing to yield power.  It is not that simple.  Of course we should keep reaching out, but "reaching out" must not involve distorting the gospel into a commodity convenient enough for young people to easily consume.  You assert that "young people don't often show up, and when they do its for a reason."  What constitutes a good enough reason is not a simple matter.  For example, you and I have both sat through many inefficient church meetings that would not be appealing to many young people; however, Christian practices--hospitality, peace-making, discernment, justice-seeking, etc-- are largely, by nature, slow, difficult and laden with friction that forces us to enlarge our hearts in surprising ways.  

In my view, they need us as much as we need them.  We are lost if either the old or the young do not live up to the bargain.  

I wish you and other young voices had the courage to issue this more complex challenge to young people--one that highlights the difficult nature of Christian practice as that which binds us but unbinds something larger within us.  

No... I didn't miss your

No... I didn't miss your point. You were quite clear. What I did was I tried to be kind about your obvious frustration. And I tried not to engage in heaping too many generalizations or too much blame on a younger generation by redirecting the exasperation toward the broader cultural issues. We get angry at younger people in our churches, but complaining about a generation's attendance doesn't actually encourage commitment or discipleship.

Yes, some younger adults don't show up. Some older adults don't show up. We have a church where a lot of things didn't work well until younger members took them over (this week, our 20/30s group saved the usher program). Often, retired people travel too much to be responsible for some of the key areas in our church.

Do we talk to our members about discipleship and Christian practice? Of course we do. I learn a lot from them too.

You ask, "What sense does it make to surrender power to young people or anyone who either has so little formation that they imagine church as simply another commodity that demands nothing from them?"

I see it a little differently. Often we don't know how to drive until we're behind the wheel. We don't know a subject matter until we teach it. So, we might need to be actively engaged in the leadership of the church to learn about the Bible, theology, disciplines, and stewardship. People might be formed on the job. (The only thing that scares me about this is that it doesn't give people much of a honeymoon. I hate when people see the ugly side of church right away...)

But my job here is not talking to people who might be interested in attending church (as I do at Huffington) or encouraging the faith formation of members (as I do with our congregration). By and large, I talk to church leaders here.

Generally, when I talk to church leaders, I give younger generations the benefit of the doubt when it comes to leadership, participation, finances, etc. Why? Because that's what you do when you minister to people. You begin to understand their perspective. And the church needs increased understanding of a younger generation, since we don't have a lot of younger people in our churches.

No, they don't need us. They can find God, community, and mission at another congregation. There are plenty of churches in our country. No one has to go to ours. Especially if we're yelling at people to SHOW UP. 

One last thing... you use words about my writing like: "death grip" and "recalcitrant old people refusing to yield power." I believe that this is an unfair characterization of my writing and ministry. I didn't say anything that remotely portrays older generations in this manner. There is not one place in this post, and I daresay there is very little in the vast amount of writing that I've done on these issues, where I portray a negative view of older generations. 

I fear

I fear that I have provoked you to anger and that was not my intention.  Although I have not sought the public forum for such issues, I promise I have spent my entire adult life advocating for young adults and working for their inclusion.  Some of the wisdom I have gleaned over the years you have expressed well in your writings; however I am now simply expressing a point I think you often overlook...and frankly don't understand why you are angry with me for expressing this point.  Specifically, above you say "I give younger generations the benefit of the doubt when it comes to leadership, participation, finances, etc. Why? Because that's what you do when you minister to people."   I believe it was Robert Kegan who said that a good holding environment includes both comfort and challenge.  Spiritual directors do not only reflect unconditional understanding, they help us to recognize our inhibitions to faith.  You get my point.  

You suggested that I have overstated your pattern of oversimplifying the generational tension, by characterizing boomers and older as unwilling to yield power.  Don't get me wrong; I have long followed your writings and will continue to read and support your work even if we disagree about some issues.  However, despite your denial, you regularly blame older folks for not quickly relinquishing power--without acknowledging the complexity of this issue.

