I remember my first interview for a full time position as a Senior Pastor. (And, I became the pastor of the church.) The small church was located in Corvallis, Oregon, a university town. I was 24 years old and the pastor I was to follow was in his 70s. The members of the church board conducted the interview. One member of the board was a professor at the university and one of the world’s experts on sheep. Each year he made multiple trips to New Zealand and Australia, which is where you travel if you are an expert on sheep.
During the interview, the sheep professor listened intently, looked me over carefully, leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms, and asked with complete sincerity, “What do you plan to do about your age?” I looked him square in the eye and said, “I make you a solemn promise; I will get older.”
I understood his questions and I knew what he was thinking, “I have always learned from pastors who are older than me. Is it possible for me to learn from you, you are so young?” My age required a major shift in his thinking about the church. Can the multiple generations in the church learn from one another?
Particularly at this moment in history, God has given the church multiple generations. Each generation has something to teach the other generations. Let’s look at the different generations and what they have to teach us.
Acknowledgement and Recommendation: I am indebted to Tim Elmore’s recent presentation at Trevecca Nazarene University and his excellent book, Generation iY. I strongly recommend the book, especially for pastors and youth pastors. You can connect with Tim through his blog: http://blog.growingleaders.com/
80 years of age and older: The Great Generation.
This generation saved freedom in the world through their sacrifice in World War II. They have a sense of destiny. They respect authority. This generation knew how to take hold of raw materials and make a life worth living.
Let me illustrate a core characteristic of this generation by describing birthday celebrations. When they had a birthday celebration for their children, they made a cake, and they made it from scratch. How many of us do that? They took eggs, flour, sugar, the raw materials, and made something wonderful.
Now think about that perspective at church. This generation looks to the church and asks about the raw materials, “Do you pray? Do you preach the gospel? Are you true to the Word? Do you believe in tithing? All right! You provide the raw materials and I take responsibility to make a life in Christ out of it. It’s my job to pull this together and make something of it.”
That’s a way to think about church that is not common today. Most of us do not have this perspective. We all have something to learn from this generation. They can teach us a few things about self-reliance, responsibility, and making a life out of what you have.
Between the ages of 65 – 79: The Builders.
If you can’t remember how old you are, you are probably in this group. Their motto is, “Be grateful you’ve got a job.” Consider their era. Many of them were born in the great depression. They learned to sense of that difficult time. They believe that whatever God has given, you take it and use it to the best of your ability. They tend to put up with authority, focus on their own work, and move on with the business of making a life. They get things done, as they need to.
Let’s look at a birthday celebration for the builders. By the time their children came along, the majority of people weren’t making cakes from scratch. There was a new cook on the scene. Her name was Betty Crocker. This generation went to the store to buy a cake-mix. Betty Crocker does her part and they did their part. They understand different roles in a partnership.
Now, bring this perspective to church. Who fills each role in order to make the church grow? “Is the pastor carrying out his or her role? Am I doing my part? If you don’t do your part, I won’t be able to do my part? Everyone should have a role in the church?”
This way of thinking is different from the way many church members think. The church is a partnership; we all have a part to play and we all need to do our part. We could learn a lesson from this generation.
Between the ages of 45 – 64: Baby Boomers!
Why are they called “Baby Boomers”? Well, nine months after WWII ended, they began to appear: BOOM! Their generation represents the largest jump in demographics the United States had ever experienced. This generation represents a large group of people. As a result, they tend to have a bit of an attitude that says, “You owe me.”
I know this generation; I’m one of them. Marketers have always aimed products at us. Dr. Spock wrote a book about us. People paid attention to us. We were and are the center of everything. Entire television programs were developed for us: The Mickey Mouse Club and Captain Kangaroo, Gilligan’s Island, etc. Today’s, social security and Medicare challenges are, in part, due to the retiring of this large generation. When it comes to authority, their motto is, “Throw the bums out! We can replace them if we need to.”
Birthday parties at a Boomer home are different. “Scratch” cooking is rarely heard of it. A cake mix is what a grandma uses. Generally speaking, Boomer’s go to Baskin Robbins or call the bakery and order a cake. Boomers don’t make cakes; they find someone who provides that service. Boomers are all about service. “Why should I do the dry cleaning; I’ll send it out! Why should I cut the lawn; I’ll hire a high school student to do it for me.”
