In Search Of Authentic Faithby Steve Rabey
How emerging generations are transforming the church.
There is no one right way to “do church” for Generations X and Y and for the generations that will follow. But one thing is certain: The traditional baby-boomer church model isn’t cutting it for many young people seeking an/b>
Vital lessons from the Postmodern Reformation:
How emerging generations are transforming the church.
There is no one right way to “do church” for Generations X and Y and for the generations that will follow. But one thing is certain: The traditional baby-boomer church model isn’t cutting it for many young people seeking an authentic expression of Christian faith. Now noted author and journalist Steve Rabey takes a close look at the church in the midst of wrenching social, cultural, and philosophical changes. Drawing from thorough research and extensive interviews with emerging church leaders, he has written a comprehensive guide to what post-boomer leaders are thinking, doing, and trying in order to reach new audiences of largely unchurched but spiritually hungry people.
Rabey examines such vital questions as:
>How can we overcome the inherent distrust young people have toward institutions such as the church?
>How can worship services provide both an intimate spiritual connection for believers and a winsome spiritual reality for unbelievers?
>How can the church build relationships with postmodernists who have little use for absolute truth?
>How can we understand and reach out to the vast array of distinct subcultures among the emerging generations?
The emerging generations are yearning for something authentic and compelling. Something satisfying and hopeful. In Search of Authentic Faith provides Christians with fresh insight into these intriguing minds and the hearts behind them and how these new leaders will transform ministry in the twenty-first century.
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Read an Excerpt
A Brief History from Moses to Madison Avenue to Megachurch USA
A decade ago, hardly anybody used the term "Generation X," even though it was coined in the 1960s. By the mid-1990s, terms like "Gen X" and "Gen Y" were omnipresent in the worlds of retailing and religion. Today, however, some observers believe that these terms are already dreadfully passé.
Inquiring minds want to know: Where did all these generational labels come from? Who created them? And what, if anything, do they really signify?
In looking at the generations, the first thing one realizes is that those who treat terms like "Generation X" or "Millennial Generation" as if they denote clearly definable groups are in for a big surprise. There is strong disagreement about what separates one generation from mother or how large each group is.
For example, the author of a 1999 Wall Street Journal article described Gen X as the forty million people born between 1965 and the late 1970s. Other sources, including Vann Wesson's irreverent book Generation X: Field Guide and Lexicon, describe the group as the seventy-nine million people born between 1961 and 1981. Other writers have added their own definitions of this group's age, size, and buying power.
There is even greater disagreement over the evaluations various analysts make of the up-and-coming generations. Perhaps Pat Robertson isn't more skeptical about Generation X than are other leaders of his generation, but the Christianbroadcasting mogul certainly expressed his utter disdain in the most uncompromising terms. Writing in his 1993 jeremiad The Turning Tide: The Fall of Liberalism and the Rise of Common Sense, he unleashed his invective on the younger generation:
We are seeing what is called the generation of "baby busters" growing up with no hope, no goals, no moral convictions, no sexual identity, no feelings of patriotism, no identification with society, and no peace or even a capacity for happiness. It is one of the most pathetic groups of people that has ever come up in the history of the world. These are the people who are going to become our future leaders. On the average, they have no religious faith to speak of, and they have no realistic concept of God.
But Todd Hahn, a young Presbyterian pastor who founded Warehouse 242 congregation in Charlotte, North Carolina, after ministering for years within an existing church, feels much more hopeful about the group Robertson dismissed. "In spite of its painful past and uncertain future, we believe that Generation X holds almost unlimited hope for the future of the church and the world," Hahn and David Verhaagen wrote in their 1996 manifesto Reckless Hope.
Generations in the Bible
Even more confusing is the way people casually toss around the term "generation." We'll spare you the detailed academic debates over etymology here, but understanding humanity's ever-shifting attitudes toward defining the generations is an important prerequisite to developing a meaningful approach for ministering to younger people.
There are half a dozen Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic terms that, over the centuries, have been translated as "generation" in English versions of the Bible. Few of these terms bear any similarity to what contemporary Americans mean by the word.
