Generational Good News: Demographic Responses to the Gospel

As more and more generations begin entering the church these days, we are discovering that more and more are also leaving it. During my research over the past few years into the impact of biblical storytelling as a means to more deeply engage progressive Christians in the Gospel stories (see original blog posts about this research), I surveyed and interviewed over 150 participants from a variety of denominational and generational affiliations.

generational demographicsCommon themes emerged that identified biblical storytelling as a more engaging mechanism than the traditional presentation of the biblical narratives in religious contexts. Simply put, people were more engaged by the Gospel when it was told, versus when read from the pulpit. This research discovered that the deepening of community trust in the Bible was the most significant impact of engaging biblical storytelling in worship. This community trust developed as participants investigated, observed and studied biblical stories of justice, healing and restoration, and engaged in experimental responses. A performance criticism hermeneutic assisted participants in discerning the ancient audience’s original experience of the stories and responded to spiritual questions of inquiry that enabled the making of personal life connections to the biblical narratives.

Participants were invited to interact with biblical stories and search for new meaning, by making personal and communal connections from their experience of the stories. This reauthorization of the biblical narrative led to a deeper discernment of their own embedded theologies resulting in new meaning from these experiences. I discovered that biblical storytelling and a performance criticism hermeneutic enabled the good news to illicit new meaning in new contexts.

This research also revealed a focus on restoring relationships in the Gospel narratives. Through the practice of hearing and telling biblical stories, participants discovered and learned to use a new map of relating. They were able to use the biblical narratives to redefine their own relationships. Biblical storytelling provided a forum for listening to each other’s story and a model for sharing their own stories. In turn, the participant became storyteller, and each storyteller became a witness to another’s story. In this environment of storytelling each person was at different times both the teller and listener. The building of trust occurred when these storytellers shared a narrative home, a place where their anomalies of behavior, their ambivalence of thought and feeling, and the indignities of their being—all fit in. In this place they did not look for explanations or causes of behavior. Instead they discovered meaning.

The biblical storytelling format revealed what they used to be like, what happened to change that, and what they are like now. By telling of the past at work in the present, the biblical storytelling paradigm invited a re-creation of self by the self. The critical self-reflection process created space for the healing power of story to emerge. Biblical storytelling was the medium for this transformation by providing a new way of seeing, that welcomed the Bible as a sacrament and a conversation partner, and restored its authority grounded not in God but in the Christian community’s sacred trust.

impact of BSAt the end of the research project, participants were asked to describe what they valued most, and what future possibilities for a continuing biblical storytelling experience might look like. The multi-generational aspects of the service were most valued by participants. Seeing youth, adults and seasoned saints sitting around the same tables engaging the same material was an encouraging sign for those concerned about the loss of younger generations from the church. Of particular significance, was the experience of seeing youth taking seriously the challenge of a biblical storytelling paradigm and observing their engagement of “meaning as experience.”

The transformation that resulted from biblical storytelling and the development of “meaning as experience” had distinct yet different impacts on demographic groups in the study. For the silent generation, the processes of making deeper connections to the community and the biblical stories, and learning new biblical lessons by engaging the experience, are possibilities for inviting a connection with younger generations that may have significant differences in meaning. For instance, when comparing the areas of highest impact on Millennials, the emergence of new meanings and perspectives, and the vibrancy of Scripture as a result of the experience were values appreciated by the Silent Generation. In the evangelical church this is called discipleship. Perhaps these greatest areas of impact for the youngest generations in the survey can be nurtured by seasoned saints who are committed to the future of the church. At the same time the possibilities for Millennials to identify new meanings and perspectives in the biblical story based on their own experience can provide opportunities to expand and reinvigorate the Silent Generation’s view and experience of spiritual community.

Similar impact for GenXers included a deepened connection to community and the development of new meaning or perspective from the experience. Engagement in this process had significant impact. While this generation is the fastest growing category of “Nones,” this research bears out new possibilities for invitation to a dynamic experience of worship and spiritual formation. For Baby Boomers the data was also conclusive. In addition to an increase of connection to community and the increase of the vibrancy of Scripture in response to their experiences, a renewed interest in the practical application of the biblical story to their lives was significant. An increase in connection to community from the biblical storytelling experience was the most valuable impact for all four demographics.

Visit www.ExperientialJesus.com for more details about this research.

Brice ThomasRev. Dr. Brice Thomas is the Director of Alumni/ae Relations and Adjunct Faculty at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He is also called to bi-vocational ministry at Harmony Creek Church in Dayton, an emerging congregation.

 

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