Now, take the perspective of service to church. This view changes the way you see the church, “How was the service? I liked the music. I liked the sermon. I liked the fact that there were no misspelled words in the power points today. What do you think of Sunday school? I liked it.”
This generation thinks in terms of service. One motto that was common among this generation, especially in the church was, “Find a need and fill it.” There is a lesson here that we can all learn.
Between the ages of 30 – 44: This group is known as the Busters.
They receive this name because their generation represents the largest downsizing of population in the United States. At the time they were born, two new social dynamics took place, the invention of the pill and the wide acceptance of abortion.
This generation has a high need and desire for relationships. Career does not have the same priority as it does for their parents and especially for their grandparents. In fact, the responsibilities of a career are a bit irritating because career competes with other priorities in life. A higher priority for this group is often relationships and making plans beyond the demands of a career. Their approach to authority is just “Ignore them and they’ll go away.” They nod to authority and go ahead and do what they want anyway.
What about a birthday party? No scratch cooking in these homes. It is rare to find a cake mix, but they may order a cake. However, the most common way this generation celebrated birthdays with their children was to put the kids in the car and go to Chucky Cheese! This is the generation of experience! Balloons, clowns, and games make the birthday party an event, a real experience.
Take this perspective to church. They don’t say, “The service was good.” They say, “I’ve got to be involved.” For them, it is not, “I like what the preacher said,” but, “I got to talk, too.” This is a vastly different way of looking at church. There is a lesson here that the church needs.
Those under 30 years of age: The iGeneration.
This generation receives their name from their iPods, Wi-Fi, and iPhones. They approach life like a cafeteria. They take some of this, a little of that, while passing on the rest of it. They rarely buy an entire album of music. Generally, they want a specific song and, they download it. The young people I teach at the university are in this age group. They are wonderful and I love them. When it comes to authority, they choose to listen and follow the authorities they like and ignore the rest.
For them, career is a place to serve. There is something inside them that says, “I want to make a difference.” For example, their parents like Starbucks for the experience and the ambiance. But this generation notices that Starbucks is also “green.” They take part in improving the environment, helping the poor, and doing good works for others.
When it comes to birthdays, you want more than the experience your parents looked for; you want a transformational experience. You want to do more than participate; you want to do something that changes you. My children are in this age group. A few weeks ago, our daughter, age 27, took part in a Warrior-Dash. She sent pictures. In one picture, she is crawling through deep mud, under barbed wire, and racing toward the next obstacle. A Warrior-Dash is an obstacle course. She fought the battle and overcame. She loved it because it is transformational. Run a Warrior-Dash and you feel different about yourself. Many of her friends met her at this event, and participated with her. She loved every moment. I continue to be amazed by her.
When our son turned 25, he went skydiving! He did not learn about skydiving from me. No way! I don’t know where he got the desire to skydive. He had to sign a “death waiver” before he could jump. When he signed it, he grabbed his iPhone, took a picture, and sent it to me with “LOL” written in caps. I would say that jumping out of an airplane is a transformational experience.
Bring this transformational perspective to church. This generation is looking for more than service and experience; they are looking for something that changes their lives. I have hope in this generation. They expect church to be a place where lives are changed. We all have something to learn from this generation. We need to listen to them also. To this generation, I repeat the good work of Paul to young Timothy, “let no one despise your youth,” as Paul wrote to young Timothy (1Timothy 4:12).
We have something to learn from every generation –
- Take responsibility to make a life out of what you have,
- Find your part and do it,
- Provide service and ministry that meets needs,
- Take part in an experience that calls for commitment, and
- Put yourself on the line because that is the path of transformation.
God’s presence and power is found in the generations of His people.
Copyright 2011 © Richard Leslie Parrott, Ph.D.
8 Replies to “The Years Teach”
These are great thoughts. Thank for sharing. Another good resource on the topic is Reggie McNeals book The Present Future.
