Becoming Family: Understanding Generations in the Church

Although the generations live in the same world, they do not experience the world in the same way. In order to understand the generations, examining the characteristics and needs of each generation will be helpful.

God has composed the body, the church, so that every member is significant. The members should have "the same care for one another" (1 Cor. 12:25 NASB). In order to have this care, understanding between the generations is necessary. To promote understanding, this article will address the characteristics of each generation and explore their unique needs. The church library plays a prominent role in promoting this vital understanding by providing needed resources.

A generation is a group of people who are connected by their place in time with common boundaries and a common character.1 A generational persona embodies attitudes about family life, gender roles, institutions, politics, religion, culture, lifestyle, and the future. Each generation possesses a personal biography. Howe and Strauss have proposed that to describe the persona of a generation, three attributes must be identified: perceived membership in a common generation, common beliefs and behaviors, and a common location in history.2 Common beliefs and behaviors of a generation show its members to be different from people born at another time."3 Each generation develops an adherence to certain fundamental beliefs, actually a worldview that shapes a generation's direction from youth through old age.4 The span of one generation is approximately the length of a phase of life.5

Although the generations live in the same world, they do not experience the world in the same way. Generations tend to think and act in unison on many matters.6 In order to understand the generations, examining the characteristics and needs of each generation will be helpful.

Elders and builders generations

One in every eight people in our country is sixty-five years of age or older, and the fastest growing segment of the population is among persons eighty-five or older. These generations known as the Elders and Builders generations have much in common. Their characteristics are similar. They are nationalistic and value economic security and strong family relationships. They approach issues with purpose and are not excited about change. They advocate hard work, commitment, and diligence and most view technology as a nuisance. Members of these generations tend to be loyal and accept authority. Elders and Builders value family and appreciate institutions. The faith of choice of both groups is Christianity. They favor absolutes, approach problems linearly, and make plans and stick to them. The favored leadership style of these two generations is authoritative.7

Elders and Builders have similar needs. They have been referred to as the "Silent" generation and the "Get It Done" generation respectively.8 These generations, as with other generations, have the basic needs for love, acceptance, meaning or purpose, relationships, and understanding. In addition to these basic needs, or to meet these basic needs where the persons are in their journey, they are more comfortable with activities that are structured and have purpose. Seventy-five percent of the nation's wealth is in their hands, and they like to give generously to the church and charities. They are disciplined, so they need to have places of service. Because of their need for relationships, they usually prefer small churches.

Elders and Builders need to feel that they still matter. I shall never forget a small Methodist church family in Alabama who ministered to my father as he struggled with the decline of aging and the battle with lung cancer for two years. They visited, called, sent cards, ministered to the family, and continued to keep him informed although he was homebound. What a way to minister to a generation to whom we owe so much!

Baby-boomer generation

The Baby Boomer generation, persons born between 1946 and 1964, altered fundamental assumptions of behavior of the Elder and Builders generations. With this generation came a shift in attitudes, values, and beliefs. Boomers are different in characteristics and express their needs in ways that are different from the previous generations.

Boomers are characterized as individualistic, dominant, and mastering everything they touch. Their idea of success includes not only acquisition of wealth but attainment of emotional and psychological happiness. They seem to fear powerlessness and are concerned primarily with their own comfort and powers. They have been characterized as the "Me" generation.

Boomers favor change if it promotes their goals, and they evaluate issues by considering the outcomes. Education is important to this generation, and they consider size of office, perks, and access to power as significant employment issues. They desire to be in authority. Boomers will battle for progress and supremacy because they believe in themselves. They factor facts and want to be on the cutting edge. In leadership, they favor a person who is a driver.9

For the Boomers, retirement will acquire a new negative meaning. The goal will not be to retire, but to replenish or reflect or pray.10 Boomers have been characterized as rebellious, affluent, and independent. They are the most educated generation and tend to be activists. Their descriptive name is "challengers." They are cause oriented and presently set the agenda for the nation. Their interpersonal relationships tend to be weak, but they favor people over programs. Boomers tend to be down-to-earth and experience oriented.

