The Church Kids Will Be Alright…You’re Welcome
Gen-Xers Make Way for Change in the Church
By Keith Anderson
October 30, 2014 | Last week, just in time for Reformation Day—something of a high holy day for Lutherans—Emmy Kegler and Eric Worringer nailed their Under-35 Theses about valuing the gifts of young ministry leaders to the digital door. The duo was responding to a denominational magazine article that lamented the forthcoming mass retirement of older clergy. Judging by the response — some 18,000+ views in a week — the article resonated with many in the Church across generational cohorts, old and young alike. Even older clergy and church members said of the magazine article, “Ugh, how depressing! What about the future?”
This exchange highlights one of the dimensions of contemporary culture that Kegler and Worringer identify as important in generational terms, namely the power of social media to give voice to an often underrepresented cohort in the church. In this case, a pastoral intern and first call candidate outfitted with only a blog, Facebook, and Twitter were able to radically reshape the narrative offered by an official denominational publication.
The topic of generational shift in church leadership is one that provokes powerful emotions in people. Older leaders, who feel like they have many good years left, wonder why people want them to step aside. After all, as Kegler and Worringer acknowledge and celebrate, they have experience, wisdom, and the kinds of deep insight that come with years in church leadership. Still, younger leaders often also express impatience as they wait for their aging Boomer counterparts to relinquish, or at least share, the reigns of congregations and church institutions.
Much of the coverage and commentary on these issues depicts generational dynamics in the Church as a tug of war between Boomers who are holding militantly onto institutional power and Millennials who are charging gracelessly into the ranks of church leadership. Yet, in between these two large generational cohorts are is a smaller and largely forgotten generation, Generation X — including yours truly — born between the early 1960s and early 1980s. For Gen-Xers the debate between Boomer and Millenials is something akin to watching a tennis match from center court. The blog posts and passive-aggressive comments are traded back and forth like so many baseline volleys. But you’re never really in the match.
Indeed, Gen-X tends to be lost in a great generational shuffle in the Church. Yet we, if I may say so myself, are vitally important, not least of all because we are the ones who are now and will be assuming leadership roles in the church. Among our ranks are Nadia Bolz-Weber at House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Amy Butler at Riverside Church in Manhattan, Jimmy Bartz at Thad’s in Santa Monica, an Vito Aiuto at Resurrection Church in Brooklyn.
But don’t cry for us. Gen-X will get over it.
A couple years back, tech writer Mat Honan riffed on the frustrations of Gen-Xers in a widely read article, “Gen-X Doesn’t Want to Hear It.” Honan hit a nerve among many in my generation when he said:
Generation X is a journeyman. It didn’t invent hip hop, or punk rock, or even electronica (it’s pretty sure those dudes in Kraftwerk are boomers) but it perfected all of them, and made them its own. It didn’t invent the Web, but it largely built the damn thing. Generation X gave you Google and Twitter and blogging; Run DMC and Radiohead and Nirvana and Notorious B.I.G. Not that it gets any credit.
But that’s okay. Generation X is used to being ignored, stuffed between two much larger, much more vocal, demographics. But whatever! Generation X is self-sufficient. It was a latchkey child. Its parents were too busy fulfilling their own personal ambitions to notice any of its trophies-which were admittedly few and far between because they were only awarded for victories, not participation.
Word, brother Gen-Xer. What he said.
Gen-Xers were Millennials before there were Millennials, but now we have largely faded from consciousness like the yellowing pages of the Douglas Coupland novels that gave us our name and captured our fleeting zeitgeist.
Gen-X just shakes its head and says, “Give me a fucking break.” And in a way, that is our generation’s gift to the Church, you might even say our charism.
This generational disappearing hit home for me some years ago when I visited the MTV store in Times Square. Like many Gen-Xers, I grew up watching MTV, and so visiting the store was its own kind of cultural pilgrimage for me. I looked around the store and felt a sense of cultural homecoming — a return to my roots. I picked out an MTV hat and took it to the cash register. When the young women at the register completed my transaction she looked at me and said, “Thank you, sir.” Sir? Didn’t she know I was part of the MTV generation? We may not have invented MTV but we watched it, validated it. We made it. Sir?
Just like that our time was over. MTV itself said so.
So, you’ll have to excuse Generation X if we seem like we have a slowly smoldering chip on our shoulder. Because we do. And so, while Boomers and Millennials whine about who is getting a sufficient amount attention, Gen-X just shakes its head and says, “Give me a fucking break.” And in a way, that is our generation’s gift to the Church, you might even say our charism.
You see, Gen-Xers know that the church has never and will never belong to us — not that we would want that. We are deeply skeptical of institutions. We understand that we are a transitional generation. We console older generations in their lament for how things used to be, even as we pry their clutched fingers from the reigns of power and control. And we are hurriedly trying to prepare the ground for Millenials, with their much needed technological and cultural fluency, to have voice and shape the Church and American Christianity.
Most of us are not digital natives, but we love technology and lead digitally-integrated lives. We are the last generation to enter seminary or divinity school thinking that ministry was a stable livelong career choice. And it turns out — lucky us — that we get to help preside over the death of Christendom and nurture whatever it is that comes next. We grew up with Boomers — our parents—but we associate ourselves with Millennials.
We’re the church’s middle child.
Perhaps it is no accident that Elizabeth Drescher and I, co-editors here at The Narthex, are both Gen-Xers. This work of cultural translation and ecclesiastical transition is one of the purposes of this new platform we have created. The conversation about the changing contours of American Christianity is deeply interwoven with generational fault lines that we navigate here with great interest and enthusiasm. But like most of the rest of our generation, we take even our hopeful optimism with a side of caution.
In their helpful little book, Congregational Connections: Uniting Six Generations in the Church, Carroll Sheppard and Nancy Burton Dilliplane write,
The way of love will ask Olders to understand that they too must hand over the mantle of prophecy — not knowing what words will be spoken, texted or tweeted, what videos will be made or played. What they can ask is that the Youngers speak truth fearlessly and proclaim Jesus’ rule of love to the 21st century.”
Fear not, Gen-Xers will be right there to help pass the baton. And you probably won’t even notice.
The Rev. Keith Anderson is co-editor of The Narthex and a pastor at Upper Dublin Lutheran Church in Ambler, PA, co-author with Elizabeth Drescher of Click2Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse, 2012) and author of the forthcoming book The Digital Cathedral: Networked Ministry in a Wireless World (Morehouse, 2015). He hangs out on his blog, on Facebook, and on Twitter.
Photo credit: Jay Mantri. CC 0 license.
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