For ministry to connect with midlife adults, church leaders must be conversant in the values and convictions of Generation X. Approaches described here, however, will be relevant for all people at midlife adulthood.
Gen X Tolerance
Generation X has not been as supportive of churches as previous generations. They reject dogma and possess a more open disposition to diverse groups of people and ideas. Interracial, intercultural and interreligious friendships and marriages escalated with this generation, a pattern they’ve passed onto their Millennial children.
As a result, these midlife adults often feel unwelcome in churches that condemn certain sexual orientations or preferences or hesitate to reach out to people of other races or cultures. Gen X will proclaim that it is the mission of the church to break down racial barriers and to promote multicultural ministry experiences. Likewise, enforcing membership rules based upon do’s and don’ts is a sure way to push them out. If someone wants to be a member, the institution must find a way to accept that someone and journey with them.
Generation X also believes that every organization needs a prophet or a whistle-blower. “Group think” is not in Gen X’s DNA, and they are not interested in keeping the peace. Expect midlife adults in your congregation to be critical of most everything. The effective ministry leader will accept feedback as oxygen for programmatic growth and vitality rather than dismiss it as petty whining or complaining. Once you are a trusted listener, you can then nurture the skill of constructive criticism.
Deliberately create conversations in which church members feel free to speak what is on their minds. Master the skills of conflict management. Face disagreements head on with honesty, openness, respect and effective practices for negotiation. (A process to settle differences or to develop solutions is described in the Fall 2015 Special Issue of the Lifelong Faith Journal, 17.)
Gen X Suspicion
Building trust is a key to success with Generation X. They will not be loyal to you because of the title you hold. But when you regularly display your ministry competence, you will gain their respect and you will earn their trust with organizational transparency and interpersonal honesty.
With Organizational Transparency, ministry leaders can show Gen X adults that all of the church’s decisions are above board. These adults have seen the moral collapse of so many institutions that they expect you to let them down. You can prove them wrong by making financial records available for anyone to review and with inclusive planning processes. All topics of discussion are on the table.
Interpersonal Honesty is a general leadership trait that is important for all ages and generations, but Gen X hungers for it. The government, the church, the corporate world, the media and their parents all broke their trust. They will not trust anyone who is not completely honest with them. What Boomers will forgive, Gen X will expose. What Gen X will expose, Millennials will quietly walk away from. Gen X will fight back if you break trust with them through dishonesty or promises not kept.
And yet midlife adults are also ready to pull back from the frenetic activity of earlier years and settle into the warmth and slower pace of intimacy. Honesty builds interpersonal trust and sets the tone for deeply intimate relationships, the cornerstone of Christian faith. Midlife adults will respond to programs that help church members become more authentic with each other.
Competence is another requirement for effective ministry with Gen X adults. Because Generation X suffered so many personal and institutional betrayals, all trust has to be earned, and demonstrated competence is how a professional minister earns it.
Clergy need to be both smart and compassionate—leaders in their communities and experts in their field. Gen X parents want physicians who can give clear and proven advice on keeping their kids healthy and teachers who open the classroom door to parent participation. Likewise, they want sound advice on how to nurture their children into a healthy relationship with God (Roehlkepartain, 46).
Gen X Parents
While previous generations raised their kids to be independent, Xer parents want to show their kids how to function and thrive in the world. They’ll have meaningful conversations with their kids. They’ll devote huge amounts of time to the organizations that work with their kids. Higher education has labeled them disparagingly as “helicopter parents,” but this high level of involvement can be a blessing to a church. Recruiting parent volunteers is easier today than it was 30 years ago.
Church leaders should loudly and regularly proclaim that the ministry door is always open to them. Keep parents informed about the progress of their children and teens in your programs—when they succeed and when they struggle. Give them tips about how they can reinforce at home what you are doing at church.
If you’ve dreamed of diving into the family and intergenerational ministry ocean, the time is now. Gen X parents will be there to support your efforts. Programs such as Logos from GenOn Ministries, Family-Centered Religious Education (F.I.R.E.) from Liguori Publications, or online intergenerational resource websites such as VibrantFaith@ Home or Fashioning Faith introduce intergenerational faith formation.
You can create weekend or week-long family service learning experiences just as you send teens on service trips, but these family-based trips will be more powerful. A primary goal of any service learning program for teenagers is to cultivate life-long discipleship habits of service. Teen-only service learning programs are missing the ingredient that will help them achieve that goal: parents!
Service experiences for Gen X parents and their kids don’t have to be complicated. You can facilitate both gathered programs and experiences that are off-campus. Or if something needs to be done around your church, contact a handful of families to get the job done.
Neighborhood service reaches out to those who need help: a young family with a newborn, a neighbor struggling with an illness, or an elderly person who can’t keep up with the house or property. Promote the idea that families can look out for the needs of neighbors. This gives families time together as well as a sense of accomplishment and purpose; it gives people in need the help they deserve; and it gives your church a good name in the community.
Family prayer, worship and discussion groups are a great way to build family faith. Try to keep families together when they are offering ministry hours at church rather than scheduling different times for teens and younger children. Family togetherness is a strong and positive value of this generation, a generation that feels they missed out on it. Whole families can serve as ushers, sing in the choir and assist with leading worship.
