There has been a lot written about what is going on in our culture and what it means for churches. Particular attention in recent years has been given to the millennial generation (born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s) and the increasing number of people who do not go to church and claim no religious affiliation. This research is good and important, but I have noticed another problem. There are an increasing number of millennials who did not grow up in church and are now becoming pastors. Many of them are struggling in ministry because they do not understand the older generations. So here are seven descriptions or generalizations about the older churched generations for younger and second career pastors.
- Older generations are not technology oriented. I check my phone first thing in the morning, can’t stand leaving it in another room, and use Google on a daily basis. Older members in my congregation are not like that. The technology is a foreign language to them that they have had to learn and are not entirely comfortable with. In fact, many older church members are intimidated and frustrated by technology. They don’t know how to talk to their grandkids who are always looking at screens.
- Older generations are not accustomed to change. Millennials have grown up with change as a part of life. It happens fast and naturally. Older church members are not native to this kind of change. Some of them worked for the same company their whole lives. They live in the same home they grew up in. Now they are seeing their kids and grandkids move away to follow a new job every couple of years. In all of this change, the one thing that has stayed the same is the church. It has been their anchor. That is why they sometimes react strongly to changes in the church. They are reacting to a lot of other changes as well.
- Older generations are loyal to institutions. They are members of the union, the Lion’s Club, the Masons, the men and women’s bible studies… They are loyal to these institutions through the highs and lows. They cannot understand people who switch jobs or switch churches so easily, and it hurts them to see this trend because they are deeply invested in seeing these institutions survive.
- Older generations are patriotic. For them, the country is the institution to which we all owe loyalty. Many of them personally sacrificed either in military service or as their family members fought in wars. They grew up pledging allegiance to the flag in schools and often at church functions. This is why they don’t want you moving the flag out of the sanctuary. For them it is not just a move to separate church and state. It is an anti-American statement.
- Older generations have different concerns. When you are younger you think you are going to live forever. Older generations know better. They feel in their backs and their knees that life is a fleeting gift. They think a lot about things like retirement, aging, and death. They worry about the legacy of their churches being passed on, though this sometimes contradicts with their desire to see the church stay the same.
- Older generations consider truth differently. When older generations want to know something they consult experts in print to verify the facts. They want absolute truth. They want the encyclopedia. Millenials think in terms of Wikipedia—group-sourced opinions and observations on a screen. Reality can be relative. This distinction has huge implications for views of Biblical authority as well as preaching.
- Older generations think differently about money, possessions, and security. For young people debt is a way of life and financial security is not as important as doing something important. Older generations don’t thing that way. Some of them grew up in the Depression or learned from their parents about the Depression. They want security and the comforts of nice things.
Older members in your church have a lot of questions. They don’t understand why people don’t go to church, why the church is small, why things are changing so fast, why the world is so different, or why their precious organizations are failing. One of the things that pastors have the opportunity to do for these people is to lovingly and graciously teach them why things have gone the way they have and what it means for the future of the church. They are not usually trying to be blockers. They just think in increasingly different ways. If you want them to understand you, then you need to understand them.
Jordan Rimmer ’12 is the pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in New Brighton, Pa. He earned his Master of Divinity (MDiv) degree from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently working on getting his Doctor of Ministry. Before moving to Pittsburgh, he was the director of outreach and youth ministries at Glenwood Methodist Church in Erie, Pa. He is a husband and father of four children. Jordan blogs at jordanrimmer.com and tweets at @jrimmer21. His sermons are available for download on iTunes or at http://jordanrimmer.podbean.com.