by Rick Chromey
Gen X is the “Jan Brady” of American generations. For elders in the local church, this is a significant insight to understand. How we view a generational cohort impacts the way we lead, the decisions we make and the legacy we leave.
Jan was the middle Brady Bunch sister, stuck between the popular, beautiful Marcia and the innocuous, precocious Cindy. Jan was constantly trying to fit in, speak out and move up in the family dynamics. She created new personas, chose compliance and voiced dissidence. Nothing worked.
In fact, as a middle sister she was frustrated, hurt and angry.
Gen X (born 1961-1981) knows that feeling well. We’ve grown up as a cultural “Jan Brady” between two great American generations.
As kids of the 70s and 80s, Gen X watched the Boom Generation (born 1943-1960) relish their popular status in American culture. These post-WW2 “Spock” babies were celebrated Disney kids – donning coonskin caps and Mickey Mouse ears – who later fueled a rock ’n roll era that produced beatniks, Black Panthers, Jesus freaks and flower children. Later, the Boomers enjoyed a 1980s Reagan economic renaissance fostering yet another moniker: yuppies (Young Urban Professionals). They also found Jesus and seeded a megachurch movement that reimagined American Christianity.
Everything the Boomers did was big – and the shadow cast was long.
The problem is Gen Xers grew up beneath a different American psyche. Gen X was labeled and libeled as slackers, goonies, exorcist kids and bad news bears. Abortion and divorce tattooed this 70s and 80s generation as did their lot as children of the latchkey and daycare. Consequently, Gen X has always nursed a cultural chip on their shoulders. Gen X was widely defined as cynical, lazy and snarky; they’ve always felt like an outsider. To a breakfast club generation, reality bites.
And then those innocuous Millennials came along in the 1980s.
Like precocious Cindy, this “baby on board” generation (born 1982-2004) was everything Gen X wasn’t. They were wanted, protected and venerated. With a cultural blessing from Hollywood to the White House, the Millennials could do no wrong. They were suckled on Disney, celebrated as “Spy Kids” and enjoyed “Home Improvement” family ties. The church showered Millennials with the best in children’s and youth ministry programs, events, curricula and facilities.
And now older Millennials are assuming church leadership roles.
So what do these generational contexts mean to you as the leader of a church? Actually, quite a bit. Take a look around your eldership.
How many are over the age of 56? These are your “Marcia” Boomers.
Do you have any elders younger than 35? These are “Cindy” Millennials.
The rest in the middle, in their late 30s to early 50s, are the “Jan Brady” Gen Xers.
From my long observation of churches in America today, if your church is under 300 members and at least 15 years old, chances are, the majority of your elders are Boomers. Rural churches tend to lean towards Boomer elders too.
Larger churches that were birthed pre-2000 tend to lean Boomer while emerging churches of the past decade tend to have Gen X and even Millennial elders.
All of these generational contexts are critical to how an eldership leads.
A primarily Boomer eldership will be more neo-traditional whereas a Gen X eldership will be more progressive. The Boomer eldership views change as a necessary evil, while a Gen X eldership views change as inevitable. Millennial elders, if they have a seat at the table, remain in the minority but they view change as constant. They are quite comfortable with fluidity and nothing is sacred.
Boomer elderships possess an optimism that engages and attracts younger Millennial leaders. To the contrary, Gen X elders carry a cynicism that drives churches to think outside older formats, including the “mega” models popularized by the Boomers.
As the Boomers age, and it’s happening quicker now, they are beginning to step down as elders. The problem is, in many American congregations, the Boomers are the only ones left. Many U.S. churches do not have a strong Gen X or Millennial population in their church and it’s created a leadership vacuum unlike anything we’ve seen in three decades.
As Bob Dylan sang, the times they are a-changin.’
We’ll follow this up with a Part 2, digging deeper into what it all means.