Thursday, May 9, 2013

Like Dogs and Vomit: Boomers, Xers, Millenials and Generational Implications for the Churches

Sorry for the typo, COD did not make this meme.
Like a dog that returns to its vomit
   is a fool who reverts to his folly.

Proverbs 26:11

Like biblical and literal dogs returning to their own vomit, seems a whole host of journalists, sociologists, and various types seem periodically to return to issues around the shift in generations from Boomers to Millenials -- with Xers often bit players in this discussion.

[Seriously, this is not just Crusty being a typical jaundiced, snarky Xer.  I was at a church conference recently where the topic for plenary discussion was shifts in generations and their implications for the church. The way the topic was phrased?  "What are some issues involving shift from Boomers to Millenials in the church?  How can we respond to challenges in working with the Millennial generation?"

I tweeted, "Thanks for marginalizing me."  Despite the utterly Boomer-centric premise of the question (it  assumes some kind of Boomer-Millenial axis where "we" clearly does not involve Millennials, they are some "other" that must be responded to) it did not even reflect the group assembled.  There were (admittedly not many, this was a conference for Episcopal Church leaders, after all) millenials as well as Xers in that room!  The premise behind the question is an important one (there is a generational shift happening) but the way it was phrased reflected the utter inability of many in the church to construct a positive way to have a conversation around that shift.  How do "we" boomers "deal with" those whacky millennials?

OK, end of that digression.  There may be another one later.]

Luckily, when it comes to questions of Boomers and Millennials, there's lots of vomit for journalistic dogs to return to.  In the past week, Time magazine has come out with a cover story which can be found here, and the Barna Group has continued its important work in this area here.  Crusty hasn't read the Time magazine story, for reasons which may indicate some of these generational shifts.  The online version is free if you are a print subscriber, but Crusty is not a print subscriber to anything (and COD's parents spent their lives in print, father was a printer and his mother was a journalist!).  Now, that's just print subscribing; Crusty doesn't mind paying for digital content, he subscribes to all sorts of digital media -- Boston Globe, New York Times, Spotify, and so on. He would be interested in downloading the individual article from Time or the entire issue on an a la carte basis (like he does with The Economist), but the option to download individual articles, let alone individual issues, is not available, just a one-week trial membership (yeah like I want all-access to the Time media empire's crap smorgasbord).  So Crusty is stuck only with the headline from the Time story:  "Millenials are lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents.  Why they'll save us all."

As for the Barna Grou's piece, they argue that the churches need to adapt more to the millennials' worldview.  [Disclaimer:  while Crusty acknowledges good stuff in Barna's demographic and sociological work, he has issues with how their theology shapes conclusions.  For instance, Barna's work unChristian was spot-on in noting how negative images of "Christianity"permeate the culture, providing hard evidence for how many people under 30 see Christians as hypocritical and anti-gay.  However, Crusty disagreed with Barna's suggestion that the way to counter this was to explain that evangelicals weren't anti-gay, but do a better job of articulating why  homosexual practice was not acceptable.  Right research, wrong conclusions, in Crusty's opinion]  This is in addition to a whole slew of significant sociological and demographic work done in recent years, including important studies by the Pew Research Center.  Robert Wuthnow's book "After the Boomers," came out in 2010 and has been instrumental in debunking some aspects of these generational shifts, but also confirming some widespread changes.

In particular Crusty remembers reading the Pew report from 2010; it fundamentally reshaped his perspective on this whole generational "question."  After reading the 2010 report (which can be found here), he had lunch with a friend who had done the same.  Crusty was a part-time college chaplain at the time, so COD had been interacting on a regular basis with young people of faith, a real rarity in the Episcopal Church.  Crusty said to his fellow Gen X clergy colleague over a couple of Hopalicious beers, "We are the stewards of Gondor.  We need to preserve as much as we can in the next 20 years so we can hand things over to the millennials to shape the church."

Crusty's colleague almost spat out his Hopalicious, which would have been a sin; spilling one's Hopalicious should be a Levitical abomination.  But he managed sputter, without spilling, "The Steward of Gondor?"

"OK, without the insanity and self-immolation," I added.
OK, maybe with better table manners and manscaping.

