January 16, 2021

Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation: How Generational Insights Have Gone Overboard

intergenerational.jpgNothing has been more common in the various debates regarding the future of evangelicalism than the prevalence of generational characteristics put forward as absolute law. In fact, the word “generation,” a good Bible word that emphasized both continuity and discontinuity, has come to mean a kind of discontinuity that renders the average church helpless to do anything that doesn’t take into account the knowledge of experts in generational characteristics.

The results are clearly getting out of hand. Increasingly, churches are being created self-consciously excluding people other than their “target” audience. I’ve heard more stupid things said in the name of generational information than almost any single source, and by a lot of people who ought to know better.

I have a natural resistance to grandiose religious claims disguised as science. Americans have a tendency to believe that really smart people keep coming up with insights no one has ever had before. I’m not entirely skeptical, just mostly skeptical, especially of evangelicals claiming to have “proof.” These are people who have been known to be bagged by Snopes.com on a regular basis.

I’m a great believer in the wisdom of Ecclesiastes: there’s nothing new under the sun, and whatever is today’s big breakthrough has probably been around before, maybe several times.

I don’t reject all the insights of sociology or its implications for church planting, worship and ministry. I simply believe that human beings have always been more alike than they have been different. Absolutizing generational characteristics makes more focused leadership, and it often gives a ready defense for all decisions that might be vetoed by traditionalists. But it also moves us towards kinds of practices that are exclusive, judgmental and bizarrely narrow.

I’m not surprised that anyone who studies the likes and dislikes of the present moment and shapes a church around those characteristics experiences a fair amount of success. And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I’m sure not endorsing the way things used to be done as superior per se.

I am, however, ready to challenge notions that deny important truths of human nature and what it means to be made in the image of God.

For example, the famous short attention span of recent generations seems to be a rather flexible item. What’s happening in churches like Mars Hill, where the sermons are more than an hour? Is that a “generational fluke,” or is it evidence that humans are a lot more adaptable and flexible than we think?

I know a lot of Americans who have spent significant time in Africa. There “generational characteristics” are laid aside and they adapt to the culture and community they find themselves in. I have yet to hear one say “I couldn’t worship over there without a video projector.” (If I hear one more person say “I can’t worship without projection,” I’m going to do something illegal and embarrassing.)

Am I the only person who feels that books citing generational insights are arriving so quickly that there’s no possible way they can all be entirely true? And that anyone who sets out to implement them all will build a circus, not a church?

There’s something wrong with defining human beings as accumulations of generationally defined behaviors. Are we really supposed to believe that the guy in the next cubicle is, for purposes of evangelism, a collection of generational characteristics? What about his unique experiences, unique history and unique qualities? What about those things that no one knows that make him UNIQUELY HIMSELF? How do we love and respect someone when we prejudge him in all kinds of ways based on “generational” research?

There’s a kind of ugly modernism about announcing that if you do these twenty things you will attract generational sheeple like the Pied Piper. There’s something even sadder about how often it obviously works.

Most disturbing is how this generational divisive mindset has made us defend our “individuality” when we are actually defending sin, selfishness and acting like spoiled brats.

“I can’t worship with that music.”

“They should just find a church that has what they like.”

“If you can’t support the staff, you should leave.”

“We should have a separate service for ______________ (fill in the blank.)”

“You have to do whatever reaches people today.”

“At _________________ conference, pastor __________________ said that when his church did this, they grew by 200 in a year.”

“If the dancing bothers you, don’t come.”

“We need realize that topic makes seekers uncomfortable.”

“We’re just like any other business. The customer comes first.”

“We can’t discuss and vote on everything.”

“I don’t like hearing about deaths and illness. It’s depressing.”

“We go to church wherever the kids are the happiest. ”

“Someone has to get their way in a church. It’s time for our generation to get what they want.”

“You can’t argue with growth.”

Behind a lot of generational rhetoric is nothing more than a childish defense of selfishness, put forward as what we “must” do to grow. We’re convincing ourselves that older Christians can’t ever be around younger ones, that younger Christians can’t worship with older ones, that anyone with a niche gets their own everything and the job of church leadership is to divide us into as many cultural “pods” as possible.

We need a stopping place for some of this nonsense. A place where we can benefit from generational insight, but we can stop making fools of ourselves in fear that someone with a tattoo might see a hymnal and apostatize.

Churches need to develop a thoroughly Biblical, missional approach to evangelism in their unique time and place. That mission should take into account generational characteristics, but those generational characteristics shouldn’t dominate the church in any way. When generational characteristics (“People don’t read”) begin to have a corrosive effect (No Bible, more visuals), we should reconsider.

For example, when a church says, “we are for twenty-somethings,” do they have an exit program for the forty-somethings who show up? When they say they are for singles, do they have exception papers for those who marry?

I once had a guy offer to build a “youth church” where I worked. I kept picturing the day after graduation, when we herded the now aged 18 year olds out, and back to regular church, weeping and wailing as they went.

Constantly changing generational strategies will make it difficult for a church to have identity and continuity. It will tend to destabilize leadership and make the church highly transitional.

I appreciate the wisdom of those who help us see our culture generationally, but I believe we’ve gone too far. Our emphasis shouldn’t be to subdivide and to be deterministic, but to say the Gospel meets our universal need and the church is a universal community that invites all kinds of believers into relationship. Human beings, made in God’s image, may be described in groups, but “group think” has real hazards for a community that follows and imitates Jesus. The early church discovered this, and the Roman world was deeply impacted. I want to encourage Christians to view other people as Jesus views them, and not primarily as members of a generational or demographic.

By the way, since I’m white, male, American and fifty, you don’t need to pay any attention.


