Talkin’ bout Your Generation: What Are They Looking For?

In our last installment, I gave you a brief overview of the generational types – Adaptives, Idealists, Nomads, and Civics. So far, so good… at least we have a general sense of who we’re talking about here. But who are these people when it comes to our congegations?  In today’s exciting episode, I want to talk a bit about what it seems the generations are looking for when they come in our doors.

Caveat: yes, these are broad generalizations  – as always, your mileage may vary.

Before we go any further, I do want to make sure I say this: along with the generational types, we are, of course, dealing with different ages. The current adaptives are in their elderhood, while the nomads are entering midlife. So of course, we’re having to think about the generational types where they are in their lives too. As generations age, some of their needs and perspectives changes. So consider this a pretty good guide for the next 5-10 years. 🙂

What the Silent Generation is Looking For

The Silents, as I’ve said, are our elders now. This adpative generation is distinctive for their work in the civil rights, women’s, and environmental movements. These were the upstarts who shook the status quo that the GI generation (civics) had so carefully built. This is a generation who has continued to seek fairness in human relations, and non-conformity in lifestyles and beliefs.

Is it any wonder that the Silents were the rising leaders in the new Unitarian Universalism? They were in their thirties and forties when the UUA was formed, and with a strongly humanist undercurrent, it linked perfectly with the call for justice. And so what Silents have been seeking all along is a religion that emphasizes respect and justice in human relations, collaboration, peaceful solutions, and forgiveness. It’s not a surprise at all that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was from the Silent generation – in my mind, he embodied all that is wonderful about the Silents.

On the downside, all of this adaptiveness and flexibility leads to such inclusiveness that it’s a wonder they stand for anything. The stereotype that Unitarian Universalism is the ‘anything goes’ religion is some of what we inherited from the Silents.

So what are they looking for when they come to church? Inclusivity, tolerance, a sense of forgiveness, sympathy, and fair play. They love joys and concerns. They love seeing many generations represented in services.  More than any other, they mourn when congregations have to go to two services, for they long for the togetherness. And as they settle into elderhood, they seem to be looking for a sense of their place in history. Remember… this is a generation overshadowed by the celebrated GIs and the noisy Boomers. My best advice? Take pains to honor your Adaptive elders as they move out of leadership, both from the pulpit and the boardroom. Don’t let their contributions be forgotten.

What the Boomers are Looking For

Ah, the Idealists. Big ideas, big voices, big numbers. This generation is very present – too present sometimes, if you ask other generations, but present nonetheless. Over the last 20 years, they’ve been large and in charge, seeing the vision of Unitarian Universalism and proclaiming its worth as a movement.

Of course, when you have a bunch of Idealists in the room, you have clashes. On the national stage, the clash has been the Culture Wars – one group of Boomers positively convinced that they are right and you are wrong, whether it be over abortion, marriage equality, or evolution. Some of the biggest internal fights in our congregations are between Boomers who have competing visions for the future.

Yet all this is good. Idealist generations are the Meaning Seekers – “what does it all mean” is a large and expansive question that leads our congregations to consider the connections between sacred texts, between our faith and our actions. The Boomers are willing to look at broad visions (see Rev. Peter Morales talking about being ‘a religion for our time’ – talk about broad vision!), and they use expansive, visionary language (not surprisingly, Ralph Waldo Emerson was an Idealist).

So what are they looking for? They love big ideas, and how it fits into our lives. They love personal experience and are likely big proponents of silent meditation in services. They are also in a place in their lives when they’re seeking a new paradigm – many are recent or soon-to-be empty nesters and retirees, and the things that have given them meaning in the past (children, careers) are going away. Give them a sense of purpose.

What GenX is Looking For

Xers are an odd bunch. (I can say this, as I am a leading-edge Xer.) Many were raised as much by television as their parents, as their Silent generation mothers were heading back into the workplace (in defiance of the cookie cutter June Cleaver image their elders proclaimed). Generation X is a small generation, too – only about 40 million, sandwiched between 80 million Boomers and 78 million Milennials. (Why? 1960: Birth Control pill. 1973: Roe v. Wade. Sexual revolution. Women’s lib. It’s all good stuff, but it means childbearing is a choice, and many women of childbearing age in the 60s and 70s choose not to have kids.)

