From Generation to Generation

by Steve Willis

My sister works in a high rise building overlooking Rockefeller Square in New York City and her husband works in the city as well.  They live north of the city among the posh suburbs in a beautiful home that my family enjoys visiting and having the opportunity to drive into the city and see the sights as complete tourists.  But my family lives in a small town at the base of the Appalachian Mountains looking up to the Peaks of Otter in southwestern Virginia.  It is a bewildering, wonderful, often confusing mix of cultures when my family visits their aunt and uncle in the big city.

worship 280x100My sister and brother-in-law  do not have children of their own, but often talk about their employees as the unruly, sometimes exasperating, sometimes gifted next generation.  When they speak of their work companions it is always in the language of generational battles – Boomers, X’ers and Millenials.  They are the last edge of the Boomer generation, but it is clear that they are caught up in the latest cultural battle fad – not ideological this time but generational.

I can’t tell you in a short piece like this how different a way this is of talking about older and younger generations than the rural intergenerational culture in which I live and pastor.  In the mountains of Virginia, I never hear the older or younger generations talk about Boomers, Xers and Millenials.  Oh, they do talk about younger and older folks in the church, but they talk as people who share the same joys and struggles that younger and older people have always experienced from generation to generation.  They roll their eyes when the other generation presses its claims too hard, but they also show great empathy for the struggles that the other generation is experiencing.  I think this is because they are so closely and intimately a part of the life of all the generations including the disappearing Builder generation.  These relationships are too up close and personal to fit into battle categories.  These are people we are talking about; people from family, church family and neighbors.  Why label them Builders, Boomers, Xers or Millenials?  They are simply Mabel, Margaret, Mandy and Madison.

More and more these are the latest dividing lines that I hear people in the larger church articulating.  Isn’t this a cultural battle that the church should take a pass on?  How well did conservative, moderate, liberal do for us?  There is simply too much work to do during this era of church marginalization to divert ourselves with yet another battle created by a bored, stimulate-seeking American culture.

Can we simply see people?  Can we call them by name like the Gospels do?  Anna, Simeon, Zebedee, Mary, Joseph, Peter, James, John, Mary, Martha.  When the risen Christ appeared at the empty tomb and saw a grief stricken disciple, what did he call her?  Boomer?  Xer?  Conservative?  Liberal?  I believe he just said, “Mary!”

Steve Willis is pastor of the Virginia Presbyterian Church in the Appalachian Mountains and author of Imagining the Small Church, Celebrating a Simpler Path (Alban Institute).

3 replies
  1. Shawn Coons
    Shawn Coons says:

    I find it interesting that this line of thinking almost always comes from those in older generations. Maybe that’s because most churches don’t have enough young people who are present? Replace generations with race or gender and ask if this still makes sense?

    • Steve Willis
      Steve Willis says:

      Hi Shawn,
      Thanks for the response. I think you raise some very real concerns. The reason that I share my experience in the small Appalachian church that I serve is that the way the generations relate to each other is very countercultural to the kind of generational divides that I experience in the dominant American culture. We have plenty of kids in the 43 member church I serve (3 infant baptisms this past year is a pretty healthy ratio). I watch little kids call boomer and builder adults by first name and they know each other intimately. This kind of knowing breaks down generational divides and mitigates the power of the older generations (while of course power remains uneven). I grew up as an Xer in suburban dominant culture and the divide and power differential was much greater. As mainline Protestantism is becoming smaller and moving to the periphery of the culture, this presents the church with an opportunity – to grow in knowing and experience across generations. And I believe that small churches that have been doing this for generations have something to teach the rest of the church as its cultural location is changing. Ironically, it is an opportunity to become more countercultural and exhibit the kingdom in a new way.

  2. Mary Harris Todd
    Mary Harris Todd says:

    Well-put, Steve, and thanks. Shawn, this line of thinking doesn’t always come from us who are older. In her book Tribal Church, younger pastor Carol Howard Merritt points out that younger people are hungry for a network of strong, compassionate intergenerational relationships. She speaks eloquently about how to promote intergenerational understanding and connections. Like Steve, I have been privileged to witness this in the small churches I’ve been a part of. One of the grownup children of my congregation who is in graduate school all the way on the other side of the country said that he senses the presence and the support of the older generations who loved and nurtured him, and who rejoice when he is able to come home for a visit. My question is, how do we make connections with people of all ages who don’t have this kind of healthy tribe. Age-segregation in our culture at large is unhealthy in my view, and all generations would be better served by strong multigenerational ties.

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