Finally, I will also say that it is easy to confuse your opinion with those you hang out with--those who use much stronger and more negative language about older folks, but whom you never correct or chastise.  I apologize if I mistake your opinions with those of your friends. 

Am I angry? No. Am I feisty?

Am I angry? No. Am I feisty? Always. :)

Of course I don't know which friends you're talking about, or what conversation you're referring to.... I really can't be responsible for what my friends say. If I disagree with friends that I hang out with, I usually do it face-to-face, on SKYPE, or DM.

If I have characterized Boomers and older negatively, please point out a specific incident and I will apologize for it. 

Making Disciples

It is one of the primary jobs of every generation to "give" the church away to the next generation.  And, should one generation selfishly or ignorantly choose to not do so... Or delay doing so for half a generation, it creates a generation gap.  And, this is precisely what we have had for at least 2 generations.  Baby boomers and their parents still enjoy gearing church for themselves and making decisions based on self interest far too frequently.

Ironically, most of the folks at the congregations I have served for the past 20 years who fit this description are far too willing to sit on committees and scarcely willing to roll up their sleeves and help with feeding the hungry, teaching the children, or engaging their community.  Sorry, but respect for elders is earned, just like in any other arena in life.  Spiritual maturity does not always follow as human years advance.

It has been young families who have been willing to break thru church politics as the norm, gomaround committees which have conventionally served as roadblocks to actual ministry that have made the greatest impact in my local church.  Often times, unfortunately, it has been a full comtact sport.

They must want to!

My personal experience obviously is with my church, so I can only speak to that experience.  A few years ago we were moving forward actively, in many ways, opening our doors and our minds to doing things differently, to truly welcoming everybody.  The result, the oldest members of the church were largely unhappy.  They stated that they felt ignored, that they had supported the church for years and deserved more respect.  They even blamed the absence of the American Flag in the sanctury on the then Pastor, ignoring the fact that the flag hadn't been in the sanctury long before this Pastor came to our church.  Ultimately what happened?  This forward thinking Pastor was run out of town on a rail.  He was blamed for not being around enough.  Near the end of his stay that accusation was true.  Pastor's are human, at some point continuing to be barraged with complaints from the "pillars of the church" just became too much.  Where are we now?  You guessed it, right back where we were before this forward thinking Pastor came on board.  The recently nominated and elected "leadership" of our church include in key positions the same people who have been in these or similar positions for years, at least prior to our forward thinking Pastor. Our new Pastor reflects the congregation, largely middle class, white, with an average age of about 60.   Our congregation does not even come close to reflecting the neighborhood in which it is located.  Oh yes, our contributions have gone up, you see the "pillars of the church" pulled their money when they weren't happy and gave it back when they were.  I am left disgusted and confused, does money really rule everything?  I have been removed from the "leadership" no one will say exactly why, I however suspect that the fact that my voice is not in alignment with the "pillars" of the church has something to do with the church's lack of desire for my input.  I'd just like to clarify that there were open positions on the "leadership slate" presented for election, so the fact that I believe I was not wanted on that slate has merit.  What do I do now?  Truly I don't know.  I will still use my voice whether an official part of the leadership or not.  I guess I still have a spark of hope for my church but that spark is flickering.

I'm so sorry that this has

I'm so sorry that this has happened... It can be a common scenario, and one of the bitter things about being a part of a church family.

It's also one of the reasons that we're in such a difficult place as denominations. We often lose the ability to be a church and live out our faith from generation to generation.

I pray that you'll have wisdom in your congregation, and that you'll know what to do. Peace to you...


I give thanks for my congregation

I give thanks for my congregation. We are small, and had seen a decline that began in the mid-60s begin to turn around in the past 5 years. Why? Because the older members of the congregation didn't always say, "We've always done it this way" or "We've never done it this way." We had had to abandon having children's Sunday School classes because only my son was coming. Then 4 years ago, we began again with one class meeting during Worship. This year, we have 5 children's classes. The children are part of Worship until they lead the congregation in sharing the Peace when they go to their own age-appropriate encounters with the proclamation of the Word. They return for Communion and Baptisms.

