On the University of Colorado campus in Boulder, there is an inscription on the face of the library that reads, “Who knows only his own generation remains always a child.” As an undergraduate student, I must have passed by that inscription hundreds of times and pondered its meaning.
Recently, I was asked to offer a keynote presentation to leaders of UCC-related health and human service ministries on generational differences and dynamics within organizations. In preparing for this task, I found myself coming back to the familiar library inscription.
At this point in our collective history, four generations exist simultaneously within most organizations: Traditionalists (born before 1943), Baby Boomers (born 1943-1960), Generation X (born 1960-1980), and Millennials (born 1980-2000). More broadly, five generations exist in the church and the world today, the youngest being what some have named Generation Z.
Each of these generations has been shaped by the events, experiences, and attitudes of the larger society during which it came of age. The Depression and World War II influenced Traditionalists to be patriotic, loyal, and most comfortable with stability. Economic prosperity, the Space Race, and Civil Rights influenced a generation of Boomers to believe in growth and expansion, as well as equality for all. Generation X experienced Watergate, the Challenger disaster, and the fall of the Berlin Wall which fostered a sense of self-reliance and a casual approach to authority. Millennials faced 9/11 and grew up with social media as a catalyst for social change, which inspired in them a sense of heroic spirit and collective action that birthed the Occupy movement and elected the first black President.
While these are generalized examples, it is no surprise that who we are generationally has great impact on the institutions within which we work and serve. The church is no exception. In the United Church of Christ, for example, Boomers played a vital role in ensuring that we are a community rooted in racial justice because of their presence and leadership in the Civil Rights movement. Many of these same Boomer ministers and leaders, who constitute a majority generation in the UCC, have taken a stand and fought for justice in many other areas since that time as well.
To know only my own generation (by the way, I happen to be a Millennial / Gen X’er born in 1980) is never to mature or deepen my understanding of who and what has gone before me in creating and sustaining the tradition to which I belong. In the same manner, for Traditionalists and Boomers only to know and understand their own respective generations creates the inability to envision who and what will come after them as the notion of church continues to be transformed into something new and different. In my lifetime, I look forward to seeing how Generation Z and other future generations will be the hands and feet of Christ in the world.
SPARKING MINISTRY CONVERSATIONS
How do the dynamics of my generation influence the congregation as a whole? How do these dynamics influence the leadership within my congregation? What gifts and challenges does each generation bring to our community? How and what can we learn from one another?
This post is also published through Stillspeaking Weekly, a series designed with pastors, lay leaders and committees in mind, offering thoughtful and practical reflections that invite and inspire dialogue on how your church can strengthen its ministries.