David Lovejoy February 1 at 10:53pm
Dr. Parrott…I just read the blog you posted to my wall, and want to tell you that I found that to be one of the most insightful pieces of writing yet to come from your Spirit led pen. Timely & brilliant. Simple, yet wonderful. I just had a friend tell me over lunch about a month and a half ago, how distraught they were over a new and much younger preacher from California, who had come into their church and had changed everything. New music, new worship order, new attitude. It was going to ruin the church. The service was no longer the same, etc. People were going to leave, especially the older ones who were the primary financial support structure. We had a lengthy discussion where I listened and tried to be a cousel of tolerance, peace, and loving confrontation via the conduit of church elders to the new pastor. The things the Holy Spirit led me to say were calming, reflected a respect for appointed authority, and designed to encourage openness, truthful expression, and patience. A follow up conversation confirmed such a meeting between elders and pastor did occur, with an agreement to combine old and new music as well as other moves designed to better reach both the old congregation and the young, as well as attract new believers. I don’t know how that has gone, but I can assure you that I am going to forward this article to my friend with a commission to share this with the congregation. I am also sending a copy to my niece’s husband, who is the new young pastor of an older established church in Northern Illinois. He and I had a long talk over Thanksgiving when the family was here in Lexington to celebrate the holiday, and I had given him a copy of your book, My Soul Purpose. I may have told you about that already. He mentioned then he was interested in ways to bridge the generational gap and better understand how to serve. This blog article is perfect. I can see all kinds of good applications for it as a vehicle for encouragement. So I hope you don’t mind if I scatter it across the fields a bit. One never knows where God may decide a seed needs to be planted that He will bless with the kind of growth that He and only He can provide. Thanks for listening to the Holy Spirit on this one, Richard…you’ve most certainly been blessed with doing good. Amen and amen. Christ’s beautiful blessings be upon you and Shirley.
Your good friend in Christ,
Thank you David! Scatter, scatter, scatter the article. I am finding that it is revolutionary for churches to have this information. There is a deep desire for the different generations to respect and appreciate and love one another, but they don’t seem to have the right bridge to join them together. This article seems to provide such a bridge. I have used it in several sermons lately, and the response has been wonderful.
Reggie McNeals series of videos are excellent. The first in the series describes the difference in the various generations. I strongly recommend it. We have used this series in our congregation at Nashville First Church. You are right on target with the cutting edge of what is being done in helping churches move into the future with the orthodox message of Christianity.
Interesting comments. I am assuming these are observations and generalizations. I wonder how they would bear out with research. The church needs to focus on all ages, not just the young. As the boomers finish their life span, they may continue to change life as we know it. I appreciate your acknowledgement of the contributions of all ages. Too often certain groups are marginalized.
You are correct. In fact, I teach research at Trevecca Nazarene University to doctoral students. My standard is high. I suggest you look at the work of Tim Elmore and Reggie McNeal. This is a great place to get started with good quality research. Look at the footnotes and endnotes in their publications. It will send you to more scientific research in this area.
Of coarse, the final measure is our compassion and willingness to learn from one another. I believe, as I think you do also, that so much material has divided the generations rather than encouraged them to listen to one another. You inspire me to put a story on my blog that speaks to exactly that issue. I will email you the link in a day or two when I finish writing the post.
Thank you for our agreement that we must keep our thoughts grounded in good research as well as solid spirituality. The best in spirituality and the best in research are rarely at odds with each other.
I recently attended and participated in my grandmother in-laws funeral. As we were looking at the family at the time of her death it was being talked about how with the Advent of her leaving this earth to rest in death she left 5 generations still living. So, while she was alive, that meant that 6 generations were above ground at one time. This is unheard of, save some of those Bible stories. Saying all this to simply point out the beautiful tension that exists in the church today. How do we continue to be faithful to the saying of the gospel amidst such diversity and complexity of socio-political-economic-religious orientations? Are there ways the whole church can say “AMEN” together? What does a multi-generational church look like? No doubt I have a voice in this conversation (can you tell what age group i fit into?) and as we talk, may our conversations become prayers for the church in God’s world in which we find temporary residence. May we all unite to become less and less at home in this world anticipating a home yet to come in the present future. Thanks for you work in this way and your role in the multi-generational conversation we get to share…
Season after Epiphany 2011
Perfect, perfect, perfect. You have said it well and you have said it all. Thank you.