Xers are also the first widely un-churched generation. Silent parents, keen on inclusiveness and making sure everyone gets along, couldn’t bear forcing their children to do things they were forced to do, so church often didn’t make the cut. Some might say that Xers lost their moral compass as a result; I’d argue that our moral compass is more ‘street smarts’ than organized lessons. And the approach to spirituality is similar. Where Boomers ask “what does it all mean” and want a big, visionary answer, Xers ask the same question but want to know the practical steps for getting there and how it will apply personally. There are a lot of books written by Boomers that talk about ‘finding your vision’… Xers want to know how. 

So what are they looking for? Practical solutions to the big questions. Talk about big ideas, but then make it personal. They also want variety. More so than other nomadic generations, this group is conditioned for more variety in their services – a wide range of music, changes in focus, multiple readings and people involved, multimedia. They also crave some basics – many Xers did not learn the parables and Old Testament stories – and they certainly don’t know how they apply to a liberal religion (as they’ve been bombarded with fundamentalist televangelists).  Even if they grew up in a UU congregation, they may still have gaps caused by an emphasis on the Big Picture of world religions to the exclusion of Jewish and Christian teachings. This is also a generation that is still trying to find its voice, so give them opportunities to speak and shine.

One more thing about Xers in church: this is the dominant parenting generation right now, so children are important. This is the generation of “helicopter parents” – Xer parents have a heightened investment in their children’s successes and safety. Multigenerational worship is big with this crowd, as is a strong, sometimes dominant, RE program.

What the Milennials are Looking For

This generation is our current youth movement. They’re in their teens and 20s, finding their footing, exploring a world that is very different from the one their Boomer parents envisioned for them. But whereas their parents were the poster children for the Me Generation, Milennials are the We Generation. They will do things big, and grandly, and together. Consider that previous civic generations built the trans-continental railroad and the interstate highway system. What will they build next? Nationwide green technologies? Digital connectivity for all? If the Boomers can dream it… and the Xers can design it… the Milennials can build it.

And yet, with all of the personal electronic gagetry out there, it’s hard to imagine this group doing anything together. But consider this: a Boomer (and UU! Tim Behrens-Lee) invented the World Wide Web – which was visionary, a couple of Xers invented Google and Amazon – which added practicality, and Milennials invented Facebook and Twitter – ways to connect big groups of people to each other. I’m encouraged by the stories of Milennials going on “Facebook tours’ where they travel around the country meeting the friends they’ve made online, and then creating big projects to work on together.

Milennials are full of promise and potential – and like their older Xer siblings, they are widely unchurched – and immersed in the Culture Wars, which they never didn’t know (the Moral Majority was founded in 1979). For many, their impression of religion is that of major clash, not of “we are one”. But they hear messages of right relations, justice, and pragmatic action, and they are ready to make it happen. This is a generation of joiners, after all, and if the Boomers can continue to hold the vision of a “religion for our time” and the Xers can devise projects and programs to get there, the Milennials will sign on and make it happen.

So what are Milennials looking for? Right now, I would say some guidance, direction, and encouragement. They want connection, and a reason for connection (compassion, justice, service, growth). The youth in our movement are longing for a place at the table, a voice, and a recognition that they have gifts the rest of us don’t. We should encourage them to go on trips to Central America to do justice work, to form denomination-wide youth ministries, to be on the visioning teams and growth task forces in our districts, clusters, and congregations. And yes, we can include them in our worship teams too – we instituted a “junior worship associate” program, which has helped teach our youth about worship but also put them front and center in our services.

Can One Congregation Fill Everyone’s Needs?

Absoutely. Just not all at one time.

Sure, it means sometimes we have to step out of our comfort zones, and accept that not everything we like is what everyone else will like. We have to learn more about multigenerational worship. We have to learn to balance the global and the personal, the visionary and the pragmantic.

It also means we have to come up with a better way to deal with “word allergies” – while some still come to us scarred from the churches of their youth, many more have no experience at all and need to learn about things we otherwise think we are “done” with.

We need too to honor all comers, all perspectives, all ages. Being out of leadership or not ready for leadership does not mean being out of the picture.

But a good praagmatic approach (I am such an Xer!), that is balanced and well-rounded, can fulfill everyone’s needs and create a warm, functional, multigenerational congregation.

Next up…

Generations and stewardship. Won’t that be fun!

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