Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Presbyterians and the generation gap

Last week the Pew Research Center released a significant study about aging in America. The media reports about the study caught my interest because of the blaring headlines about a widening generation gap.

Any Presbyterian should be interested in understanding the generation gap. Put generally we are an older, wealthy denomination that hasn’t been successful in bringing younger generations into our congregations. We have a widening generation gap. When I go to Presbyterian churches I often find older people who care deeply about their congregation, people who want to attract younger folks, but people who don’t know how to do it and aren’t willing to do the hard work to understand how to attract young people.

The results of the study would make for interesting reading for leaders interested in the future of the church and in particular the future of the PC(USA). The complete study can be found here: http://pewsocialtrends.org/assets/pdf/getting-old-in-america.pdf.

Let me offer this snippet from the study as an enticement to reflect deeply on the generation gap:

“The main generational differences, according to respondents to this latest survey, have to do with values and morality. When asked in an open-ended, follow-up question how younger people and older people differ most, nearly half of the respondents (47%) point to something having to do with values. Political views are cited much less frequently.

Within the broad category of values, the top volunteered responses are morality, ethics and beliefs (12%) and a sense of entitlement (12%).”

Hmm—sounds like the faith community has some work to do.

What I have found in my work is our older generations (let’s say 70’s through 90’s) have a difficult time understanding the world of the younger generations (16-35).

What disappoints me is our older generations haven't done more to understand the world of the younger generations. They don’t go out of their way to understand the admittedly dizzying world of Facebook, Twitter, cell phones, texting, living together before marriage, blended families, kids living in different households, credit card debt. That list could go on and on.

Understanding and accepting are far different qualities. Allow me to get on my soap box and issue a challenge to older generations—especially older Presbyterians. Work harder on understanding! You don’t have to accept the odd behaviors of the young, but unless you take the time to understand this group, our Presbyterian congregations will continue to look greyer every year.

Grey is not an attractive color.


Rochelle LeTourneau said...

Well Paul, I never see much in the way of comments on your blogs and I am usually guilty of reading and not commenting. This time I'll change that bad habit.
First, nothing personal but as one who has been grey (as in hair color) since the younger of the age bracket (not yet having reached the older bracket) I feel compelled to note that I don't find grey unattractive! In fact, as I have done some generational study I find myself more and more believing that what seems to have become general practice, that is, using the terms "grey" "greying" and other like words as being related to attitude and behavior that is out-dated, out-moded, intolerant, refusal to learn or any of those things is not a good practice and in fact is bordering on discriminatory. Second, many middle-to-upper members of the baby boomer generation are "grey" and, hey, these are the people who effected greater social change than any other generation still alive. In fact, they continue to do so by their refusal to stagnate, retaining their flexibility, by redefining retirement, and continuing to learn and change as they age. These people haven't known job security and have changed jobs and careers many times over the years and continue to do so. Like many of that generation, I communicate wholeheartedly. I text, I instant message, I have an iPod; a blackberry; a GPS; XM/Sirrius radio; and am usually among the first to get the new gadgets. I am quite familiar with and appreciate music through many time frames including the 60's, 70's, '80's, 90's, and today. Thanks to coming along at the tail end of a music loving family with a 17 year spread between the oldest and youngest, I even know the words from songs from way back. While we must I guess, talk in general terms, I don't think I am unique. What I have come to strongly believe as a result of my church involvement is this: we badly need those people - - still vibrant, still committed to ideals and yes, to change. Perhaps we can think more creatively about how to attract and involve the younger age brackets. Perhaps they could help us do that. I for one, don't think that if they stepped up to the plate with ideas that they would be shot down - - unless it is by the initial comments we all have to work around as we look for change - - "but we've always done it this way." As leaders, we just can't let people stop when that sentence is uttered, but keep the conversation going. I truly believe it will be worth it.

Thanks for your continued writings and thoughtfulness.
Grace and peace!

Chainoflakesncd said...

Thanks, Rochelle for the comment and your passion.

What I meant by the grey statement is we don’t want to have churches that only have people with grey hair—this is the type of church we are becoming. The statement was not meant to be critical of the 70 and older generation, critical of their contributions to the church or critical of their contributions to society.

I love folks who are in the 70 and up range. We do badly need them in our congregations just as we badly need folks who are 35 and under.

The challenge is our churches are vastly underrepresented by folks who are 35 and under

My gentle plea to folks in the 70 and over range is to work harder at understanding folks who are 35 and under. I don’t think that has happened enough. Understanding comes through personal relationships and listening. It’s hard, but we have to do it.

Keep the comments coming!


Phil GG said...

Hi Paul,

Thanks for this great post about generational gaps in the church; something I think about often. I actually think that the primary generation tension in the church right now is not between the "olds" and the "youngs", but between the Boomers and the Xers. The older Xers are now entering their mid- and late-40s and therefore are also becoming leaders in business, church, and gov't. The switch can be seen in concrete ways in the election of Obama as Prez and Jin Kim as our Moderator at Presbytery. The obvious differrences in multi-cultural perspective, technological mind-set, problem-solving methods, post-modern assumptions and spiritual needs that are easy to point out btwn the older and younger generations are very real when you compare the 50-60 yr olds with the 30-40 yr olds. I feel this tension at every Presbytery mtg. We are not talking about the difference between a Model T and an iPhone. We are talking about the difference between Microsoft (Boomers) and Google (Xers). Both companies are huge and successful. But each represents a very different mindset and business model. The church is in that exact place--do we stay with the safer version of innovation, based on our hardward or software (bldgs and programs) like Microsoft, or do we venture out to interact with people's constantly changing needs with openness and trust, somewhat like Google. I do not mean to idealize Google--I'm just trying to point out the differences in mindset that exist between the two groups in the middle, who look the closest together but actually where most of the generational war is being waged today.