The book of Genesis, for example, makes nearly a dozen references to "generations," but typically these refer to genealogical histories of a particular family or clan. These references reflect the high value given to the bonds of family and kin in ancient Jewish culture.
In Genesis 17, when God announced his covenant with Abraham, it was clear that the covenant extended to all those who would follow in Abraham's lineage: "I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you" (verse 7).
In later Old Testament books, the term "generation" can refer to a rather generic sense of olden times, as we find in the prophet Isaiah's proclamation of salvation for Zion: "Awake, awake! Clothe yourself with strength, O arm of the LORD; awake, as in days gone by, as in generations of old" (51:9).
The word also can be used to criticize the sad spiritual state of the Jewish nation. Just before the death of Moses, God gave the patriarch a foreshadowing of Israel's coming disobedience, a theme that Moses echoed in his farewell song to his people: "They have acted corruptly toward him; to their shame they are no longer his children, but a warped and crooked generation" (Deuteronomy 32:5).
Christ made similar use of the term when he referred to his own contemporaries as a "brood"or "generation"of vipers (Matthew 3:7, 12:34).
Later, the apostle Peter described all who are followers of Christ as a chosen generation, or people: "But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light" (1 Peter 2:9).
Still, most scholars agree that when biblical writers were describing the time elapsed between the beginning of one particular generation and the next, they typically understood this to be a period of roughly forty years, which was about the same amount of time Israel spent in its wilderness wanderings.
Subcultures for Sale
In the twenty-first century, the length of years between generations has been reduced from a biblical four decades to a more manageable two decades. And in some cases, any reference to biblical ideas of lineage has been dismissed altogether. Gary McIntosh's 1995 book, Three Generations: Riding the Waves of Change in Your Church, defines a generation as "a group of people who are connected by their place in time with common boundaries and a common character."
Not surprisingly, much of the impetus for defining the generations in narrower ways has nothing to do with Moses or mating habits, but it has everything to do with consumer goods and pop culture. Product manufacturers and marketers find it financially beneficial to define a profusion of often superficial subgroupings, which enable them to sell more of everythingfrom suds to dudsto more buyers. The ways in which baby boomers are differentiated from Gen Xers, who are differentiated from members of Generation Y, aren't under the direction of theologians or sociologists but rather marketers, who are trying to sell more goods by proclaiming the existence of generationally distinct submarkets.
In the 1990s, marketing to Generation X made many boomers rich, and by the mid-1990s, many Gen Xers were cashing in on the phenomenon of generational marketing. Steven Grasse, the then-thirty-one-year-old subject of a 1997 profile distributed by the New York Times News Service, admitted that his Philadelphia-based advertising company, Gyro Worldwide, was in the business of helping companies exploit the ever-shortening "life cycle of hipness."
"Most people get onto things when it is way too late," wrote Grasse, whose company had done work for MTV, Coca-Cola, and R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company's Red Kamel brand. "The life cycle goes from obscure to cutting edge to mainstream to out. You want your brand to transcend that cycle."
While some sociologists had portrayed Gen Xers as listless and cynical slackers, Grasse's business depended on convincing companies otherwise. "Those stereotypes have made me a wealthy man," he added.
On the other hand, a 1997 article in Brandweek magazine urged marketers to move beyond the "Gen X label":
For the sake of effective marketing, the popular perception of the skateboarding, bungee jumping, body piercing slacker must be shed. Somewhere along the way, a dynamic consumer group has become inextricably linked to a static lifestage ... [but] it is absolutely imperative for marketers to remember that Generation X is not a lifestage; it is a birthgroup ultimately moving through [the] stages in life.
Evangelicals often are fairly comfortable with the ethos and language of this secular marketing orientation. A number of churches and evangelical organizations have largely adopted Madison Avenue's approach toward marketing Christianity to Generation X. In a sense, that's good, became evangelical churches and ministries are among the few folks targeting Xers to give them a message of spiritual hope, not just take their money. On the other hand, uncritically adopting the marketers' depiction of a generation may have blinded some churches to the true soul of the emerging generations.
