Things I have read recently - about Generation X , the ages of ministerial candidates, the work of Sunday Schools and mission in the 21st century - need to be connected up somehow and made sense of.
What follows is long and waffley. That’s the way I think, the way I write: I apologise but there it is. Some of my friends rightly complain that bloggers assume too much knowledge on the part of their readers, I probably err to the other extreme and patronise you. I don’t know if what I’ve written makes any sense but in my little part of life’s food court, these are things I’ve picked up and tossed around for a little while …
Generation X – seems generally to be seen as those born between about 1960 and 1980, so currently aged from mid 20’s to mid 40’s; sometimes seen as those born 1965 - 1985. Defined alternatively by an ‘attitude’ – possibly a poor choice of word since it seems to be used pejoratively these days – that embraces experience, multi-media, popular culture and a searching/questioning outlook. I’m not entirely sure that I fit the ‘Generation X’ model – maybe I was born too early within it, grew up in too conservative a backwater or am just too conventional – but I am certainly ‘Generation-X-sympathetic.’
Churches of all persuasions are concerned about the average age of those entering training for ordained ministry which at 35 (Baptist) to 40 (Anglican) is seen to be too high. This may be one way in which I am an ‘average’ (Baptist) minister, since I was exactly 35 when I felt the call and 40 when ordained! Denominations seem to want more young ordinands and seem happy to ignore the fact that those of us who come along later actually didn’t feel called any earlier… Never mind the rather large absence of younger people… which leads nicely on to Sunday Schools
Sunday Schools from their inception have, it seems, failed to nurture a new generation of believers from among the children of the faithful and have been a total failure in mission and evangelism. Only a small percentage of those who attended ever made the transition into “full church membership” (however understood) and the law of diminishing returns took its inevitable toll.
Churches today are faced with an ageing population, with the few children and young people ‘haemorrhaging’ away. There is a lot of talk about ‘mission’ about ‘cultural relevance’ about being ‘counter culture’ and many ‘how to’ books that can act to demoralise or confuse rather than inspire or encourage!
The seemingly average ‘Generation X, late entry minister’ may find that she or he is the youngest person present on a Sunday, is expected to embrace a style of worship that was old fashioned when Noah was a lad, and, in the midst of this muddle and mayhem, to develop and implement a strategy that will see the church grow (numerically) securing its survival for another generation.
As a result of the demographics, in a typical church the Generation-X-sympathetic minister is unlikely to find many – if any - likeminded members. The ‘Baby Boomers’ are almost absent leaving a congregation composed largely of pre-war pensioners who like centrally heated homes, soaps operas and the green hymnbook. The few determined teens who hang on in there are likely to “txt” friends during the sermon and see songs as something you dance to rather than sing. Meanwhile small children are fed a traditional diet of action songs and moral tales and are all too often relegated to the dowdiest room in the place.
So what do you do?
Members of my little congregation are remarkably tolerant to my experiments. They don’t always like them; they sometimes moan about the use of candles or meditations; they occasionally refuse to join in the (sic) ‘choruses’; they love it if we get out the green books or I deliver a fairly old fashioned service. But on the whole they go with what is offered, recognising, perhaps rather late, that times have changed and that it isn’t all (sic) ‘kids stuff’ after all.
But this is only a tiny part of the puzzle – too long churches have been inward looking, thinking about our Sunday services, while mission opportunities have drifted by. The concerns about reaching Generation X – and now the next generation – are valid but require more than a ‘Changing Rooms’ makeover of our worship services. It needs thoroughgoing changes of heart all round. Denominations need to stop moaning that we’re all starting ministry too late and give thanks to God that we aren’t so trendy they can’t cope with us! Ministers and churches need to stop fiddling about inside and start looking outside, making friends with people, being real and allowing the real issues and questions people have to shape our agendas rather than vice versa.
Nothing new there of course, it’s all been said by far better folk than me, so why isn’t it happening?
I think partly it’s because we are too busy being in competition with each other, confusing bums on seats and Baptismal numbers with success. Also we are often so occupied with keeping going the fabric of our dying churches that we have no energy left for mission.
Entering a new year is traditionally a time for looking back and looking forward. My folk have travelled a long way in the last 12 months, letting go of bricks and mortar, beginning to test the waters of community engagement and allowing me to play around with all that is precious to them. I am proud of them – even if also often frustrated by them! Our new year sees lots more challenges ahead, new relationships to build, new opportunities to explore and new adventures to share.
I am not sure how I try to hold together and make sense of all the things I read and/or discover. I am sure that collectively and individually we need to recognise that for some good reason God is calling Generation X folk with a heart for 'mission in many modes' to give up good careers to serve the churches in a new century – so let’s all stop whinging and get on with it!