The leadership in our congregation is mixed in age, gender, ethnic group and sexual orientation, with the greatest age representation being in the late-30s to 50, though there are 20-somethings as well, and a few 50+. For the most part they try to look at the building as making sure that it is well-kept and welcoming but not a sacrosanct place that can't be changed.

We don't do it perfectly but the leaders and members are willing to engage in questions and dialogues that don't assume the answers before we begin. We seek to be rooted in the Word and in the heart of God's grace.

While I can give thanks in many ways for the other congregations I have served  in my 30+ years of pastoral ministry, this congregation has kept me wanting to grow and engage. Where we will be in 5 to 10 years is not clear yet because we face financial issues that can be crushing, but we seek to be faithful in being a part of what God wants to bless in our community.

That's wonderful to

That's wonderful to hear!

Likewise, our church would have never turned around if it weren't for the older generation. They were a truly amazing group of people!

I hope there will be some kind of Christmas miracle with your budget....

Don't worry

Do whatever your church does best.  Don't worry about generational roadblocks.  I read about nuns in the SF Bay Area.  Their order was shrinking and aging.  I thought it sad but the nuns did not.  They serve God as they serve God.  They were happy to be who they were and not worried about how a new generation would also serve.  

That's one way to do

That's one way to do it....

And that's certainly what a lot of people seem called to. I run into a lot of people who shrug and say "So? Our church is a ministry for older adults. That's our strength. What's the problem?" 

I think the problem is that as Christians we are called to live out our faith from generation to generation. From the Shema to our baptismal vows, we are called to teach the next generation.

The problem is also that we're squandering our resources. Seminarians are graduating and not finding jobs. Could we begin to start new churches?

In the PCUSA, half of our churches can't afford pastors. Unless a miracle happens (and I do believe in miracles!), we'll have the property from roughly half of our churches. Will we squander those resources? Or will we begin a 20 year plan to use the property to minister to a new generation and with immigrant churches?

Not everyone has a calling to Gen X or the Mills. But a lot of us do. Can we begin to identify people who do and use their gifts wisely?

By the way, what happens to monasteries when they close? I guarantee that the Catholic Church has a plan for that SF property!

re: That's one way to do

The property gets sold our reused.  This is another change that can be seen positively or negatively.  For example, a lot of Catholic churches have closed in Buffalo, NY.  I can understand the sadness people feel in Buffalo.  On the other hand, the church bought the Crystal Cathedral in Orange County because it needed more space for a growing congregation.  (I'm of mixed feeling on that purchase if only on aesthetic grounds.)  I guess the advantage of being Catholic, ie. universal, is the sense of hope that the church's big picture offfers.

Is lack of faith and effort a barrier?

In an article in ProvokeTive, DOC minister Derek Penwell suggests that it isn't the "window dressing" of praise bands and good coffee that is driving millennials away from the church; rather he suggests that it is not being "faithful to the Jesus found in the Gospels."

I'm not sure I buy that...there are a lot of us who do our best to be faithful to both the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith and who just don't appeal to millenials. 

My experience in a growing UCC congregation in Colorado is that young adults really like finding changing tables in both the men's and women's restrooms, separate nursery and preschool space, free professional childcare at all services (and other times like choir rehearsal), great adult ed. offerings and evening courses like Living the Questions, not to mention a really well-done Sunday School program and sexuality curriculum (Our Whole Lives) for their kids. They appreciate our weekly email updates, "LIKE" us on Facebook, and use our website. And they applaud our Open and Affirming stance, witness for justice, and our advocacy to prevent homelessness.

One of the disconnects is that many of our young adults want someone else to pay for the operating expenses of the church and to serve on the committees that guide decision-making. (I asked a young member about becoming moderator, and she said, "No way! It takes too much time.")  We're in a financial crunch for the first time in a decade, and part of the reason is that we are attracting young adults (lots of dual-income professionals) who don't seem to feel called to invest their time and money in their faith in ways that previous generations have. When professional families give less to their church on a Sunday than the cost of goving to the movies, something is amiss.