Many thinkers believe it is best to define the generations based on a combination of time-based and sociological factors. William Strauss and Neil Howe, authors of acclaimed books like Generations (1991) and 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail? (1993), have developed something they call a Cohort Group Theory, which takes into account two major components of a generations makeup. First, there is a time component, based on the number of years it takes for one generation to grow and reproduce. Second, there is a "peer personality" component, based on the assumption that members of a common generation share certain common, defining experiences, even though they frequently respond to these experiences in unique ways.
Defining a New Generation
Many believe that novelist Douglas Coupland coined the term "Generation X" in his 1991 book Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. But according to author Vann Wesson, an English writer came up with the term and used it as the title for his fictional look at the same 1960s London mod scene that was portrayed by the rock band the Who in Pete Townshend's 1973 rock opera Quadrophenia.
For a few years in the late '70s and early '80s, Generation X was the name of the mildly popular English punk rock band fronted by snarling singer Billy Idol, who would later become a best-selling solo artist.
But even if Coupland didn't invent the term, he certainly popularized it and helped give it shape at a time when people were beginning to wonder about the nature of this mysterious emerging generation. He placed his fictional charactersDag, Claire, and Andyin a bleak cultural landscape in which a total solar eclipse served as a metaphor for the uncertainties of life. As the narrator says in the book's opening page, he experienced "a mood that I have never really been able to shake completelya mood of darkness and inevitability and fascination."
Other pop-culture portrayals soon followed. Richard Linklater's pioneering 1991 film Slacker cemented the generation's negative reputation, which was further developed in Kevin Smith's 1994 film Clerks.
Still, the precise definition of Generation X has remained fluid and open to debate. In the introduction to his 1994 collection The GenX Reader, Douglas Rushkoff wrote, "Generation X means a lot of things to a lot of people. We are a culture, a demographic, an outlook, a style, an economy, a scene, a political ideology, an aesthetic, an age, a decade, and a literature."
Mark Saltveit, one of the dozens of young writers featured in Rushkoff's anthology, was less accommodating. "Sowhat is Gen X?" he asked. "There's no answer, because that's an ignorant boomer question. Who knows? Who cares? Whatever."
A Generation in Crisis
Many people, however, did care, and one of the earliest studies of the emerging generation remains one of the most thorough and detailed. William Strauss and Neil Howe previewed their groundbreaking book 13th Gen in an article titled "The New Generation Gap," published in the December 1992 issue of the Atlantic Monthly.
"In them lies much of the doubt, distress, and endangered dream of late twentieth-century America," they wrote. "As a group they aren't what older people ever wanted but rather what they themselves know they need to be: pragmatic, quick, sharp-eyed, able to step outside themselves and understand how the world really works."
Growing up in a time Howe and Strauss call "the most virulently anti-child period in modern American history," it's no wonder they adopted an "overwhelmingly pessimistic" view of the world.
They were among the first babies people took pills not to have. During the 1967 Summer of Love, they were the kindergartners who paid the price for America's new divorce epidemic. In 1970 they were fourth-graders trying to learn arithmetic amid the chaos of open classrooms and New Math curricula. In 1973 they were the bell-bottomed sixth-graders who got their first real-life civics lesson watching the Watergate hearings on TV. Through the late 1970s they were the teenage mall-hoppers who spawned the Valley Girls and other flagrantly non-Boomer youth trends. In 1979 they were the graduating seniors of Carter-era malaise who registered record-low SAT scores and record-high crime and drug-abuse rates.
In a June 9, 1997, cover story on Generation X in Time magazine, a pollster said that idealistic boomer parents left their buster children a difficult legacy: "Divorce. Latchkey kids. Homelessness. Soaring national debt. Bankrupt Social Security. Holes in the ozone layer. Crack. Downsizing and layoffs. Urban deterioration. Gangs. Junk bonds."
Such a legacy left many Xers feeling as if they were a cultural clean-up crew. In addition, many of them seemed constantly worried about what lay in store for them around the next bend in the road of life. "No matter what I plan for the future," one Xer told Time, "when I finally get there, it's always something different."
