TITLE: Effective Generational Ministry: Biblical and Practical Insights for Transforming Church Communities
AUTHOR: Elisabeth A. Nesbit Sbanotto and Craig L. Blomberg
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016, (282 pages).
How do you build community among the three largest generations in this day and age? What are the cultural and generational differences among them? How do we navigate the complexities and varying expectations across the different generations? To what extent do we allow cultural contexts influence our ministry in churches? In the words of the authors, how can we do effective generational ministry? In a book that strings together various ideas from sociological, spiritual, anthropological, ecclesiological, and other fields of study, Sbanotto and Blomberg have put together years of research and experience to give three key generations some understanding of themselves and of one another. First off, they define the three groups as follows:
- Baby Boomers: Born 1946 - 1964
- Generation Xers: Born 1965 - 1981
- Millennials: Born 1982 - 2001
They note that the distinctions are porous enough to allow "cuspers" who hover between generations. Sbanotto herself is born in 1981, and considers herself between Generation Xers and Millenials. At the same time, she has benefitted from the secure environment by her parents who were born in the Baby Boomer generation. Her PhD thesis supervisor, Dr Blomberg himself was born in 1955, also keenly aware of the cultural nuances experienced by his generation and the next. Both of them agree that every generation tends to take the previous generation for granted, sometimes blaming them, and reacted against them by responding differently in accordance to their own generational context. For them, "lived experience" is more meaningful than "learned experience." The format of the book is the same. First, the authors describe the general patterns and behaviours of each generation. Second, they bring in the biblical perspective about how the Word of God sheds light on the generational differences. Third, they highlight basic "priorities for ministry" of each generation. What follows suit is an insightful and information-filled resource for effective ministry in and across each generation.
A) The Boomers
Called the "oldest child," they are the current leaders in mainstream society. With a strong sense of lived identity and history, they have influenced American society for the past 50 years. Many are now approaching or are into retirement age. Born to WWII era parents, they have experienced much political turmoil and economic challenges in the past. Some values include a strong work ethic, deep personal responsibility in society, sense of equality, nationalistic, and hard work. Their challenges include materialism, busyness in earning a living, marriages that end up in divorces, and the struggle between managing work and Church. Some priorities they face are the coming aging phenomenon; downsizing; having a sense of identity that is work-driven; deteriorating health; and a temptation to harp back and getting stuck on the "good old days." They need to adopt a more forward looking disposition to life beyond and to the generations before them.
B) The Generation Xers
Called the "middle child," they can become "lost" in terms of positions of power and influence. They tend to be more compromising and quiet nonconformists. They refuse to be boxed into some category, preferring instead to be left alone to pursue their own self-help programs and growth. They are more intentional about self, innovative, free, and accommodating of all parties. In terms of their reaction to the workplace, those who had seen their parents careers crumble and businesses fail would take on a different path so that they will not fall into the same traps as their parents. Sometimes, this meant they simply pursue other careers, even non-profits. Due to the marital struggles of their parents, Xers can become quite skeptical about marriage. Those who start a family will tend to place a high premium on their families. Their version of religion is also steeped in skepticism. Many become silent participants in their churches. One of the key struggles is between their individualism and community. They strive less for material wealth, more for other more important things in life. Some priorities include addressing their skepticism, their hunger for community, their need for experience, and their changing worldview of culture, religion, and society. Sbanotto uses the metaphor of a home to talk about the unique position of Xers. Key to understanding them is the need for safety, for acceptance and warmth. They need to look for home. What is needed in ministry to Xers is to help them co-create a space for home, for warmth, for togetherness. They need to cultivate trust so as to open up to the other generations. The other generations should do their part in accepting their unique generational experiences.
C) The Millenials
Also called the "youngest child," this generation is pampered. Most evident is the diversity of culture they grow up in.They take special pride in creating a new identity that is distinct from the previous generations. They value success over hard work. By 2020, they would comprise half the American workforce. In church matters, while Boomers talk about history, tradition, and past practices; Xfers harp on personal angst and individual importance; for Millennials, it is about choices. They choose what they believe. They are more hopeful and less skeptical than the previous generation. They live and experience diversity, tolerance, and acceptance. In working with the Millennials, teamwork is key. Invite them to do ministry together, and to build relationships that are open and trusting.
I admit that while reading through this book, there is a sense of skepticism that there are heavy generalizations going on. No one Millennial, Xer, or Boomer can claim to speak out for their own generation. They can only speak for themselves, though some of them could have uttered opinions that they have heard from others. Writing a book about different generations is particularly challenging because it usually takes one to write about one's generation. For that matter, if we are talking about three different generations, surely it would do well to have three different authors, one from each of the generation concerned. For readers, note that the survey and statistics are overwhelmingly Western and American. Even when we restrict our scope to the American landscape, there are other cultural differences that further compound the complexities of culture. What about the non-Western cultural enclaves like Asian Americans, the Black community, the Hispanic, and the mixed communities? What about the influences of different generations living together under one roof? What about cross-cultural backgrounds? Each time a variable is put in, the whole equation changes. Not only that, the individual concerned is never stagnant. He or she will grow in terms of knowledge, of experience, and of course, wisdom. Even the interviewers in the study will likely offer a slightly different take several years down the road. We are shaped by our experiences both positive and negative. We are influenced by both good and bad influences from all generations. We are also impacted by the mass media, the Internet, and global forces at work in and out of our societies. How then do we use this book?
Let me suggest three things. First, read with an open mind. One way is to start with the generation that we are most familiar with: Ours. Be familiar with the framework of reference used so that when we read about the other generations, we will be more informed. This is where the framework of this book proves so valuable. We have a similar format when trying to describe and understand the three different generations. Second, recognize that the traits of each generation are general observations. It is offered more as an invitation to appreciate some of the unique perspectives of the generation concerned, rather than a textbook listing of the A to Z of generational behaviours. Use this as a starting point and modify our observations where appropriate. The benefit is that we do not need to re-invent the wheel when it comes to general research. Adopt and modify where needed. It is very important that we be flexible and be humble in learning from the various generations we interact with. Third, adopt an attitude of humility. Dive into the material like an eager student. As we come up for air, take time to breathe in the freshness of the environment we are in, to learn about our own contexts. Do not impose the observations in the book on another generation we are keen to connect with. Instead, invite them to question, to critique, and when appropriate, to affirm the observations in this book. The primary goal is to find a space to connect with people of various generations. Do not claim to speak even on behalf of your own generation. Each generation will have multiple voices of its own.
This is a valuable resource to expand the circle of learning in cross-generational ministry. It is not a how-to book, but more of a resource for increased understanding and appreciation that God has created each of us in our own time and contexts. Learn from one another about one another from one another. Let this book be the living room in which all generations can comfortably open up themselves for coffee and conversation.
Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.
This book is provided to me courtesy of Baker Academic and Graf-Martin Communications in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.