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The Missing Generation in Our Churches

BY HARVEY HERMAN, JR.

The 1970s witnessed churches surging with newly saved twenty-somethings who reinvigorated the church. Unfortunately, the opposite is occurring today. There is a generation missing in many of our churches commonly referred to as Generation X—a generation born between 1961–1981. Gen X represents approximately a third of the U.S. population. These young people are impossible to ignore as they move through society at 93 million strong.1

Some people in our churches feel that Gen X is too hard to reach with the gospel. Is the power of the gospel less powerful for this generation? No! Is Jesus irrelevant to them? No! Is the local church irrelevant to them? In many cases, Yes! According to Dieter Zander, "No other generation has needed the church so much, yet sought it so little."2

How do most Gen Xers view the church? Most never think about it. 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 one of many acceptable ways to "god."

This generation possesses a few key, common characteristics.

Abuse and neglect. A majority have experienced abuse and neglect. The term latch-key kid originated with them. Up to one-third of the young women may be victims of incest. The poverty rate for children rose for the first time in U.S. history, and only 50 percent of the children grew up in homes with both of their birth parents.3 The abortion rate grew exponentially during their birth years.

Neglect forces Xers to be more self-reliant at their age than their baby-boomer predecessors were at a comparable age. They are serious about life because adulthood has been forced upon them prematurely. With the breakdown of the family, they cope with a nagging sense of aloneness and seek a sense of community and family.

Postmodernism. They are the first generation to grow up in a postmodern world. It is not possible to overstate the impact of this factor. This generation rejects the belief of modernism that progress, reason, democracy, and technology can perfect the world or can even be obtained. The assumptions of modernism presume that knowledge is certain, objective, and good and produce an optimistic and progressive outlook on life.

Postmodern assumptions propose that subjectivity supersedes objectivity. Postmodernists believe that the world has no center and no guiding principles or truths; it has only differing viewpoints and perspectives. They are unconvinced that knowledge is inherently good and provides answers to our problems—truth is relative. This pessimism leads them to think the problems of the world cannot be solved globally. Since there are no absolutes, everything is relative to the postmodernist.

As a result, Gen X reacts abhorrently to religious dogmatism. Tolerance, a lenient disposition toward other people’s convictions and practices, embodies this generation’s highest virtue. They aspire a life filled with cultural and relational diversity.

Fundamental Christianity has been hammered by the vigor of modernism with its materialism, humanism, and prejudice against the contributions made by the church in premodern times. Not realizing a postmodern age has dawned, many Christian leaders continue to battle modernist ideas, unaware that the issues have shifted. The question college students ask today is not, "Is Christianity true?" Now they ask, "What makes Christians suppose they have the only truth?" We miss this generation because the church is often too busy answering questions that young people are not even asking.

Spirituality. Gen X is a deeply spiritual generation. However, George Barna warns, "Make no mistake about it though: spiritual is no longer synonymous with Christian."4 They do believe in a reality beyond the natural world—beyond what they can see, feel, touch, taste, and smell.

This spiritual sense makes Gen X open to accepting Christ, but it also creates an openness to practically everything else. Xers are investigating a diversity of religious faiths. Many of them are customizing a belief system and spiritual life from a concoction of various religious streams. If it works for them, then it is good for them, even when these beliefs have no inherent congruity.

Whether the church will still be a player in postmodern America in the year 2020 depends on what it does with this generation today.

I propose that as church leaders to this generation we must adjust three basic paradigms in ministry.

1. Church leaders must adjust the way they minister. Generation Xers will listen to you talk truth until you’re blue in the face and then look at you and say, "So what?" They are more interested in what Christ has done for you than in what you believe. Information has value only when they see its practical expression. In other words, they are more concerned with formation than information.

We must minister in a manner that emphasizes a formation process. Formation process is a proactive relationship that deliberately attempts to integrate truth into living. Integrating truth into living occurs on two levels: character and skill. We have assumed by teaching biblical truth that people would know how to implement the truth. Teaching is only half the proposition. Dispensing information is best facilitated in the classroom, but formation is best accomplished at the coffee table. Church leaders historically have been strong in the classroom. Now they must learn the skills of the coffee table.