What Crusty meant was this:  in the church, Gen Xers are transitional figures, under-represented in  leadership.  We came of age in the 1990s when ordination processes in the Episcopal Church specifically discriminated against younger people.  CODW (Crusty Old Dean's Wife) was specifically told, "You're too young to be going through the ordination process," by her Commission on Ministry and Standing Commission.  To which she replied, "Which of you who has a child who wants to be a doctor will tell them to go be a lawyer first?"  [You can see why Crusty married her.]  Crusty was told, "You don't have enough experience," to which he replied, "So we pay lip service to baptismal ecclesiology and thirty years of committed lay ministry?" When CODW was ordained at age 25, of the over 7,500 clergy in the Episcopal Church at the time, a grand total of about 300, or about 4%, were under 30.  Crusty was hired to be on denominational staff at age 32, making him one of the younger staffers.  At one all-staff meeting, while discussing evangelism strategies, the question was asked how the church could reach out to younger people.  This was in 2002, when Crusty was 33.

Everyone turned to look at me, the youngest person in that room by about 10 years.  And back in 2002, at that meeting, COD replied: "First of all, the only place I'm still young is in the church.  Second, forget about Gen X.  Be thankful for those who have come to the church despite slashing youth ministry, college chaplaincies, and discriminating against us for a decade in the ordination process.  If we spend the next decade wringing our hands about what to do about the Gen Xers, we'll repeat the same mistakes with the millennials.  Focus on reaching the millennials."

So why are Xers like the Steward of Gondor?  If you reading this blog probably goes without saying you know Crusty, along with many others, believes we are in a profound shift in the nature of the church in North American culture and in global Christianity, a shift as significant as the conversion of Constantine in the 300s and the Reformation in the 1500s.

Stewards, by nature, watch over or preserve something.  Despite being gripped by anxiety about institutional survival (how will our parish/seminary/Elks Club/denomination survive?) we need to keep in mind the resources that we have.  We have a whole slew of organizations, institutions, and structures birthed in the 20th century when that was our ecclesiological model of operating  (to say nothing of the millions of committed persons in the churches).  Crusty has written before about how the ecumenical movement is a classic example of this:  what was in its origin in the early 20th century a grassroots, lay-led movement that worked primarily through affinity based networks became by the end of the 20th century a clericalized, professionalized, institutionalized extension of the denominations.  Building organizations and institutions was how we did business ecclesially in the 20th century, because it's how we did most everything in the 20th century.

Yet we are shifting to Millennials, a generation as big as the boomers:  over 80 million millennials, comparable to about 77 million Boomers  (admittedly the US population has grown as well so they are smaller as percentage of population); whereas there are about 45-50 million Gen Xers (depending on where Gen X "ends" and millennials "begin").  The key, as many of these reports have concluded, is that the Millennials have very different understandings of community, communication, institutions and organization.  Millennials will eventually be running everything in the church.  What will be handed over to the Millennials?  The next 20 years will be crucial in helping to shape not whether, but how, this generational shift will happen.

The Boomers are, by and large, primarily those currently in leadership at the helm of all those things birthed in the 20th century; they are also a transformational generation in how they reshaped many institutions they received and created new ones.

Gen X is a skipped generation, a silent generation, like my father's generation.  I'll never forget when Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, the first thing my Dad said, "Well, that's it for anyone from my generation ever getting elected president."  Or when they dedicated the Korean War memorial and his
Never forget the forgotten war.
response (he served in the United States Marine Corps from 1952-1956) was, "Oh, now they remember us and our war." Since Gen X was smaller, since the church didn't get how profound a shift we were undergoing until it already happened, we will be skipped, by and large, in the broader landscape of this change.

Millennials are the next transformational generation.  They're going to do what the Boomers did:  they are going to build new things that reflect their understandings of how the churches should function and live out the gospel, they are going to transform the churches.

