by Rick Chromey
In the early 70s, Scottish band Stealers Wheel had a radio hit titled “Stuck in the Middle With You.” There were clowns to the left and jokers to the right but the singer was still “stuck in the middle.”
It could be Gen X’s generational theme song.
As we explored last week, Gen X (born 1961-1981) is “the Jan Brady” of American generations, growing up sandwiched between the two great American generations of the older Boomers (born 1943-1960) and the younger Millennials (born 1982-2004). Stuck in the middle is never easy and Gen X has grown up a bit chippy and grumpy.
As elders of local churches it’s critical to understand the generational dynamic of your congregation. As you survey your church do you see a predominant generation? If you’re like many churches today you’re probably seeing more gray, white, blue and no hairs. In my studies of churches in the past 35 years I’ve noticed when the average age of a church exceeds 50 that it’s a potential sign of decline. Healthy churches mirror the contextual age of their community and unless you’re in a retirement community you need to stay below that age “watermark.”
Which brings us to another sobering generational truth: while the fast-graying Boomers are finally retiring and the 20- and 30-something Millennials play their entitlement cards (with some success), Gen X is now getting passed over.
It’s very evident in the job market. The Great Recession (2007-2012) hit Gen X the hardest. The emerging digital and cyber economy shuttered middle management and ended industrial-era employment. Many 40-something Gen Xers lost full-time jobs and never got them back while Boom elders worked past the traditional retirement age of 55. To survive, Gen X downsized, moved, and chose bankruptcy. Unlike the Depression generation, who eventually recovered, in a post-modern, post-industrial world Gen X can read the writing on the wall.
In the church this truth is equally evident.
The Boom generation first tasted leadership (as elders) back in the mid-1980s thanks to a leadership vacuum left by the retiring G.I. Generation. Many elders were still in their late 20s and early 30s when they assumed eldership. These young Boom leaders launched an ecclesiastical revolution, sparking the infamous “praise versus hymns” worship wars. Boomers, particularly in megachurches, reinvented Sunday morning into an “event” where PowerPoint, bands and pulpit-less communicators took center stage.
Like good middle children Gen X complied and applauded these ecclesiastical cosmetic changes, then waited in the wings for their turn. By the 1990s, as Boomer senior ministers still held tightly to their pulpits, frustrated Gen X youth ministers launched a new “emerging church” brand that featured hipper music, better visuals and TedTalk sermons. The reason was simple: Gen Xers (unlike the Boomers) were AWOL from church and they wanted to get their peers back.
During the 2000s, a new reality emerged: the Millennials shocked everyone and left church altogether (becoming known as the “nones” for “no spiritual affiliation”). A decade later, Gen X grew restless and is now leading a new absentee cohort known as the “dones” (as in “done with church”). In many congregations Boomers are now the predominant regular attenders—aging fast and passing away.
The best solution is to reenergize Gen X, but that’s not happening.
Instead the American church is passing over Xers for the younger Millennial creating both angst and anger. Furthermore, countless older Gen X pastors, still capable and desirous, are tragically overlooked to lead as elders or hire as preachers or staff.
The Boom-led congregations want youth and Gen Xers no longer fit the mold. Meanwhile Gen X-led churches are also hiring Millennials, even over their own peers (more affordable and moldable).
Gen X is caught in a proverbial catch 22.
So what can elders do?
First, aim for balance in your leadership and church staff. If one generation is dominant, there’s room for change. Second, survey the generational attitudes of your congregation. What’s the older Boomer wanting? What’s Gen X thinking? What’s the younger Millennial seeking?
It’s also time to think differently about Gen X altogether, especially those 50-somethings who’ve been out of work for awhile. They may be your best hire. They’re experienced, willing, capable and enthusiastically affordable.
Yes, Gen X is getting long in the tooth but that doesn’t mean they’re done or can’t lead a church to its best days. Ben Merold proved that idea wrong.
The “stuck in the middle” Jan Brady generation just wants the chance.