When the older generations imagine their church being filled with people across the age spectrum, what they are probably envisioning is the church that they grew up in themselves. They are envisioning themselves as children and teenagers worshiping in a church filled with people who were their parents and grandparents ages. However the different generations and the attitudes that come with them are greatly shaped by events in their childhood and by the cultures that they were raised in. The generations that exist today will react very differently than previous generations to the same activities and invitations that may have appealed to generations in the past.
The Generations that are around today have been defined in slightly different ways but there is general consensus around their names and characteristics, even though there are slight variations in the years that define them. Those people that were born from 1901 – 1924 are commonly known as the “GI Generation”. These are the people who lived through the Great Depression and experienced WWII as adults. Those born from 1925 – 1945 are known as the “Silent Generation”. Their experience of WWII as a child, many of whom had fathers who had served in WWI led this generation to take things very seriously, including their faith. Both the GI Generation and the Silent Generation have frequently been referred to as the “Greatest Generations”. This describes their civic commitment to rebuilding after the war, their great commitment to faith and their beginning of the civil rights movement. Many churches were founded, funded and flourished by the spirit of the Greatest Generations. According to a Pew survey, 93% of people born before 1948 identified themselves as religious. Their religion is part of their culture and self identity. It defines them.
The Generation born right after WWII, named after a large spike in the birth rate, is the famous “Baby Boomer “generation. Defined as beginning anywhere from 1942-1946, and going through 1960-1964 this generation was commonly known as “Hippies”. They created the first modern “counter culture”, embraced the sexual revolution and used drugs such as Marijuana and LSD to explore their spirituality through “altered states”. In the churches, “Baby Boomers” were some of the people who brought their drums and guitars to church and who created contemporary worship services which caused many a worship war with their Greatest Generation parents and grandparents. Despite these differences in style and culture of creating church, many Baby Boomers still identify themselves as being Christians, a full 85 %.
“Generation X”, typically defined as being born in the early 1960’s – the early 1980’s was a generation that was shaped by the Vietnam war and most especially by the Cold War. Raised on color TV: with Sesame Street, the Muppets and MTV, this generation lived through their parent’s divorce, went to college in huge numbers and was encouraged to take on lots of debt just as wages stagnated. Suspicious of all institutions, many children of this generation did not attend church regularly and some families quit attending when their divorced parents were not welcomed. 79 % of Generation X identifies themselves as having religious beliefs, however this generation is the one that currently is described as the “missing generation” in churches. Raised with solidly Postmodern philosophy, this generation commonly asks, “Why do Christians believe they have the only truth?” They have no problem investigating a multitude of religions and creating a personalized system that works for them. Most unchurched Generation X’ers never think about the church. They view it as being out of touch with the real world, being money hungry, and spending money on itself. They regard the church as irrelevant to the real needs in society. They believe the Christian church represents only one of many acceptable ways to God, and that their own personal beliefs are just as good as any denomination. However, while this generation may be open to many beliefs, they are activists who long to make a difference in their community. Once they commit to doing a task, a typical Xer is willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done. Intolerant of racism or exclusivity, Generation X is attracted to a religion that works. Infinitely practical, suspicious of promises, Generation X has no tolerance for hypocrisy or petty church politics and will easily leave their church loyalties behind if it arises.
The Millennial Generation, also known as Generation Y, is often defined as those people born from 1982-2004. As the children of the Gen X generation; they have even less childhood experiences of church to build a faith with. Frequently they are completely unchurched; with only an occasional brief wedding or funeral service to supplement what they know about church from movies and tv. In April of 2010 a Survey done by US Today reported that 72 % of Generation Y declared themselves to be “Spiritual, but not religious.” Only 1/3 of the Millennial generation report ever participating in any Spiritual practices, such as prayer or study. Raised to be completely comfortable using technology, everything from their friendships to their dating relationships revolves around being online. A Millennial person may be offended if they do not receive an instant response to their text message. With their culture of immediacy and continual interaction, Generation Y will participate in things that are happening right now. They have used their instant connectivity to create “Flash Mob” events that amuse, entertain or satirize something else. Promised good jobs if they went to college, this generation carries the highest college debt load of any generation and the highest rate of unemployment and underemployment. Frequently stuck in service sector jobs with the irregular schedules that come with the demands of our 24 hour a day access culture, many of the Millennial generation cannot attend regularly scheduled church events, even if they wanted to.
In conclusion, when we as the church today look at our membership lists and notice the great absence of people under the age of 50, we need to remember that those younger generations of people are products of a different culture and have different expectations and questions and needs than those that the generations that have come before it. We need to think of the needs and the challenges of our own children, grandchildren and great grandchildren in order to understand the context and the generational cultures that that make up the church today. We need to dream up new ways to speak the love of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ to the real hurts that are happening to the generations in our world. We need to strive to be relevant to all the different generational cultures that exist today. God knows it is needed.