Even though we have a growing number of young adults (traditional families, singles, LGB couples, etc.), the majority of our funding comes from those over 60...the widows who give $3,000 a year no matter what; the retirees who know what it means to sacrifice; the older couple who connect their faith and their giving.

I think that many young adults live under the false assumption that the church is here to meet their needs, and that's all. And they abide by the myth that "the church will always be here." The faith will always be here, but the church is another story. 

I wonder honestly about generational entitlement. Do young adults want a faith that they don't need to grapple with, work for, and pay for with their gifts of time, talent, and money? In The NY Times on December 10, Eric Weiner wrote that we need a "Steve Jobs of religion." Really? Are we consumers of religion or participants in faith? Some of our younger adults make me wonder.

When it comes to time

When it comes to time, some of that may have to do with the fact that it takes 40+ hours of employment income to run a household now.

In previous generations, we had an amazing volunteer force of housewives--not a lot of white women worked in my mom's generation. Now, it's difficult for a woman to go to work for 40 hours, come home, do the dishes, do the laundry, and go to a church meeting. Men are working more in the home as well. So, how are we going to adjust our expectations as churches? 

Don't get me wrong. I'm not talking about having a lazy, consumeristic faith. But... a lot of our time at church is not exactly hard-core discipleship. If we're spending a three hour committee meeting discussing how we're going to do everything exactly the way we did it the week before, people might blow it off, considering their circumstances. 

The second issue is money. There's more shame around money than there is around sex in our society--especially when you're not making ends meet. I write about economic understanding in chapter three of Tribal Church. I wish there was a way to link a sample of it...I'm sorry that there's not. I wrote the book in 2006, and the situation has gotten much worse in some ways. But it might give you a bit of a grasp on what you're working with financially.

As I said in an earlier comment, I tend to give younger people the benefit of the doubt a great deal... nobody is blameless. But... I worry that they're not entitled enough in our society.

  • Our culture markets relentlessly to the young,
  • We require them to go into horrendous debt for education,
  • They are the first to get laid off in our job market,
  • The unemployment rate for the young is as high as it was in the Great Depression,
  • They have more uninsured people than any other generation.

Then, we turn around and call them narcissistic losers and wonder why they're living in their parents' basements (and... I want to be clear... I don't hear you saying that! But I do hear it in the church and in the larger society).

Some insightful books on the subject are Born to BuyTwo-Income Trap and Generation Debt (although I find Kamenetz's anti-Boomer stance unhelpful in a church context). Keep in mind that these books were written before the economic crisis, so there's a whole new crop of issues people are dealing with. Things are much worse.

These are among the most important issues for a new generation. What is the church saying about them? Young clergy have many of the same issues... do we understand the dynamics in our own denominations?

It's kind of ironic that we talk a lot about what younger generations are not doing for our churches. Then we call them entitled. May I gently ask... what about our churches? What have our congregations done for younger generations? Have some congregations become too entitled? 


I would assume entitlement is a systemic problem engrained in our American culture. I'm convinced that no one person can accuse another of being entitled without the other 3 fingers pointing back at himself/herself. Perhaps what we think we're entitled to changes over time, but not our sense of entitlement. In my early twenties and a recent college grad, it's easy to see a new class entering the workforce feeling entitled to all the prviledges and benefits the spoils of their labor has earned them; great job, great pay, big house, nice car, and anything free the gov't can throw at them. At the same time you have retirees who feel entitled to rest from their hard work and criticize and complain and set the record straight. Perhaps these are two extremes, but doesn't the church seem to lean towards the latter as our congregations age? I don't think a sense of entitlement is in question for our churches it's simply what the churches feel entitled to.