The worship Boomers favor is celebrative. They want multiple options in studies and stress lifestyle evangelism. Boomers are a spiritually searching generation.11 This generation does not want to follow the company format but wants meetings so they can express themselves fully. They do not see themselves as rule-bound slaves but are more interested in a comfortable environment.

Baby-buster generation

Some writers describe the Baby Busters as the generation born between 1965 and 1984. Their idea of success differs from the Boomers' idea. The Busters desire social influence and respect and a clear meaning and direction in life. Busters seem to have struck a balance between the concerns of the two preceding generations. They are concerned with quality-of-life issues. Busters are vitally concerned with relationships. They desire to have a meaningful purpose in life yet want to live in comfort. Characteristics include an intense interest in protecting the natural environment. Busters are process oriented and believe that treating persons with care and concern is more important than the product produced.12 To Busters, people are important and valuable, not because of their economic potential or productive capacity but because of their value as persons. The value of friendships and the depth of friendships are very significant to the Buster generation. They tend to value friendships and their relational network over their jobs or possessions.

Institutions tend to be irrelevant for Busters, but they see faith as a means of building relationships. Agreeing with Boomers, they see moral truth as relative. Members of the Buster generation desire to grow and develop personally. Because of this motivation they want to be part of every process. They need to dialogue, explore, and shape stories. They want to know about personal experiences. Team leadership is most appealing to them. Leaders who appeal to this generation must be authentic and genuine. Busters are suspicious of leaders who are smooth talking with big visions.13

Bridger generation

Other sources have described the Busters as consisting of persons born between 1965 and 1976 with the Bridger generation comprising persons born between 1977 and 1994. This group has been characterized as religious though not necessarily Christian. They resist any claim that one faith is superior to another.

The world of the Bridgers is multiracial and multicultural. Their economic world is divided between the "haves" and "have nots." They have been reared predominantly by working mothers; only 71 percent live with two parents, so they are growing up with the most fragmented families of any American generation.14

Bridgers are described as more confident and ambitious than the Boomers. These characteristics are reflected in the attitudes of Bridgers who were college freshmen in 1993. Rainer reports that fewer attended college because their parents wanted them to go; a larger percentage attended in order to get a better job, gain a general education, make more money, learn more about things, and prepare for graduate school.15

Stress is a major characteristic of the Bridger generation. They have experienced during their growing up years the highest crime rate ever. They are confused about leaders in our nation whose actions do not appear to match their words, so they have been described as politically confused. Issues of sexuality have added additional stress particularly because of the increase in the number of AIDS cases.

The majority of the Bridgers have known few boundaries, standards, and rules, so they frequently are viewed as an independent generation and as being very serious. They are a visual generation that reads less than the previous generations but prefers to watch television. They worry about money but seem to have more than any other generation.16 Other influences that have shaped them are the lack of an extended family, vanishing gender roles, and the rapid change in society that is driven by advanced technology.17

The church must understand this generation if we are to reach them. They need challenges biblically because they are eager to learn and are most likely to respond to high expectations and the demands of discipleship taught in Scripture. Churches must reach out to this generation with unconditional love, mentoring experiences, biblical preaching, and effective Bible study.18

Mosaic generation

The Mosaic generation, born after 1984, is partially identified with the Bridger generation (1977-1994). Barna describes this segment of our population as less cynical and pessimistic than Busters, more self-confident, with a greater emphasis on self-reliance. Mosaics are comfortable with paradoxes and have no interest in institutions. They have grown up entirely in the age of technological innovation and so rely upon this technology. Special attention to the teenagers and the college students of today is important because of their number and their potential impact on society and the church. They have been called, in addition to Mosaics, Millennials.19

Howe and Strauss see this group as pleasant, cheerful, helpful, and community oriented. They focus on teamwork, achievement, modesty, and good conduct. They view them as much like the Elder and Builder generations and perhaps one destined to dominate the twenty-first century. They may become America's next great generation.20 With this group, a service ethic already appears to be emerging built around ideas of collegial rather than individual action. They are supportive of civic institutions and involved in doing good deeds. They appear to be prepared to accept challenges, live up to their elders' trust, and triumph over whatever history has in store for them.21

For sixteen years, I have been privileged to share life experiences with the leaders of tomorrow, both in the local church and in a seminary classroom. What a refreshing experience to be challenged by these future leaders. They keep me humble and cause me to be grateful to God for having survived the pain and agony of my own teen and early adult years.