Dealing with Diminished Expectations
In a 1996 lecture titled "Jesus and Generation X," Harvard University theologian Harvey Cox described the emerging generation's "touching disquietude" and "their endearing distress." He observed that this attitude was at least partially influenced by the feeling that earlier generations had left Xers with a world in disarray. As one of the characters in Coupland's Generation X put it, "I want to throttle them for blithely handing over the world to us like so much skid-marked underwear."
Andrew Peyton Thomas, an assistant attorney general for the state of Arizona, expressed the frustrations of his generation in the article "Dear Generation X: A Letter to My Cohort," published in a 1996 issue of the Weekly Standard: "We will probably be the first generation of Americans that will not do as well as our parents."
A Harris poll conducted that same year reported that half of Xers had trouble sleeping or relaxing because of financial worries. Financial columnist Humberto Cruz put it like this: "We are talking about a world in which young people today will have no assurance they will ever collect social security benefits or be able to hang around with the same company and get a pension at the end of their careersa world in which they are totally responsible for their own financial well-being."
While some young people recoiled at these prospects and retreated into a series of dead-end "McJobs," others responded with a newfound sense of ambition. A 1997 article in the American Enterprise reported that "men and women born between 1961 and 1981 are starting businesses at younger ages and in greater numbers than their predecessors." An article published the same year in the Harvard Business Review said business-world busters were taking "a more strictly financial approach to the decisions facing managers," even if that meant doing away with diversity programs or debates about issues like compassion.
Reinventing the Church
This same ambition and zeal that characterized busters in the workplace was evident in the ways that members of this generation sought to reinvent the church. In January 1995, twenty-three-year-old Chris Seay (pronounced "see"), a third-generation Baptist minister, founded University Baptist Church in Waco, Texas. Almost immediately, the congregation became a spiritual home for hundreds of students from nearby Baylor University, many of whom found little of relevance in other Baptist churches. After starting in a small, dilapidated church building, by 1997 the church was meeting in downtown Waco's Hippodrome Theater.
With his short-cropped hair, goatee-style beard, and Sunday-not-go-to-meetin' wardrobe of sneakers, baggy jeans, and plain cotton shirt, Seay's image is a conscious effort to step away from the highly choreographed approach to church championed by congregations like Willow Creek Community Church. "When you coordinate the color of your shirts to the color of your lights, people don't see that as authentic," he told me.
And even though the thought of being a pastor once looked "pretty revolting," Seay eventually felt a calling to reach his generation any way he could. "They're open to the God thing," he said, "but they're not into the church thing."
Seay's early experiments in ecclesiology combined old and new styles. He delivered his sermons from a stool in the middle of a pulpit-less stage, where he would sit down, prop his feet on a nearby speaker, take a sip from a bottle of Snapple, and launch into a meandering monologue about the moral messages in the then-popular R-rated movie Primal Fear. Speaking in a laid-back, spontaneous, and self-deprecating style borrowed in part from television's David Letterman, Seay has used the movie's plot of dishonesty and intrigue to bring his audience around to a Socratic inquiry on the nature of truth: whether it can be known, how it can be understood, and where it can be found.
"We can spout Sunday-school answers," he said, "but when it comes to reality, it doesn't really flesh out in our lives."
Hopeful that some in his audience were unchurched, Seay was careful to edit traditional Christian lingo. "Some of you say you don't believe the Bible," he began, "but we'll read it anyway, and see if there's anything interesting in it."
University Baptist served as an important early model for many younger Christian leaders, but it was also a lightning rod for critics such as Thomas Spence, who grilled Seay's approach in a 1997 article in re:generation quarterly. Noting that the Waco church's services were a mix of traditional and novel elements, Spence questioned "whether idioms borrowed from the entertainment industry are appropriate for sacred worship." He concluded: "A well-tuned soul naturally recoils from the wholesale invasion of the sacred by the profane."
Like many young leaders, Seay made up his own ecclesiology as he went along, and by 1997 he had plenty of questions about University Baptist himself. By 1999, when his church was attracting around seven hundred people to its Sunday morning services, Seay turned his back on this church and made a pilgrimage to Houston with his wife, Lisa, and daughter, Hanna, to found a church in the city's inner loop. Ecclesia, designed to be a "holistic missional Christian community," held its first official services in January 2000.
