Church Generation Wars – Millennials pushing for Boomer territory

It has been a busy few weeks, thus things are slow on the blog. I don’t like blogging about blogging, so suffice it to say when the work of being an “In Real Life” pastor takes up more time (as in a couple of conferences and 4 funerals), the time I have to devote to being “The Millennial Pastor” is cut back.

Now, speaking of boomers and millennials, the two conferences I was attending were a clergy study conference and a youth weekend retreat.

The youth retreat was pretty much what you might expect: loud, busy, exciting, fun.

The clergy conference, made up of mostly boomer pastors, was adultish, lots of chats over coffee and beer, and an interesting speaker. Also fun.

However, I noticed that both events were distinctly generational.

The pastors all sat in a big room, the speaker “presented” to us and then offered Q&A at the end (which usually means ” try to frame tangential personal stories as questions” time). The speaker imparted knowledge to us, with minimal interaction –  a normative boomer educational experience.  A few of us young-uns were tweeting, but not without the pre-requisite stares for being on our phones. Nothing makes you feel like you’re teenager again than a glare from someone who thinks you are texting your girlfriend, instead of opening the conversation to those outside the room. The experience was a distinctly boomer one. While of course not all boomers prefer the knowledge imparting expert, the format is so familiar to boomers, it might as well be a part of their DNA.

The youth retreat, on the other hand, was interactive, open source, and tweeting during sessions was encouraged. Now, the fact that I was co-presenting at the youth retreat might have had something to do with that. But my co-presenter and I purposely planned the sessions to be about interaction, about the group’s knowledge over our expert knowledge. The experience of this event was distinctly millennial. As one of the oldest millennials, I was presenting to the youngest of our generation, those born just before the year 2000. We all knew how to function in the open source format. The interactivity and group work ethos is, of course, not the preference of all millennials, but familiar to us right from early grade school. It is how we have learned to be in the world, and social media only amplifies this way of being.

The experience of these back-to-back events pointed me to an important reality facing the world and the church. Millennial culture is beginning to demand cultural space. Boomer culture has been the dominant one since they moved into early adulthood. But as the children of boomers start to come into adulthood, we will demand more and more of society’s cultural and popular attention.

The reality of this impending change struck me in a couple of signpost moments at the clergy conference. One morning, this Kid President pep talk was used in worship.

Now, I don’t know if my boomer colleagues know Kid President or not, but he is one of the many icons of millennial social media-viral-internet culture. In the video, he made distinct references to our cultural era: the Michael Jordan baseball stint allowing to make the movie Space Jam, and Journey’s resurgence because of the TV show Glee.

What was interesting is that the YouTube clip was shown without explanation or apology – it was assumed that showing a video like this was completely normal. This would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. Hip and cool videos have been shown before, but either by millennials ourselves, or as an example of hip and cool youth culture.

schultz_smallNow, boomer pop references didn’t disappear as the presenter put up an image of WW2 German soldier, supposedly named Sergeant Schultz? I am not sure who it was, none of us young-uns got the reference. But our Boomer colleagues all did and thought it was hilarious.

As I reflect on this small moment of a Kid President video being shown at conference of mostly boomer pastors without explanation, apology or consternation, it is the first time in my memory in 31 years of being a church person and 5 years as a pastor that a pop culture reference in an intergenerational gathering church has not been a cultural commute for me, or prefaced with an apology for being a culture commute for boomers.

Before that moment, I have always been the one (or the generation) expected pick up on the cultural references of my elder boomer colleagues, or explain why I am operating outside of the dominant culture. This is no small thing.

It is the toe-hold beginning of something bigger coming down the pipe.

It is something that is happening all around us everyday out in the world, but something that many churches have been resisting. Millennial pop culture is demanding to be inculturated. The once entrenched cultural realm of the boomers is being threatened by their children. It happens in every generation, but our media saturated world makes the tension front and centre. Does anyone really think all those article berating lazy millennials are really about lazy millennial? No, they are the denigration of the coming of age of the next big generation. Boomers have enjoyed their cultural privilege, and won’t give it up easily.

So the question becomes, is our distinctly boomer church ready to share their cultural territory? Are we ready for live tweeting worship? Announcements being made primarily on Facebook? Millennial pop-culture references coming up in sermons without explanation? Or even, are boomers ready to explain their pop-culture references to us as it can no longer be expected that everyone knows them?

My hope is that we millennials don’t slip into the same position of privilege that our boomer parents have. I hope we don’t forget the experience of the cultural commute, of having to learn the culture of the majority group, while your own is mostly ignored or apologized for.

We will be soon the dominant social group – the music, film, TV, and art of our generation will become the media that everyone will have to know in order to follow the cultural conversation. We will be the ones who will be marketed to, and thus the ones moving into political, economic and organizational power.

We will remember being the minority once we become the majority?

Millennial pop-culture is going to simply become pop-culture. The Church is going to have to recognize this generational shift, or risk being left in the 1960s, with Hogan’s Heroes.

What remains is what kind of church we will be. Will the church stick with Sergeant Schultz, “I see nothing!” or will be a little more like Kid President, “I’m on your team, be on my team.”


Where do you stand in the generational culture wars? Where is the church headed when it comes to clashing generations?

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6 thoughts on “Church Generation Wars – Millennials pushing for Boomer territory”

  1. I don’t think Millenials will remember their journey from minority any more than boomers remember what their journey was like. The generation behind the Millenials will be asking the same questions you do. It’s going to be quite the ride though.


  2. When my kids still lived at home I was in on much of popular culture–music, tv shows, artists, movies, etc. I felt “cool” and “with it” getting those kinds of refs in gatherings of my peers and elders. Now that I don’t have that built in bridge, I often find myself looking confused, shrugging my shoulders when I don’t get something that a “young’un” has said. And I don’t like it 🙂 Now, mostly I don’t think I resent as much having to give up my privileged boomer place in the culture, as I wish I was more in the loop and on the move with the millennials. For me, it’s more a question of how, not why. Also, I think I tend towards an equal opportunity way of being and so wish there were more available opps for being interactive between the generations without feeling like! because of my age, it’s time for pastureland. Btw, good reflection.


  3. The “German soldier” seems a particularly apt image. As one on the cusp between Boomer and GenX, I’m well aware that Sergeant Schultz’s signature line was, “I know nothing … nothing!” It seems a fitting illustration of the Boomer lack of self-awareness.


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