The art of change

The experience of those who have valiantly tried to change cotton-top aging and wilting congregations into a renewed realtity  that accepts other generations is enormously important to attend to, mindfully.  The processes have often been cautious, incremental, democratic and performed with pastoral skill. Yet, many fail to achieve the desired outcome: a multi-tiered congregation that includes families still parenting children, singles, youth and ethnically diverse persons not typical of that congregation--or even the denomination itself.  In addressing this dilemma from a biblical viewpoint I suggest that the book of the Acts of the Apostles is a source to seriously study and beyond study, take as a master strategy. The church does not expand its horizons in Acts by planning; it expands painfully, even against its own prior ethos conventions. The writer of Acts has constructed a very subtle plot but it is not suble that the heart of the story concerns  heart- and mind-changing events experienced by Saul/Paul and Peter.  We must attend carefully to the mathematics of this storytelling for the change-inducing experience of Paul  is told three time, once by the narrator and twice in the voice of Paul himself. Peter also experiences a heart- and mind-changing event, one divinely ordered in the home of a distinquished Roman gentile and he, too, is given prime place in the narrative to re-tell his story.  These events, narrated in chapter 9,10 & 11 are the "hinge" of the plot. It is no accident or evidence of sloppy narration that between the two, the mechanism of change at the heart of leadership is told a total of five times. The algera of change suggested is that God must be at the center of the conviction that barriers are there to be overome and it takes action in the humnan scope of affairs for that intention of God to become embraced. And the plot is that God in Christ is revealing, bit by bit, the strategy for the evangelization of the entire (ecumencal) world of humankind--and it is a different strategy that the two thought to be, before intervention, to be God-directed. I take this mechanism to be in the service of explaining how it came to be that the church--at the time of the writing--has become a diverse, multi-culture movement and not simply a Jewish sect that is having questionable success. The practical lesson I take it from this that the chief matter to be strategized in creating change is that of bringing a single-generational, non-diverse congregation to the point of accepting--in heart and mind, not simply in resolutions passed as a point of grudging compromise--the "other" who seems not to be in their ken. Interestingly enough, we know how to do this from our studies of cross-cultural education. (Something I have given much of my energy to, but as a kind of minor key to my day job.) This means that before planning and proposal building (so-called "consensus building" that turns out NOT to be a consensus in the fact!) it is essential to arrange a mean of bringing these "others" into the network of the congregation in a way that makes no promises but only asked that table fellowship be shared and stories exchanged. When this is done, we have learned, peope discover that despite the signifiant differences, there are fears, aspirations and struggles that bring these different folks together in ways that lower barriers of the mind for next steps. When the writer we call "Luke" reports Peter's observations at the house of Cornelius, we a can easily picture him dropped-jaw at the recognition that these suspected persons gathered to hear his message are not only different than thought, they are worthy human beings that one might well benefit from being in the same congregation with. And most importantly, they are people that God wants included. Now that is real "born again" religion!

Generations in Church, alive and well

Hi Carol. Thanks for writing up this description of generations in the Church. I see that 10 years after my Alban Institute book (Generations of Faith) virtually all the issues there are still with us. The Silents (b. 1925-1942) have the money (and the power that goes with it). They DO travel much more than the GI generation ahead of them used to (The GIs moved to the Sunbelt to be with each other), or they have/can afford multiple homes and move between them by seasons. Younger generations continue to see them as fussy, process-oriented caretakers, often with a warm heart but also carrying the memory of that top-down, hierarchical model of church governance they remember.

The Boomers (b. 1943-1960) often have a loose connection to both denomination or congregation, can feel intimidated by newer technology (they're ok with e-mail, power point and websites; twitter, iPhones, texting, youtube--not so much), and still have doubts about GenX. Being 51-68 years old in 2012 they are overwhelmingly in charge of formal church structures, and express much of this leadership through argument. (Note the Boomer-led passion over  the spiritual significance gay marriage and gay ordination ( either in a spirited defense OR the willingness to fracture the denomination over it; eg. the cracks across the ELCA; the crumbling of the Episcopalians). Similarly Boomers are on both loud sides of the ordination of women and married clergy (see the Catholic accomodation of breakaway Episcopal clergy; Southern Baptist women defying their surrounding patriarchy, and even the defiant women ordaining each other and celebrating  Catholic Mass in small but persistent numbers across the country.) They are often noisy, confident and opinionated, so that much gets debated and discussed, but implementation is often a challenge.