2. Church leaders must adjust the way they lead. Hierarchical, authoritarian, programmatic church leaders make little sense to a generation inherently skeptical of cold institutions and corrupt leadership. Highly visible, fallen church leaders, impeached political leaders, and amoral celebrities have only served to sustain their skepticism. Positional authority figures have little, lasting impact upon them. If a leader is not personally approachable in style and character, they will not voluntarily follow. They value diversity, mutuality, and inclusivity, while affirming egalitarian role models. They much prefer being a valued member of a team rather than serving on a committee.

A discipling, enabling leader will be received warmly by a Gen Xer. Leading must focus on transactional ministry—a leadership process that trains people in ministry skill acquisition similar to the way a coach trains athletes in the fundamentals or a master craftsman trains an apprentice.

Leaders must also learn the transformational process for character development. The transformational process is accomplished by mentoring Gen Xers in the spiritual disciplines and preparing the soil of their lives for lifelong fruitfulness. Transformation must occur from the inside out with the leader demonstrating how to nurture a relationship with God. When transformation begins to become evident, the mentor knows that conversion has occurred and the connection between God and disciple is established and growing.

The leadership role in this model emphasizes equipping, discipling, long- and short-term planning, mentoring, interceding through prayer, and studying the Word. Leaders then equip Gen Xers in ministry skills such as: personal care, availability, serving, peer counseling, ministering among the ill, and disciple making.

To be effective with Gen X, leaders must underscore the joy and freedom in the Christian life. They should illustrate in anecdotal form rather than in outline presentation how a relationship with Jesus brings meaning and purpose in life.

3. Church leaders must adjust the way they relate. The key word is authenticity. This generation is sensitive to the salesman approach. They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Affirmation, openness, and vulnerability are essential relational skills for relating to Gen X. Leaders must accept these young people unconditionally and develop a sensitivity to their emotional pain. Leaders must learn how to be open with their own problems and struggles. Self-disclosure expressed in appropriate ways endears leaders to these young adults.

Generation X is perpetually in search for significant family—the sense of family they may have lost through neglect. The church, when it lives its biblically prescribed lifestyle, forms the greatest family on earth. God’s people will see a tremendous harvest among Xers if they are willing to communicate in meaningful ways to this generation at risk.

In fact, Generation X’s personal need for community may provide a key in reaching them for Christ. They develop an interest in church not because they are on a search for truth but because of their desire for home and community. The church must develop ways to make non-Christian young adults feel welcome and able to participate in church life, even before they make a commitment to Christ. If young adults find in the church a place to belong, they will often settle the issue of conversion later. In contrast, this is the exact opposite of the baby boomer generation—young people searching for truth. Young boomers first settled the issue of conversion before they dealt with commitment to relationship.

Our age is being referred to as the postmodern age. Whether it also becomes a post-Christian age is yet to be seen. Much of our future will be determined by how effectively we reach Generation X.


ENDNOTES

1. William Strauss and Neil Howe, Generations: The History of America’s Future 1584 to 2069 (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1991), 318.

2. Dieter Zander, "The Gospel for Generation X," Leadership 16 (Spring 1995): 37.

3. William Strauss and Neil Howe, 13th GEN: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail? (New York: Vintage Books, 1993) 35,61.

4. George Barna, Generation Next: What You Need To Know About Today’s Youth (Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 1995) 20.

Harvey Herman, Jr., is staff training representative for the Assemblies of God Chi Alpha/Campus Ministries Department, Springfield, Missouri.

RECOMMENDED READING FOR MINISTRY TO XERS

Articles

Armstrong, Mike. "Generation X: Who Are the Baby Busters?" Journal of Campus Ministry, Summer 1994, 1–8.

DiSalvo, David. "Talking About America’s Thirteenth Generation." Campus, Spring 1994, pp. 3,5,16.

Ford, Kevin. "My Generation." InterVarsity, Winter 94–95, 3–7.

Howe, Neil, and William Strauss. "The New Generation Gap." The Atlanta Monthly, December 1992, 67–89.

Tapia, Andres. "Reaching the First Post-Christian Generation." Christianity Today, 12 September 1994, 18–23.

Zander, Dieter. "The Gospel for Generation X." Leadership, Spring 1995, 37–42.

Books

Barna, George. Generation Next: What You Need To Know About Today’s Student. Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 1995.

Celek, Tim, and Deiter Zander. Inside the Soul of a New Generation, Insights and Strategies for Reaching Busters. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1996.