Emerging Christian leaders like Seay are outpacing the efforts of Christian thinkers, many of whom still are trying to analyze and understand members of Generations X and Y.
Gen Xer Jeff Bantz wrote a sociological analysis of his generation in which he analyzed major implications for churches and mission organizations. A summary of his findings, published in Leadership Networks Next newsletter, pointed out some of the tensions and contradictions that bedevil this complex generation. As Bantz put it, Xers
are very individualistic, but they highly value relationships;
don't respond to authority, but they long to receive instruction;
are skeptical yet pragmatic;
have an extended adolescence, but they grew up too soon;
are slow to commit but are passionately dedicated;
are a challenge to manage but are excellent workers;
are apathetic and yet care deeply;
are relativistic and searching for meaning;
are disillusioned, but they are not giving up.
Other thinkers worked to describe Generation X within the context of other generations. George Barna's 1992 work The Invisible Generation describes four major generations: seniors (born before 1926), builders (born between 1927 and 1945), boomers (1946-64), and busters (1965-83). Those born after 1983 were "as yet unnamed." Rick and Kathy Hicks's book Boomers, Xers, and Other Strangers argues that differences between the generations could be ironed out with a combination of understanding, acceptance, and forgiveness.
But it was clear from a 1995 article in Leadership journal written by Dieter Zander that some of the major differences between the boomer and buster generations would influence the way they worshiped:
"me" generation "we" generation
live to work work to live
Jay Leno David Letterman
enlightenment worldview postmodern worldview
propositional truth relational truth
A Ministry Generation Gap?
During much of the last decade, young Christian leaders have been developing a new approach to ministry based on the unique characteristics and needs of Generation X. Writer Andres Tapia described this new approach in an article titled "Reaching the First Post-Christian Generation," published in the September 12, 1994, issue of Christianity Today magazine. Wrote Tapia:
Jesus was in his early thirties when he began his public work; he had no career path and no place he could call home. His greatest battles were against the dogmas of his day, and he showed little faith in institutions and rules and regulations. Rather, his message was of a Father full of grace, and the context of his work was his personal relationships. He built community, first with his small group of 12, and then across class, gender, racial, and lifestyle lines. He liked a good party, even turning water into wine to keep one from ending prematurely. He spoke against injustice and did not have the stomach for inauthentic people. He thought globally but acted locally.
As we confront the growing irrelevance of the church among many Xers, we must wrestle with the idea that Jesus would have felt very much at home with the MTV generation.
At the same time that young leaders have been creating hundreds of Gen Xoriented churches and ministries, others are asking whether an approach to ministry that segments people on the basis of age and other characteristics is really the best way to do church.
In 1999, re:generation quarterly, a thoughtful magazine founded to help connect members of Generation X, did a brave thing: It questioned the prevailing orthodoxy of the new ecclesiology. The cover of the magazine proclaimed: "Generation Expired: Rethinking Generationally-Based Ministry." Inside, editor Andy Crouch dared to express the unthinkable:
The segmentation of the American church is dangerous to its health, because the church is not in the business of marketing a product. Segmentation, when not practiced with great care, self-consciousness, and humility, can be fatal, because the real danger of segmentation is that we will forget the gospel....
The church, if it is to be the church, will undo what the marketers have done.
Only during the last few decades have American churches consciously targeted narrowly defined generations, as the seeker-sensitive megachurch movement has done with baby boomers. The strategy has succeeded, if by success one accepts the thinking of marketing executives and measures accomplishment by numbers and the counting of heads.
Are the generation-specific approaches promoted by both boomers and busters expanding the kingdom of God, or are they merely breaking it into bite-sized components? This is one of the major questions that Christian leaders of all generations will be struggling to answer for years to come.
Meet the Author
Steve Rabey, a Colorado-based writer specializing in religion, spirituality, and popular culture, has written a dozen books and hundreds of articles for newspapers and magazines. His articles have appeared in numerous publications, including Christianity Today, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post.
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