How many times have I sat in a room full of baby boomers who are brainstorming ways to get millennials to church. It’s one of the more painful things I do because the intentions are so good, and the ideas generated are far from what can truly be effective. Changes to service times, adding a new Easter egg hunt, or moving the youth room are just a few of the ideas I’ve heard touted as ways to get young people in church. And while everyone likes a good Easter Egg hunt, these ideas generally fall flat because they are window dressing that misses the larger point.
I have come to believe that not only are many of our churches filled with baby boomers, but they are also built around a baby-boomer ethos. Those who were born from 1946 to 1964 are great people. They are institutionalists. Invested in the greater good. These folks were reared in a day when every household had one car, where every grocery store was closed on Sunday, where mom vacuumed every day, and where weekly meatloaf was on every table. For this generation, the church was the place to get away, and it was the center of family life. So, it’s no wonder this group struggles to understand how to attract subsequent generations when sitting around with flip-chart paper. That world is as far away from where we now find ourselves as the moon, and what got us here, quite simply, will not get us there. It’s no wonder each generation struggles to think outside their respective boxes.
What follows is an attempt to explore what a baby boomer box is built from to use as a lens for those who are trying to think their way out of it.
What is a baby-boomer ethos?
- Church should be the center of my social life – Look, I’m as up for a good ‘Texas-sheet cake and tuna-noodle-casserole’ potluck as the next busy mom. But I’ll tell you what I need more than any other thing. LESS TO DO. I’m tired. In fact, I’m exhausted all the time. While many of our churches were built in a world where stay-at-home moms sought ways to get out of the house, younger generations are pulled in every direction. More programs are rarely what we need. Help….that’s what we need. Help with chores. Help with childcare. Help with homework and meal planning, and home projects. What if instead of offering more potlucks where everyone brings a casserole, casseroles showed up at the doors, not just for the sick but also for the busy and the overwhelmed?
- Church is where I participate – In previous generations, church was a way to give back. And maybe it still is. The problem is that previous generations have valued institutional investment and participation for the sake of itself. Back to that busyness….younger generations are interested in being a part of that which is meaningful….but they only have the time to give where their ACTUAL contribution is ACTUALLY meaningful. Younger people don’t have time to be warm bodies on committees that meet for meetings, where they are participating, mostly to meet a quorum, and where 3-hour meetings could have been an email. Younger generations want to know that they are more than a warm body and that their contributions matter.
- Mission is about philanthropy – Many a mission committee I’ve worked with can tell you where they’ve given their money and how many checks they’ve written. And as a former director of a faith-based non-profit who received those checks, I can tell you they do good work. I can also tell you that younger generations are less patient with that slow and steady approach to bringing relief to the world. In an age of climate change, fundamentalist extremism of all stripes, rising suicide rates, and innocent black people being murdered on the streets, the younger generations have been raised in a world without time for slow and steady. They are radical in their conviction that urgency requires more than a checkbook and a newsletter. They want to see action.
Baby boomers have benefited greatly from a church that has helped rear their kids, given them outlets for mission and created community in a world where they lacked enough to meet each of those needs. But if we believe that each generation should have the same benefit, we have some work to do. So let’s get out those lawnmowers and Bundt cake pans to care for and nourish the next generation. After all, they will need the strength to carry the church to the generation that follows them.