My experience has been similar to Barna's. My observation is that these Millennials have been and are highly spiritual and exhibit intense interest in spiritual matters. They thoroughly enjoy and are active participants in the Spiritual Formation small groups required at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

Most of these future leaders are serious about their purpose in life and few see their lives as directionless. Barna characterizes their belief system as a combination of Christianity, pragmatism, Far Eastern traditions, and utilitarianism. They are more focused on God than on the institutional church.22 They believe that the development of character is more crucial than achievement and that each individual must assume responsibility for his or her own world.23

Zoba has challenged Christians with the question of whether our churches are empowering or inhibiting young people in their search for the face of God.24 Youth of today need experiences, participatory services, connection with others, and leadership that empowers others. Most churches are word based while youth today are visual and technological. They like stories and desire mentor-mentee relationships.

To meet the needs of youth, churches need to be people centered, inclusive, and dynamic. This group is accustomed to change at a fast pace. More persons in this age group are attending non-denominational churches. Many desire a return to humility in ministry and a renewal of mystical practices or spiritual disciplines.25 Gallup and Jones have noted that the youth generation is the group to watch because of their sheer numbers. "Forty percent of the world's population is nineteen or younger."26 According to Mark Matlock, current methods of evangelism are not working, and ninety-six out of one hundred teens will be lost for eternity unless the church figures out a way to reach them.27 George Barna sees that the challenge for Christian leaders is to learn how to communicate with this generation and get them to understand and embrace God's Word without compromising it. This generation wants spirituality and faith experience, not the traditional routines and dispassionate worship they see adults doing at the typical church.28

Reaching the generations

Every generation has a generational persona with distinct attitudes about family life, gender roles, institutions, politics, lifestyles, and the future. Each generation possesses its own personal biography and develops an adherence to certain fundamental notions and worldview that shapes the group's direction from youth through old age. Their common location in history gives them a collective persona.29 We must, however, never forget that a generation can allow plenty of individual exceptions. Categorizing persons can be detrimental, unwise, and unfair. As Christians we must remember that each person is a unique creation of God, redeemed by Christ and gifted for service. Churches, colleges, and seminaries must be aware of the uniqueness of each individual.

The role of the church, according to Barna, is to influence all dimensions of culture rather than be shaped by the culture. The church must be alert and assertive in representing God in the world to the best of our ability. The church has a mandate to shape the future in alignment with His purposes and for His glory.30

The question confronting the church is, What does this age-stage fragmentation mean? Can we learn to communicate cross-generationally? Will we learn to pass along our faith to young people, many of whom may feel alienated already from traditional religious communities?31 I believe we can and must! We can, as Barna advises, "introduce them to authentic Christianity; do so with sensitivity and let God's Spirit handle the rest."32 Churches can help them with their real problems, a side of faith that often gets overlooked by churches and church leaders, according to Barna. Also, church leaders can provide youth of today with lifestyle alternatives.33

Although the characteristics and needs of various generations have been examined, a concern for older people is inevitably a concern for all age groups. As a professor of social work and having worked with persons of all generations in therapy and educational settings, I agree with Nancy Henkin that "generations are interdependent, not distinct, discrete entities." Henkin challenges us as Christians to look holistically at our communities and view each generation as an asset. "We need to develop creative strategies for meeting the needs and utilizing the talents of all age groups."34 We need to promote interdependence in our churches. Intergenerational interaction will help churches face the challenges of the future.

In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, the country's young and old share an experience that can bring all generations together. We have an opportunity to become a more mature nation.35 As Christians we also have the opportunity within the church to become a community of care as we grow in our understanding of each other.

Jeanine Bozeman is professor of social work at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.