Listening to Millennials – And Visa Versa

By on April 17, 2017

I’ve written a lot about the relationship between those at or beyond midlife with the local church. (Click here, herehere and here.) We Boomers and older Gen X’ers have shaped modern evangelical church culture. And many of us have grown increasingly disenfranchised from the very subculture we helped to create. While some have found fresh meaning and energy to serve in their second adulthood, nearly half of those who responded to an informal survey I ran on this blog a little over a year ago told me they had downshifted their involvement in their local church – or had left it entirely. Click on the “here” links in the second sentence above to find out more about what I heard from those I’d surveyed, as well as some of my preliminary conclusions on the subject.

Of course, those of us at midlife aren’t the only ones. The Millennial exodus from the church has been well-documented.

The modernist mindset in which we at midlife have been immersed during our formative years has loosened its grip on Western culture. It’s a jolt for many of us midlife adults to see how this shift away from modernism has had on the way our Millennial children think about God, the world, the church and just about everything in thought and culture that’s not carved from granite. Modernism has not influenced our kids’ lives the way it has ours.

But I daresay some at midlife have undergone a shift away from it as well. The God-breathed spiritual growth that moves us toward greater maturity has collided with these shifts in our culture at this crossroads in time. As I’ve been writing and talking about this issue for the last couple of years from the perspective of someone at midlife, I have been delighted to discover that not all of us who love Jesus at this age stage are automatically hide-bound traditionalists. Some of us discover that midlife transition unhinges our attachment to “but this is the way we’ve always done it” thinking. That unhinging can be a contributing factor that points some in in this age group toward the exit doors of their local church, particularly if they’re burned out on intramural politics, or are seeking other ways to find community and meaningful service if the church has oversold itself and failed to deliver. Certainly the effects of modernism, postmodernism and post-postmodernism form us differently depending on how long we’ve been steeped in each.

Our generational differences don’t have to be a confusing, divisive Babel in the church. Not when the coming of the Spirit who exploded the church into being at Shavuot/Pentecost came with the power of proclaiming good news clearly in language each one could understand. This is our birthright as members of his body, and it is what can allow us to go beyond divide to hard-won unity.

Yesterday at the Missio Alliance blog, author Jolene Erlacher’s post entitled “How Age Diversity Threatens Unity In The Church” offered some thoughtful observations about the social and cultural schism between those of us at midlife and Millennials before ending with this call to action:

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.  

Sadly, some voices who’d add to this conversation may no longer be present in the local church. But for those who’ve stayed, a few frank conversations between older and younger would be a great gift to a congregation’s health. (And it might be great to invite a few who’ve drifted away, too!) Those conversations must become both prayer and action, else they are just banter or kvetch sessions. What would our faith communities look like if we talked and listened to one another , and prayed deeply together in response to Paul’s words?

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. – 1 Cor. 12:21-27

(I think it would look like the love of our Messiah.)

I am on the hunt for stories and names of congregations where this kind of conversation, reconciliation (if needed) and prayer is happening. I am posting my plea for leads here today, as my essay in this month’s print Christianity Today magazine on the topic, “The Midlife Church Crisis” (also online here today) may be bringing a few new sets of eyes to this space. Please leave a comment here if you know of a church who has navigated the challenges of intergenerational ministry, or use this contact form if you’d prefer to get in touch with me via email.  

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