Gen X (b. 1961-1982) are still getting very little respect or notice from the two older generations, yet are the ones most hoping for implementation of ideas and programs.  Their blunt questioning of programs and activities that are traditional (Silent-defended) or spiritually moving (Boomer defended) by asking about their pragmatic impact is not well received, even though their leading cohorts are coming into their 50s and are ready for leadership. They are the prime parenting generation right now, and indeed they do NOT like the antique nursery room equipment being foisted on their toddlers. However they are often not in a position to either replace it themselves, nor convince older, "done-parenting" generations to replace it either. Tellingly, instead of staying to fight it out, young parents of this generation will simply leave for a congregation that IS responsive. Then too, this generation is often action-oriented and does not do well serving on a "standing committee." They are often not interested in being on the social justice panel, but they are the first to turn out for the Adopt-a-Highway cleanup day, or take three days off personal time from their lousy-benefit job to put in their turn on the Habitat for Humanity build.

Finally the Millennials (b. 1983~2003) like to do things big and do things together. They would like to be upbeat, optimistic and cheery but the economy and their student debts make this a tall order. A church with a downbeat message (who is to blame, whose fault is it, why don't you appreciate what older generations have done for you) will suceed in driving this generation away, and en masse. They can and will text each other from pew to pew, offering an electronic running commentary on the sermon ("Gr8 line"/ "Luv how she said that"). If you ask them to stop, they will...because they were raised on the "New 3 Rs": Rules, Respect, Responsibility. But do not mistake compliance for agreement. A church that does not offer this generation hope, joy and opportunity to build a future together will spend the rest of their fading existence wondering "where are all the young people"?

Generational theory is an excellent, useful tool in a pastoral or congregational tool kit. Sadly it is simply unknown by too many church leaders, leaving the church in a state of lamentation. The church one of the few modern places where all 4 generational types are present and need to interact with each other for the sake of the larger whole, but a lack of knowledge often stymies the day. Thank you, Carol, for raising up this perspective.

Thank you so much

That's what I love about blogs on quality sites. There can be great wisdom in the comments. Thank you so much for your insight.

Sermon Roadblocks

I can see people spacing out when our pastor begins talking about the sixties during sermons.  In one way I believe he is challenging people, because issues that were important then are important now ... racism and sexism among others.  But he doesn't have any fresh examples of dealing with those "isms" today.  Judging from conversations with other young members, I think they aren't connecting with those sermons.

Gender Justice

I am surprised and disappointed that neither your article nor any of the comments addressed a major factor which turns younger people off from church life: the overwhelming explicit and implicit sexism still present in liturgy, preaching, and church leadership.  There are still large segments of Christianity which do not ordain women or restrict them to ministry with other women and children, and even the mainline churches which have a moderate number of women clergy rarely have them in senior pastor positions.  Language for God is overwhelmingly masculine, with small amounts of neutral and virtually nonexistent feminine language, and imagery for God is severely impoverished--clearly sending the message that men are like God and women aren't and restricting opportunities for a vibrant relationship with God.  Female bible characters are largely ignored in selections for reading and preaching, and female bodily experience--birth, pregnancy, nursing, abortion, menopause--is marginalized and considered inappropriate for sacred contexts.  To my deep disappointment, most female pastors are as guilty of these ways of marginalizing women as male ones--partly because of inadequacies in their seminary education (following up on their formation in profoundly sexist churches) and partly out of fear given the stained glass ceiling. 

Very true...

Thanks for adding it. I actually write about how gender as a roadblock quite a bit.... Here's one example

Another roadblock

that isn't mentioned may be simply, we live in the the modern world and churches pretend otherwise.  Praise bands and great coffee won't return us to 1600.  Most churches, even mainlines, still give premodernism or traditionalism the old college try, but in an age when the findings of critical biblical scholarship and plain old science are widely known to anyone who pays attention, an educated young person must wonder just what all those people are doing.  I would favor focusing on the historical Jesus and developing an interpretation of his life and actions appropriate to the modern world; there is a lot that is relevant and helpful.