X Marks the Church: How Gen X Leaders Are Shaping the Church

April 21st, 2011

Can you believe it? The oldest Baby Boomers turn sixty-five this year, and the oldest members of Generation X are turning fifty. Born from approximately 1961 to 1981, Gen X’ers like myself are solidly in their thirties and forties, and we are making our mark on the world—and on the church.

As pastors, teachers, youth ministers, writers, missionaries, and plain ol’ disciples, our work is vital not just for reaching our fellow “young adults” or the generations that come after us, but for leading and shaping today’s church overall.

Gen X’ers have a unique perspective to share. We came of age in a time when the world around us was seeming to lose its stability. As the Cold War’s decline sped up the globalization of the market economy and technological change in daily life ramped up to warp speed, Gen X kids of the 1970s and 80s grew up in an environment where fewer and fewer of the old rules applied. Jeff Gordinier, in his book, X Saves the World, identifies nostalgia for a vanishing world and the increasing pace of change as the reasons behind Generation X’s most universally-recognized traits: a strong sense of irony and an unwillingness to be overly idealistic.

Gordinier and many others have pointed out the kind of change that Gen X’ers experienced in their formative years was the kind of stuff that significantly altered daily life. It was centered around communication media and the technology of the home: TVs, telephones, personal computers, music and video electronics, news media, and video gaming. Their rapid evolution began when technological advances from the 1960s started going mainstream and were integrated in new (or significantly changed) consumer products in the 1970s and 80s.

People of all ages were going through the same shifts, of course, but not everyone was going through them when they were 8, 12, or 15 years old. An abundance of new products meant to make life easier and more interesting required greater family income; and the more expensive life became, the more both parents had to work. Kids got used to coming home from school to an empty house, with nothing but cable TV and an Atari to keep them company. At the same time, popular culture became ubiquitous during the childhood of Generation X as the great societal influence. Where once a politician, or a pastor, or even an author or scholar, might have been the revered authority, now it was MTV.

Technology makes some aspects of life easier. But it also makes life dramatically more individualized. It shifts us from the concrete to the virtual. Even more, it undermines the stability of real, authentic community. If – as Christians believe – we are literally created to love God and love one another in the community called church, then all those seismic shifts of contemporary life make it more difficult to fulfill the very purpose given to us in Jesus Christ. He calls us to reconciliation, but life today moves toward ever-more alienation.

In a perceptive look at Generation X spirituality entitled Virtual Faith, Tom Beaudoin points out that Gen X’ers were “were the first American generation in at least a century to lack a common cause. Previous generations had the Vietnam War, World War II, the Great Depression, and World War I as rallying points.” We might add other great historical moments of the last century to his list: the cultural “revolutions” of the 60s (rock-n-roll, feminist, sexual), the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, the beginning of the Cold War in the 1940s and 50s, and even the great social movements of the early 20th century (temperance, women’s suffrage, labor). But if anything, that just makes Generation X’s lack of a unifying cause all the more glaring. As Beaudoin puts it, “Generation X reached adulthood in the absence of a theme, and even with a theme of absence.”  We had no common cause. What we had, instead, was the common experience of life as increasingly less concrete, increasingly more detached.

None of this automatically makes Gen X’ers more qualified to speak to the church’s future than any other age group. But it does mean that Gen X’ers have had a unique firsthand experience with the emergence of the very forces that have unsettled contemporary life. Gen X Christians have a deep hunger for authentic community and the possibility of lifelong growth in grace exactly because our own childhood witnessed the emergence of a world where those things have become more and more difficult to achieve.

Sometimes it seems as if our culture is trying to create a product to meet every possible human hunger. But we’ve got a deeper hunger the culture can never satiate.

It’s a hunger given to us by God: to be healed of our broken spirits and alienated lives, and to grow in love with Jesus and the friends he gives us in his church. It is a hunger to find our identities in the community of the baptized, worshiping and living in faithfulness to God. This kind of church will learn to be in practice what Jesus calls it to be in his teaching: the light of the world, the city on a hill (Matthew 5:14).

It will be a church where each of us will be shaped together into the spiritual house that serves as the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. It’s a house known as God’s own people, and when it is built as God intends, all those who have been fitted into it will be brought out of darkness and into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2).

Tomorrow’s church can be a disciplined community, where the followers of Jesus are maturing in faith as they watch over one another in love. Tomorrow’s church can be a community of worship, where God’s people gather to hear the word preached and receive the holy gifts of bread and wine. Tomorrow’s church can be a community of missional urgency, where believers respond enthusiastically to the call of the Holy Spirit to go and bear the gospel to the world in joy. Tomorrow’s church can be a holistic community, where the fragile creation that God calls good is seen and treasured for the gift that it is. Tomorrow’ church can be a community of redemption, where the least and the last and the lost of this world find hospitality and belonging – whether they are the poor of a distant land or the forgotten teenagers and young adults among us.

The church will indeed be revitalized through the commitments and practices emphasized by the leadership of this alienated generation, the reason for them is not truly about the institutional church’s survival. It is about faithfulness to our common calling, and the promise of a life spent in true community with Jesus and his friends.


This article is excerpted and adapted from the book Generation Rising: A Future with Hope for the United Methodist Church.  

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