Ford, Kevin Graham. Jesus for a New Generation: Putting the Gospel in the Language of the Xers. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1995.

Howe, Neil, and William Strauss. Generations: The History of America’s Future 1585 to 2069. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1991.

Mahedy, William, and Janet Bernardi. A Generation Alone: Xers Making a Place in the World. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1994.

Tulgan, Bruce. Managing Generation X. Santa Monica, Calif.: Merritt Publishing, 1995.

Complied by Dennis Gaylor, secretary, Chi Alpha/Campus Ministries Department, Springfield, Missouri.

OUR RESPONSIBILITY TO GENERATION X

BY JOSEPH DALTORIO

God is working through Generation X in three unique ways.

1. Servant evangelism.

Generation Xers are doers. They may be cautious at first in committing themselves or proclaiming allegiance. When they do respond, they show a commitment and tenacity that is reminiscent of the missionary generation that ushered in the Pentecostal revival and worldwide missions outreach at the beginning of the 20th century. They are willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done.

Xers are activists. They get involved in practical ways to make a difference in their community, whether by volunteering in their local neighborhoods, nursing homes, or soup kitchens. They will respond to the gospel if the church lets them make a difference in practical ways and if they see that the gospel has the power to change lives.

Could this be another great missionary generation at the turn of a new millennium?

2. Racial reconciliation.

Generation X reflects and is more comfortable with racial and ethnic diversity. Christians from this generation tend to see a supernatural love and unity among people of different ethnic groups as proof of the Pentecostal outpouring. As young people of integrity and authenticity, they are suspicious of churches that support foreign missions but have trouble living with ethnic diversity in their own neighborhoods. Hints of racism or exclusivity in our churches offend this age-group.

If we are going to see a true nationwide spiritual awakening, the deep rifts between America’s people groups must heal. Generation X is an age-group especially tuned to racial reconciliation and will participate when churches become major supporters of this issue.

College students hunger for God and respond with a spirit of repentance as God works in their midst. The difference in this generation from the Jesus movement is how young people are responding to the move of the Holy Spirit with brokenness over sin and commitment to bring healing for the wrong of previous generations. God will use revival among this generation to heal, reconcile, and shake America to its foundation.

Could this be the generation that rebuilds the broken walls of our cities by ushering in racial reconciliation?

3. Biblically-based deliverance from spiritual strongholds.

True to their postmodern mind-set, young people often don’t ask whether something is true when they look for answers. They simply want to know if it works. That is how they approach the gospel.

When they respond to the gospel, their faith takes on practical dimensions. They are especially tuned to the Pentecostal message because it emphasizes the importance of experiencing God’s presence and His transforming power to change their lives. As revival fires are beginning to burn, only churches that know how to challenge demonic powers and pray people through to wholeness will have success with this generation.

Because Satan has gained a foothold in government, education, and media, churches need to be serious about spiritual warfare and walk as the apostles did with power to set the captives free.

Churches cannot afford to have this generation missing from their ranks. They must recognize its potential and love each member as Christ loved us while we were still sinners. He saw our potential when we were at our worst. My prayer is that we see God’s prophetic potential for Generation X. Someday we will hear the name that God has written down for them.

Could this be the generation that also discovers that God’s strength is made perfect in weakness?

—Joseph Daltorio was formerly the field representative for Chi Alpha Campus Ministries, Springfield, Missouri.



INSIGHTS FOR REACHING BUSTERS

Busters will:

1. Attend churches that have a clear focus, narrowly defined vision, and assertive commitment to accomplish their mission.

2. Attend churches where worship services are shorter, well designed, and have good flow and tempo.

3. Attend churches that have a loud, upbeat, faster pop music sound.

4. Attend churches that win their loyalty every Sunday through excellent ministry.

5. Attend churches that focus on local ministry rather than on ministry in faraway places.

6. Give money to churches where they can see their money achieving results.

7. Volunteer for ministry activities that are short-term.

8. Volunteer and minister to confront practical issues in their community.

9. Attend churches that help them sort out the hurts in their lives through practical issues in their community.

10. Come to Christ through need-based ministries that deal with the hurts and internal issues they are facing.

—Adapted from Make Room for the Boom…or Bust by Gary L. McIntosh (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1997) 46. Used by permission.