Talkin’ bout your generation

You may be looking around your congregation wondering “who are these people, and why can’t I lead them?” Every generation has its own style, flair, needs, and triggers. Churches, more than most other places, are significantly multigenerational, which means we’re often trying to serve as many as five different generations with one set of programs, events, and worship services.

Now over the next few months, I’ll be putting together a presentation for the St. Lawrence District’s leadership conference, Leading From the Edge: Congregations at the Speed of Change, being held October 1 at May Memorial in Syracuse.  I could wait, and post after I do the session… but in a Twitter conversation today about the need for interractive digital religion, I realized that generational theory plays a huge role in how we approach this new communication… and thought I’d start a series here on gen theory in our congregations.


My main source is the work of Strauss and Howe, whose theories on American generations make the most sense to me.

Well, that’s not entirely correct. They aren’t my main source, Carl Eeman is my MAIN source; his book Generations of Faith led me to the work of Strauss and Howe (S&H), whose work Carl based his book on. In Generations of Faith, Carl takes the ideas S&H outlined and applied them to congregations. He looked at how the generations approach ideas of God, what they seek in worship, how they lead, how they learn, and how they give. (Carl spoke at a workshop at General Assembly in 2010 in Minneapolis/St. Paul.)

What’s been interesting for me is that in applying some of these lessons to developing worship and more pointedly in last fall’s stewardship campaign, I can see where knowing a thing or two about gen theory has made a difference. For example, we found that we were able to address specific needs: the issues those just entering retirement (Boomers) are very different from those just entering the work force (Millenials) or those in the dominant parenting years (GenX). We were able to understand a safe congregations issue that was critical to the GenX  parents but a nuisance to the Silents and Boomers – and we were able to address the issue in a way that was satisfactory BECAUSE we understood the generational dynamic being played out. Issues still happen, but having a sense of why helps us manage expecations and “get’ where people are coming from.

Generational Types

S&H suggest that there are four basic generational types, which seem to cycle pretty regularly, in 22-25 year spans. Roughly defined (and note that these are huge generalizations), they are as follows (From Generations, p. 365 – the names in parentheses are later labels from their book The Fourth Turning):

  Positive Attributes Negative Attributes
Adaptives (Artist) Caring
Idealists (Prophet) Principled
Nomads Savvy
Civics (Hero) Rational

Now I bet you can look at this and tell who’s who in your congregation, just from the short generalization above.  A fuller outline of the types can be found here, but briefly…


Current expression: Silent (born 1925-1942)

These are the people of the Civil rights movement, the women’s movement, environmentalism. They were in their 20s and 30s when the UUA was formed, and helped shape who we are. In their senior years, they still fight fiercely for justice (i.e., our own Rev. Dick Gilbert), are caring, empathetic, supportive, and respected, but are losing their influence.

Current Adaptives: Alan Alda, Gary Hart, Phil Donahue, Gloria Steinem, Sandra Day O’Connor, Barbara Streisand, Alan Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, Ralph Nader, Hugh Hefner, Jesse Jackson, Neil Armstrong, Warren Buffet, Barbara Jordan, William Shatner

Historic Adaptives: Daniel Moynihan, William F. Buckley, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert and Teddy Kennedy; Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Edison, Booker T. Washington, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John Audubon, Henry James, Dolly Madison


Current Expression: Boomers (born 1943-1960)

This very large generation is full of abstract, sequential thinkers – theoretical, intuitive, and confidently opinionated. They often live to work, but are noisy about their 3 Vs: Vision, Values, and Virtue. The culture wars were ignited under the Boomers. They have big ideas and great visions – and while they can be stubborn, they can also inspire.

Current Idealists: Al Gore, Rick Warren, Rush Limbaugh, Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Steve Jobs, Spike Lee, Newt Gingrich, Jimi Hendrix, Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, Keith Olbermann, Bill O’Reilly, Angela Davis, Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of world wide web – and a UU)

Historic Idealists: Jane Addams, Henry Ford, Douglas McArthur, Helen Keller, FDR; W.E.B. DuBois, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Thoreau, Abraham Lincoln, Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, John Winthrop, Anne Hutchinson, Pocahantas, Roger Williams


Current Expression: Generation X (born 1961-1982)

These are the latchkey kids and the original Sesame Street generation – a much smaller generation, thanks to birth control and family planning. They are scrappy and inventive, yet wary and skeptical. They are survival-oriented, and tend to be overbearing parents (‘helicopter parents’). Yet they are also inventive, risk-taking, and entrepreneurial. They are often terse, blunt, yet very perceptive. These pragmatists are the rising leaders in your congregations.

Current Nomads: Tom Beaudoin, Jerry Seinfeld, President Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, Michael J. Fox, Michael Jordan, Whitney Houston, Rachel Maddow, Eddie Murphy, Jeff Bezos (founder of, Sergey Brin & Larry Page (founders of Google), Tina Fey, Tiger Woods, Brett Farve, Amy Grant

Historic Nomads: Ernest Hemmingway, George Patton, Sinclair Lewis, Dorothy Parker, Adlai Stevenson, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower; Levi Strauss, Louisa May Alcott, J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Ulysses Grant, Mark Twain, George Washington, Daniel Boone, John Hancock, John Adams, Nathaniel Bacon, Increase Mather, Bluebeard the Pirate


Current expression: Millennials (born 1983-2004)

This generation should not be taken for granted. They may seem like they’ve got their noses in their smart phones, but they are interacting with others in big ways, getting ready to take great ideas and new technologies and do them big. Previous civic generations built the interstate highway system and the intercontinental railroad. What will this generation’s big thing be? Green technologies? Could be! This generation was taught the New 3 R’s: Rules, Respect, Responsibility. They think in terms of “we” and are concrete, hopeful, and upbeat thinkers. They are institution builders.

Current Civics: Taylor Swift, Lindsay Vonn, Michael Phelps, Mark Zuckerberg (founder of Facebook), Matt Mullenweg (founder of WordPress), Kiera Knightley, Natalie Portman, Shawn White

Historic Civics: Billy Graham, Ronald Reagan, JFK; Judy Garland, Katherine Hepburn, Walter Cronkite, Charles Lindburgh, Walt Disney; Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Nathan Hale, Alexander Hamilton, Eli Whitney, Abigail Adams, Cotton Mather, Elihu Yale

Note: you may have some much older members – those over the age of 85. These are members of the GI generation, also civics.

And FYI: the next generation – those born after 2004, are the new Adaptives. You want to know what the elders of your church were like as kids? Check the little ones out. They don’t officially have a generational name yet, but many are beginning to use the name “Homeland Generation” to describe them.

So what does it mean?

Well, this is what I’ll be looking at. Over the next few months, I’ll examine how these generations interact at coffee hour, in committees and board meetings. We’ll talk about the shifts in leadership and thus the shifts in vision and action. We’ll look at how communication changes with the generations and how to reach everyone. We’ll also talk about how to approach stewardship, social justice, and worship.

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