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Generational Transitions in Dominant Culture

on November 7, 2011 , Print- 0 Comments

One of my critiques of the missional church movement is that it often implies that you'll never change the church. Just go start a new one. Plant one. I saw a seminar title recently, "Church planting is for wimps." I love that.

I actually think there are already enough churches in most cities, not every city. I think there are enough churches. I just think these churches need renewal and reformation. It's harder work to change a church that has a consumer mindset into a missional one than to plant a completely new church.

— Krish, ministry executive, 30s, Indian-Briton, England

“Do you ever feel like you signed up for a revolution [when you went into ministry], but ended up running a corporation?” That was the question posed in October 2010 to a group of 800 pastors by one of the most popular pastor–performance artists of our time, Fuller alumnus Rob Bell. His question perfectly encapsulates the singularly ambivalent relationship between so-called “Generation X” and institutional leadership.

 There are strikingly few Gen Xers (conventionally considered those born between 1965 and 1980) in the dominant culture who aspire to institutional leadership. Rob Bell himself is exemplary in this regard, precisely because he founded a megachurch (and benefited from the advocacy of megachurch pastors Bill Hybels and Ed Dobson) yet distances himself from the role of senior pastor and avoids all suggestions that he is an institutional leader. Indeed, the dichotomy in his pointed question between the two extremes of revolutionary and corporate functionary speaks volumes about his age cohort’s ambivalence toward leadership. The “excluded middle” in this dichotomy is the possibility that there is a healthy kind of institutional leadership, neither anti-institutional nor captive to institutions, but capable of creating and sustaining healthy institutions.

The next demographic cohort, sometimes called the Millennials, is less categorically suspicious of institutions—indeed, in their energy and optimism they are a study in contrasts to Gen X’s reluctance and cynicism when they were the age the Millennials are today.   

By way of contrast, consider the absolute antipode of Gen X-style reticence, the “builder” generation born in the first decades of the twentieth century, among them men (they were indeed mostly men) like Billy Graham, Harold John Ockenga, Charles Fuller, Jim Rayburn, and Bob Pierce, for whom leadership could not even be imagined apart from efforts to create lasting institutions (those named founded, among other institutions, two major evangelistic ministries, two seminaries, one of the world’s leading relief and development agencies, and the National Association of Evangelicals). One only has to contemplate the inconceivability of a “Rob Bell Evangelistic Association” to recognize how far we have come from the confidence a previous generation invested in institutions. Even the Baby Boomers, who chafed so notably against the culture of their elders, were not so much anti-institutional as they were bent on creating or remaking institutions that represented their own values. (Franklin Graham’s life story offers a convenient evangelical example.) One cannot imagine Baby Boomer Steve Jobs accepting Rob Bell’s dichotomy between being a revolutionary and “running a corporation”—for him they are two sides of the same coin.

“Generationalizations” are dangerous, of course. Not only are there plenty of exceptions in any cohort composed of millions of people, but there are systematic differences between European-Americans, and others who identify with the dominant culture, and children or grandchildren of Hispanic or Asian immigrants or members of the African-American community. But as already noted, these communities are themselves in the midst of significant shifts in generational attitudes towards leadership and authority. If an institution is defined as an organization that thrives at least two generations beyond its founding, the institutional ambivalence of vast numbers of 30- and 40-somethings foreshadows a very rocky period for everything from new church plants to 250-year-old congregations—not to mention seminaries themselves.

The next demographic cohort, sometimes called the Millennials, is less categorically suspicious of institutions—indeed, in their energy and optimism they are a study in contrasts to Gen X’s reluctance and cynicism when they were the age the Millennials are today. One of the most significant new organizations in American evangelicalism, the human rights agency International Justice Mission, is striking on two counts. First, its founder and its most senior operational executive (Gary Haugen and Sharon Cohn Wu) are Gen Xers who have no qualms about institution-building—evidenced at the symbolic level by the organization’s strict business dress code and Washington, DC, headquarters (it is the first major evangelical parachurch organization to be founded in the Northeast since Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship) and rooted in a ministry model that seeks to strengthen institutions of government and law enforcement. Second, in spite of or perhaps because of its buttoned-down and institutionally ambitious ethos, it has attracted tremendous support from Millennials.

The outpouring of support for IJM suggests that Millennials are waiting to find institutions they can believe in. Will the Millennials take up constructive roles as institution builders, or simply withdraw from large-scale leadership and focus on the small-scale but also evanescent efforts that have so far (IJM excepted) largely been their generation’s modus operandi? That will depend partly on whether more Gen X leaders, like Haugen and Cohn Wu, emerge who are willing to convey confidence in the ability to create lasting change—and it will depend on whether Millennials are given attractive models of leadership in their education and training. For many Millennials, it is very possible that seminaries—both in what they teach and the way they embody institutional vision—could make the difference.

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