Gen Xers have a role here; we are liminal and transitional.  Liminal in that we speak both Boomer and Millennial (though of course there are Boomers that do this, too, COD is talking in general, overall).  Crusty spent the first two years of college using a typewriter and last two years using a computer, and didn't get cable TV until he was 14, whereas my Boomer older brothers [Crusty is being literal here, he is the youngest of five boys and there are four Official Brothers of Crusty Old Dean, OBOCOD] didn't get color TV till they were 14 and graduated from college never using personal computers.  The 18-year-olds entering college in fall of 2013, by contrast, have grown up never knowing a world without the internet.  Crusty sent his first email at age 21.  Transitional in that we need to use this foot-in-both worlds aspect to assist in the handing things over to the Millennials.   Despite all our snark and sarcasm, Xers still get that institutions are important.  Xers can serve as transitional figures in a couple of ways:

a)  How will we use these resources in institutions to help reshape the church for the 21st century?  To be even more blunt, if out denominational staff goes out of business in 10 years because we don't need a 20th century model of denominational organization in a 21st century church, we have assets and resources:  over $250 million in endowments and property at 815 Second Avenue.  If we have to close half our churches in the next forty years, what will we do with those resources?  Xers can have a hand not in trying to claw control and leadership of dying institutions from Boomers, but thinking about how the resources of the church can be in service of a new vision and work with millennials in this.

b)  Millennials tend to think more collaboratively, more based on common affinity.  As the recent Barna report puts it, "Millennials are a generation that craves spontaneity, participation, adventure and clan-like relationships...Leaders who hope to alter the spiritual journeys of today’s Millennials need to embrace something of a ‘reverse mentoring’ mindset, allowing the next generation to help lead alongside established leaders."

Instead of talking about millennials as "them" that "we the church" need to figure out, what would it mean intentionally to incorporate millennnials as co-creators RIGHT NOW and not in the hazy "future" of the kind of church we need to reflect our new realities?  Xers can serve an important role in this, in terms of how structure of some kind is essential for coordinating collaboration.   

To give an example, Crusty once got called up by a group of young adult interested in exploring issues of globalization and how young adults of faith could respond to that.  "Great," I replied, "how can I help?"  They replied, more or less, "Provide some funding, and get out of the way and try not to control what we do."  Crusty wasn't offended -- he actually thought this was pretty wise -- but replied, "OK, but do you know of the following six groups which are interested in the exact same thing as you are?"  Organizations and structure allows for cooperation, collaboration, efficiency, and sharing of models of best practices.  Xers can help serving as bridge from the Boomers to Millennials in this regard.  

So how are Xers the Steward of Gondor?

The Boomers are the Elves, whose era is past.  [Crusty, BTW, says this with appreciation and thankfulness: the Boomer generation transformed the Episcopal Church and did some incredibly important things.]  However, literally or figuratively, they are heading off to their ships to go to their Grey Havens.

The Xers are the stewards of Gondor.  The steward was not the king; his job was to preserve and protect the resources of the realm until the king would come and claim them.  That's what we're called to do.

The Millennials are Aragorn, the king come to claim the throne at the beginning of the Age of Men [sic, Tolkien was not gender inclusive]: their time is here.  Time magazine has it right, though Crusty wouldn't necessarily phrase it as "they will save us all."  They are NOT going to save us all because it presumes they care about saving "us".  They are not going to save us, they are going to transform their world.

How can we live into the call of the Barna group's report?  How can we let "the next generation...lead alongside established leaders"?  In many congregations where Crusty has been a member, he has pointed out that the Episcopal Church identifies confirmed, adult communicants as people over 16, so theoretically they can serve on a Vestry or a deputy to diocesan Convention.  Yet how often does this occur to anyone?  COD would be perfectly OK with setting age quotas at all levels of the church -- and BTW would be OK with setting other quota for underrepresented groups in leadership and representation.  After all, we have a clergy-lay quota at the General Convention level, because we think clergy and laity sharing oversight is so important to our church we should  enshrine in it our governance.  Is it that we don't think sharing oversight with whoever we uncritically think of as "them"(like in that plenary discussion noted at the beginning of this post) -- young adults, women, and people of color -- is important to enshrine in our governance as well?  Or is it the sin of being unwilling to give up power to share power?

It's time to end this return to vomit: Crusty is tired of repeated articles and reports about how generational shifts are impacting the churches and our society.  This is old news, and anyone who doesn't get this already is in deeper trouble than they realize.  We must, instead, actively engage how we can co-create a church that reflects these changes.  Otherwise, like my charge to forget the Xers and focus on the millennials, we risk becoming not the metaphorical dogs but the literal fools repeating folly.