Restoring unity in the North American church today requires us to thoughtfully engage in understanding and navigating age diversity. Churches represent a significant institution where various generations come together. For much of history, church services and activities were inter-generational. In the past half century, North American churches have adopted a more segmented approach to ministry, responding to age-specific needs through children’s classes, youth programs, senior activities or similar ministries. While some differences among generations are consistent across time–youth possessing zeal, energy and optimism, and older generations holding more realistic and holistic views—significant shifts in our culture today are creating more than common differences between generational cohorts and require consideration from those leading the church.
We are in the midst of a significant societal and cultural shift, one that could reshape fundamental understandings of the Western world for years to come. Western history reveals significant shifts in culture every few hundred years. Drucker indicated we are currently living through such a transformation and within a few decades society will rearrange itself along with its values, social and political structures, and key institutions. Many others agree with the assessment we are in the midst of a significant change in Western, even global, society. Smith Jr. called it a “cultural fault line between two epochal periods.” The transition between the modern era and the postmodern era is perceived by some to be as significant as the shift that propelled the world out of the Middle Ages 500 years ago.
Millennials, young adults born from 1980-1995, stand on the edge of this transformation, a gulf dividing the past from the future. For those called to vocational ministry, their task will be to successfully lead churches and organizations through the future consequences of current trends. While many of us strive to preserve what has worked in the past, the emerging generation will be entrusted with identifying strategies for the viability and growth of churches and ministries in the future. They need equipping to do so effectively amidst a culture in transition. Disillusioned by the broken promises of modernism, young adults today are willing to accept new and different ways of thinking and interacting with the world. They are ready to embrace change. This can create significant conflict and disunity with church leaders or congregants who refuse to engage in dialogue regarding new or different methods of achieving the church’s mission.
Millennials are not tied to denominational or organizational loyalty. This impacts how they relate to the church and religion. Fewer and fewer young people buy in wholeheartedly to particular statements of faith or doctrinal beliefs put forth by denominations or church boards. They want the flexibility to choose the tenants of faith that resonate with their personal views and experiences. Pre-packaged doctrinal statements do not allow for this level of preference. When it comes to their faith, Millennials shop around, looking for the best deal or product for their perspective or place in life. This deters Millennials from joining membership classes or making a decision to adhere or commit to one particular congregation, denomination or set of beliefs. In some cases, it leads to young adults forming their own home church gatherings or launching new churches.
Young adults have experienced the effects of a society in transition and evolving values their entire lives. Their mental, physical, social and spiritual development has occurred in a culture wrestling to release itself from the influences of modernism with its structures, hierarchy and dependence on reason. Their education and formation are rooted in the influences of relativistic and deconstructionist views. As a result, the perspectives and behaviors of emerging young adults often look drastically different than those of their leaders. Kimball explained, “What we are experiencing in our culture is not merely a generation gap but a change in how people view the world.”
As young adults step into leadership roles in ministry, the factors that have influenced their understanding of the world will impact their engagement in the church for decades to come.
While older generations often cling to tradition, younger generations embrace the doctrine of tolerance that permeates our culture. In the church, the two often collide as each cohort believes sees any opposing perspective as an attack on truth. In reality, tradition and tolerance often hide the truths that really can and do unite us.
We need intergenerational understanding and a conversation that allows truth to emerge and shed light on the influences that threaten the fiber of church unity.
1. Peter Drucker, Post-Capitalist Society (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993), 1.
2. Chuck Smith Jr., The End of the World as We Know It: Clear Direction for Bold and Innovative Ministry in a Postmodern World (Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook Press, 2001), 12.
3. Peter Drucker, Post-Capitalist Society (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993), 2-4.
4. Dan Kimball, The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 59.