Monday, September 01, 2008

GenerationME - Understanding Younger Generations and Challenges for the Gospel - Post 1

I mentioned in my previous post that I was going to start a whole series of entries covering the important data provided in the great book, GenerationME: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entiteld-- and More Miserable Than Ever Before by Jean M. Twenge, PhD.  I have been spending much of the past several years trying better to understand my own generation and those younger than me.  So far, I have Dr. Twenge’s book to be the best out there.  So, here comes the series on the book, and today’s first post is about the dangers of so much of what we have been told about those born 1970 and later.  Oh and of course, commentary from yours truly.

Here is the the first highlight from GenerationME (pages 5-6)

All of this, and we don’t have a name.  People born in the late 1960s to the 1970s are often labeled “GenerationX,” but they have not been reexamined since being named in the early 1990s, long before their primary identity veered from slackers to Internet millionaires. It’s just not clear that the GenX label fits now that flannel shirts are out. One advertising executive called the early 1990s description of this generation as bored cynics “the most expensive marketing mistake in history.” Some descriptions (and broth years) of GenX overlap with what I call GenerationMe but its’ clear that the GenX description is incomplete and often misguided.  And the generation born in the 1980s and 1990s—today’s children, teenagers, and people in their early twenties—has no name at all.  Some marketers have used “GenY,” which simply parrots the GenX label and thus probably won’t last long: who wants to be named after the people older than you?  Some have called young people the “Net Generation,” as this is the first generation to grow up with the internet, but this label has not caught on (and being the first to experience something doesn’t mean much; Boomers were the first “TV Generation,” but later generations have clearly trumped them in their attachment to the boob tube). 

I became a Christian during the 1990s, and as I started to read and attend conferences (do non-Christians feel the need to attend conferences the way Christians do?), I became very interested in the whole idea of GenerationX, the GenX church and the like.  The thing was, every time I read a description or heard someone wax eloquent on the idea of GenX spirituality, I didn’t relate.  I felt, well, “odd.” So, and here I am sad to admit, I tried to things that would align with what I supposed to believe, like, and do.  But, well, I felt like an actor playing a role.

Now, a decade plus later and with more life and experience, I realize that the problem was that the much (not all of course) of GenerationX stuff was simply not accurate.  Herein lies two important things to think about as we think about how to reach this generation (which according to Dr. Twenge’s description, includes me, but just barely – I would be among the oldest of GenMe) that we must keep in mind.

First, and this is common sense but it has driven so many mistakes historically in so many areas, is that we cannot rely on anecdotes, things we see and then extrapolate out to create an entire way of looking at things.  Imagine that you see a young 20 something on a 100+ day in Phoenix drinking a steaming cup of coffee.  Immediately you decide, “Well, since this generation has been raised in the era of Global Warming, they don’t feel heat, and thus they must like warm clothing all year round, coffee on a hot day, etc.” Now imagine that you run a coffee shop and after seeing this you decide to get rid of all your iced coffee drinks.  How is that gonna work out for you?

Now anecdotes are not bad.  They helped to give flesh to data, surveys and real information.  But when we build our thesis regarding anything strictly on anecdotes, we set ourselves up for major failure.  One of the other books on this generation, written from a political bent, Millennials Rising by Strass and Howe, does not rely on data (beyond surface levels data), and as it turns out a lot of their findings are suspect.  One of the things that I appreciate about Twenge is that she has real data, surveys, psychological inventories and the like that spread across generations.  If you are going to write about a generation and help to exegete anecdotes, you need something substantive to understand those stories. 

Second, and one of my other great concerns is that so much of what we use to understand any generation, but especially GenX and GenY (to the use the standard terms), is in marketing terms.  So much of what we have been taught to believe comes not from sociologist and psychologist (okay, admission, as an academic, I like academic data), but from marketers.  They point to preferences, not to what people actually need or do.  The quote that I have started this series makes that point.  An entire marketing campaign that is still going on (from businesses and the like that are still using outdated materials) was developed around the infamous “GenerationX”. And it was, to quote the executive in this citation, the most expensive mistake in history.  Look, I liked Nirvana’s music as much as the next person.  I never owned a flannel shirt though.  The image of GenerationX that was created for us never made any sense and never connected with most (again, you can always fit a small subsection of any group) of the people I knew.  In the same way that Friends did not explain any real people’s 20something experience. 

Alas, so much of both church and parachurch efforts to reach “this generation” have been driven by marketing.  The church learned some good lessons from marketing.  I am not one of those people who thinks that marketing data is straight out of hell and smells like smoke.  Does the church have an obligation to be “kingdom culture” and thus always “counter culture”?  Yes.  But one of the things that marketers have found is that you need to provide entry points for people who do not understand the kingdom culture to begin their journey from their existing culture to that culture.  Dr. Steve Haynor, who is the ex-President of InterVarsity now professor of Missional Church at Columbia Seminary in Georgia (the post previously held by the great Darrell Guder) spoke at my church a couple years ago (First Presbyterian of Colorado Springs, http://www.first-pres.org) and he talked about creating multiple entry points or doors into fellowship with the saints (please note: I am fairly high on the missional church concept, and do not believe that we should create a “church culture” to allow people to avoid the culture of the world, but rather we need to inculcate the kingdom culture into the lives of the community of Christians that they take with them into the world, as embassies and ambassadors of Christ to the world). 

Marketers have helped us (when the relationship has been at its best) to create those doors to people who do not know us.  Imagine if Target had all of their materials only in French, used Green Fluorescent light and played Hungarian folk music.  How much would you enjoy shopping there?  The church has had to learn how to communicate itself to a world where more and more people (if not the culture at large) is post-Christian.  So, marketing data can indeed help.  The problem again is that they address what people desire in the abstract, not what they actual need nor the on-the-ground reality of their lives. 

And so the church has gotten in the business of trying to address the desires of those 40 and under, abstract desire at that, and thus affirms the fact that “its all about us” and that what we want matters far more than what we need, and most importantly, what God wants!

Twenge is a sociologist, and as we shall see in the coming posts, her data is going to provide a really useful look into how those of us born since 1970 really see the world.

The generation(s) represented by those born 1970 and after have some important differences in the way they understand the world, in how they process their own self-understanding, and in how the relate to authority, power, and privilege.  As we shall see, this is going to me that much of what we have been doing in the church and parachurch is going to run into increasing tension with them. 

But that is for next post…

Questions, comments, issues?  Email me at

Posted by Christopher on 09/01 at 02:09 PM
Theological Musings on Important TopicsGenerationME SeriesPermalink

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Quote "Jesus does not give recipes that show the way to God as other teachers of religion do. He is himself the way." Karl Barth.

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