'OK, Boomer' and the church

November 26th, 2019

The phrase “OK, boomer,” entered the world, like all good memes, through the newest social media platforms. Inspired by a silly song, the phrase has become a shorthand quip Generation Z and Millennials use to express frustration with the perceived out-of-touch views of baby-boomers.

The quip took on new heights recently when a talk radio host, himself a “boomer,” called the phrase ageist and bigoted, equating it to using the N-word. The ridiculousness of that comparison aside, his comment attracted a decent amount of attention. The phrase, “OK, boomer,” once relegated to memes, now found itself being discussed in national publications, on major news networks, and even being used in New Zealand’s parliament.

A debate sprang up. Is it rude of Gen Z and Millennials — described as selfish, lazy, overly sensitive, and accused of killing all things from Applebee’s to department stores — to likewise denigrate their elders? Or, is it a harmless parody of a typical generational divides, a modern day version of the 1960’s “Don’t trust anyone over 30”?

I am both young (a firm member the Millennial generation) and look younger than I am. When I started my job at our small college, a colleague asked me if I was excited to begin my freshman year. Once, when I arrived to lead a continuing education event held in a larger church, the kind volunteer at the front desk informed me that the youth pastor was unavailable, but that I was welcome to schedule an appointment for another time.

By virtue of my job, I am almost always the youngest person in the room, often by several decades. I’ve lost track of the number of times that I’ve walked into a meeting only for someone to say, “Oh, I thought you’d be older.” Aside from the various quips about being and looking young, I’ve learned that in general I need to always overprepare before I make a suggestion or a proposal. Otherwise, my suggestions will be met with a “When you have more experience, you’ll understand why that won’t work.”

That dismissal is not uncommon. When we elected delegates this summer, all of the Annual Conference sessions that I attended had a moment where someone urged “experienced leadership.” Meanwhile, younger electors insisted that we needed “fresh perspectives.”

There is an unmistakable tension between generational leaders, and it flows deeper than the worship wars of the 1990s and early 2000s. Who gets to offer their voice? When does experience count as a positive, and when does it prevent us from recognizing what new thing can happen? When do we need a fresh perspective, and when does that perspective betray a deep naivete and a failure to think through implications?

My wife and I volunteer as the youth leaders at our church, which I always find refreshing. Despite working at a college, my day job has me interacting with students infrequently, almost never as part of my given responsibilities. My work interacts more with pastors and community leaders, frequently asking how best to adaptively lead our institutions in changing environments. My work with our youth group is a refreshing way to hear new perspectives, to see how our middle and high schoolers are conceiving of and living out their faith, absent the cynicism that frequently enters into the “adult meetings.”

A few weeks ago, we held Youth Sunday, where the youth group leads both of the worship services. They select the music, the themes, serve as liturgists, and occasionally even preach. This year, they selected the story David and Goliath as our theme, driven by the obvious lesson of a young David achieving a victory for all of his people, a victory that the older generations could not win.

Afterward, I was approached by an older member of the church, who lamented that those types of messages and themes were tiresome and frustrating. “It feels like everyone is saying to my generation, ‘Sit down, shut up, but keep funding everything.’”

To be fair, their opinion was the minority, and in fact the only complaint someone voiced to me. Yet, like most criticism, it was the one that really stuck with me, particularly as “OK, boomer” broke into a national conversation.

I do not think it’s true that younger generations want our senior colleagues to “sit down, and shut up,” as the lone complainer stated. There is, though, an earnest frustration that younger voices are not present in the conversation.

Conversations require a natural flow of listening, periods of silence where we take in other information, perspectives, challenge our own assumptions, and shape what happens next. Being the youngest person in the room has shown me that often, my age positions me in a place of being talked to, a perceived student waiting to be taught by someone with more years. I overprepare each proposal and recommendation precisely because I want to be seen as a peer rather than a student. My senior colleagues, I have noticed, are freer to offer off-the-cuff suggestions; their general experience affords them a louder and more substantial voice, regardless of their research, preparation, or even experience with the particular issue at hand.

At the same time, I am not naïve enough to think that my ideas are sufficient on their own. I lack the institutional and social memories that drive an organization. I am often unaware of the subtle nuances that dot meetings and decisions. I am under no illusion that fresh perspectives on their own are sufficient to build either a functioning movement or an institution.

There is a reason I seek out and speak with mentors who have more professional experience than I do. I learn from their experiences what I can do, what hasn’t been done, and what to avoid. The mentor relationships that I maintain are ones where my ideas are taken seriously, but questioned and sharpened. My mentors are people who push me to make my ideas into something, helping them take shape so that they can transform into something useful.

Those conversations require a certain amount of trust. My mentors must trust that I am competent in my role, trust that I have the best intentions for the institution in mind, and trust that I will ask for help when I need it. They need to know that I want to continue the good work that they have begun, which is generally why I select them as mentors.

Likewise, I trust that my mentors genuinely want to empower me to lead, that they will listen to my ideas, that they will ask important questions along the way so that I can better discern what I need to do, and that after considering their advice, they will support my efforts, joyful when it goes well, and helpful in figuring out how to be better when I fail.

The question in our church’s generational divide is not whether baby boomers should give up their leadership roles for lack of new ideas, or whether young adults have the experience to lead. Such reductive thinking does us no good. Rather, we should be exploring how to support those mentorships and relationships that support empowering the next generation to adapt and lead, share important institutional knowledge, and in turn learn from and utilize new insights and new ideas to help us engage our faith in the world.

We don’t need more lectures or dismissals about a lack of experience, and neither do we need to forget the institutional memories that have shaped our church. Adaptive leadership requires both the wisdom of experience and the insight of a fresh perspective. Both, after all, are vital for the future of the church. 

About the Author

Allen T. Stanton

Allen T. Stanton is the Chief of Mission Integration and Outreach at the University of Tennessee Southern, where read more…
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