  1. Cate Hanchez says

    I really do understand that different age groups have different interests and it takes some creativity to appeal to them, but it seems to me that a church is a family. And there is no member of the family that can be shut out without harming the whole, is there?

  2. It’s nice that this time I can just emphatically agree with you 🙂 The church the a body, Paul says, not a just a collection of limbs and organs. Split the congregation into “pods” and what you have isn’t a church any more.

  3. Amen! Hallelujah!

    All we have gained by creating these generational Soweto camps is whiny, uninterested, self-centered Christians. And that includes every generation, from the children to the seniors.

    Our church is finally coming to realize that inter-generational worship values every generation, and allows every generation to love and gain respect for the others. I am blessed to be in a congregation where I see this incarnated.

    It is even possible to be culturally comprehensible to a seeker, when we begin to understand that seekers expect to see spiritual things happening in a church. It’s more a matter of presenting the Gospel very clearly, all the while demonstrating its transformative power in the lives of the congregation. That is where you see the love developed for one another.

    Blessings, and thanks for the post!

  4. I appreciate your voice of sanity, and the term “sheeple” is right on target. We are all winners in an intergenerational church. The Titus 2 woman would have a hard time teaching the young woman in a “peer group only” church.

  5. Thank you for that breath of fresh air. We’re doing our best to fight the trend by being intentional about exposing teens to the broader church community, even when it seems painfully “un-hip.” You might enjoy a friend’s recent insight on the phenomenon and our need to be inclusive, even on a multi-generational level.

  6. One thing I enjoy about visiting Catholic parishes is that you see all generations and races under one roof. You don’t have to do an ‘old folks outreach’ because they are already in the same church with you. Likewise with race, youth, whatever. Catholics don’t have to think in the market segment way that Protestants are now trapped in since the collapse of the mainlines and the charismatic rise.

  7. Michael
    you are so right on the money. I have pastored small rural churches for the last 20 years and i agree with you 100 percent. We have such rich resources in the church in our sesoned citizens, we are much wiser to use them.

  8. Sorry, what? I can’t hear you…

    I give thanks that I’ve never heard many of those phrases before, and I have to say, with all the youthful arrogance I can muster, if someone can’t worship without “projection,” they’ve never learned to worship at all.

  9. I find myself reminded of something you see in the software development industry: Whenever some new programming technique comes along, some shops will drop old techniques and convert wholly over to the new technique….until the next new thing comes along. The new technique is treated as a ‘solution’ that overrides all of the old techniques.

    More mature shops treat new techniques as additional tools for the toolbelt. You don’t throw out old techniques when the new ones come along (though occasionally some old techniques will eventually be superceded), you add them to your ‘toolbelt’ and learn to use your various ‘tools’ appropriately, according to the problems you’re dealing with.

    Generational insights (and other insights and changes) strike me the same way. You can either treat them as ‘solutions’ and end up as ‘children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine’ (note he doesn’t say ‘wind of false doctrine’)(Eph 4:14). Or you can add them as another ‘tool on the belt’ and prayerfully let God teach you what tools are to be used when.

  10. “(If I hear one more person say “I can’t worship without projection,” I’m going to do something illegal and embarrassing.)”

    You mind videotaping that and posting the feed?

    Um, you know, for posterity!

    “How do we love and respect someone when we prejudge him in all kinds of ways based on “generational” research?”

    We don’t! Just like we don’t love poor people or foreign people or people who speak a different language…

    Totally agree – and may I add, factual information, wisely utilized, does a happy congregation make, whereas sheeples represent much that is unfruitful in organized religion.

    Just my two cents.

  11. Michael,

    I’ll play a little devil’s advocate here as a person under 30.

    >What about his unique experiences, unique history >and unique qualities? What about those things that >no one knows that make him UNIQUELY HIMSELF? How do >we love and respect someone when we prejudge him in >all kinds of ways based on “generational” research?

    Defining generations have become more important, I believe, because our techno-capitalism has grown/changed rapidly over a short period of time. Research/studies/statistics are helpful in a limited way, just as doing mission field people group mapping is important, but not definitive.

    There really are differences between the generations in the way we have experienced the world-as-we-know-it. Case-in-point: My husband is five years older than I, putting him squarely in the Gen X category. I am in the early part of Gen Y or “millennial”. I had helicopter parents hovering over my every move; he was a latch-key kid. We don’t need separate worship services but we do have differing perceptions based on our shared and unshared backgrounds. Sometimes this matters, sometimes it doesn’t. Check out the research done on folks under-30 and their brain activity patterns. We think differently and perceive differently on a biological level than those who are older.

    Church is like a family table, there should be food offered everyone can eat from baby to elders.

  12. Preach it brother!

  13. Hal Taylor says

    I enjoyed the article and thought it to be well balanced. There are generational differences that are often generalized. The work place joke that asks the question, “What is the definition of loyalty to a company for a Gen Xer, a two week notice” is a harsh exageration but an easy laugh at a seminar. Why do you get a good laugh out of these generalizations? As in all humor there is usually a kernal of truth to it. Not to use all the information available to us is not good stewardship. All truth is from God and his children should not run from it. The key is balance and I thank you for admitting some generational validity in your article.
    The greatest loss in all this is that we have lost the natural mentoring that different generations bring to the church.
    I too am about sick of churches going after one generation and I believe it is one of the contributing factors of the lack of depth in most of the churches that do this. But most of these churches have good or even great preaching and teaching from the stage. It is the what Ray C. Steadman called “bodylife” that is missing in the church. They are missing the generational layering that helps bring about maturity and commitment. That is why in the scripture older people are to mentor and children are supposed to honor.

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