During Midlife Crisis
The midlife crisis is an opportune moment for churches to intervene in the lives of midlife adults and to provide relevant faith formation opportunities and resources that will help them navigate midlife maturation. Church leaders can help members recognize the typical signs of a midlife crisis (Diller) and then encourage them to explore the crisis as an opportunity for spiritual growth.
Programs and resources can help midlife adults reflect deeply on the path their lives have taken and the career, family, personal and faith goals they set earlier in life. How have those goals been met? Are they still unmet? Are they worth keeping? Should new goals be set? Through programs around prayer and reflection, book discussion groups, among others, midlife adults can listen to the inner voice of God calling them to a more abundant future.
In the Digital World
While the most inventive technological minds, such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, belong to other generations, today’s midlife adults are the first large-scale technology users and were the first generation to challenge churches to adopt digital delivery of faith formation content. The Pew Research Center reports that Generation X has the highest rate of technology use except for Millennials. In fact, they use digital games, e-books and tablets at the same rate as Millennials. (Zickuhr, 2010)
The pressure to digitize, however, often results in sloppy efforts that resemble a glitzy tech show rather than authentic Christian ministry. The central mission of every church is to promote the Kingdom of God, which is built upon loving relationships. Technology ought to be used only when it serves the church’s central mission.
Rev. Bruce Miller of Christ Fellowship Church in McKinney, Texas puts it this way: “Our focus is not technology, but how we can use that technology….The church’s purpose is the same, but how we reach people is changing.” His church is using software called Meet the Need that connects people in need with others in the community who can assist them. In this way, technology is being used as a tool to connect people and build relationships.
Digital tools can add value to sermons and presentations. It is unwise to lecture a group of people that includes Gen Xers if the event consists of you and a podium. Even if you are the most gifted orator, some audience members are primarily visual learners. Digital technology helps us engage multiple senses in every learning session.
Recently at a church in Kentucky, I enjoyed a deeply engaging sermon that included video clips, maps, a guest speaker along with the pastor, music, photos, live drawings on a digital tablet that were projected onto the screen and more. Every media element and every sensory experience reinforced the key message of the sermon, “God Is Faithful!” gather the data and then ignore the results. When you ask people to take the time to express their thoughts, feelings and opinions, you must develop a response that is relevant and timely.
Easy-to-use and affordable survey tools include Surveymonkey.com, Zoomerang.com, Surveygizmo.com and Polldaddy.com. Most are free up to a certain number of uses or responses.
Even though email is rapidly giving way to social media and texting, email marketing software allows your church to inform members about upcoming events, and announce and distribute survey questionnaires. Generation X still relies on email and it is a viable way to communicate with them.
In exchange for a low monthly subscription fee, you can send as many colorful and dynamic emails as you want without any additional cost. With email programs such as ConstantContact.com, MailChimp.com and Flocknote.com, you can include photos, graphics, videos and podcasts.
Texting is now more common than phone calling. With mass text messaging there is much information that you can pass along in a text message with equal or better results than a phone call. When you want a deeper personal impact, however, a voice-to-voice encounter can be more powerful. With mass texting, you can spread short, simple messages such as meeting reminders or cancellation notices to a targeted group of people quickly.
Podcasts are simple voice recordings that can be added to a website or shared through an email or text message. Sermons or even sermon snippets make excellent podcasts. You can also make podcasts with simple prayer instructions and reflections, or post interviews with church members on a special page on your website.
Any digital recording device, including most cell phones, will allow you to create a podcast. The same software you use to edit videos can be used to edit podcasts or you can use free audio editing software called Audacity.
Christians in the 21st century, like most people, are highly visual in their learning orientation, and video or film learning is increasing in popularity. Generation X is, after all, the television generation. You can still produce warm feelings in their hearts with video technology.
Video production software is now included with most new computers, making it easy to produce simple educational videos that can stand by themselves or supplement a larger project. Videos can be easily embedded into websites and emails, sent to cell phones and distributed through social media.
Video should always enhance and not distract from the core content of the session. It should always be used in the context of a faith formation that brings people together in communion with each other and with God. For example, dedicate a page on your website to introduce new parishioner families with a short video of an interview with family members.
When it’s difficult to get people to attend meetings at the church building, especially when there is a threat of bad weather, consider using online meetings. Church members can join you from the comfort of their own homes.
Webinars are another way for people to gather online, although they are usually designed as an educational event for larger numbers of participants. Webinars can also be creative teasers for gathered programs. Offer the content online, and schedule an event at a later date for group activities.
Webinars can also give a church access to a national speaker without having to pay the speaker’s travel expenses. A gathered group of participants at the church can view the webinar on a large screen while others login from home. The webinar becomes an enriching experience especially if there are follow-up opportunities planned when the whole community is gathered together. At-home participants could be invited to a small group experience to reflect upon the webinar presentation. Suggested software that supports online meetings and webinars includes AnyMeeting.com, GoToMeeting.com, GoToWebinar.com and WebinarJam.com.
Social media, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and LinkedIn, are among the most common names in the world of social networking. Anyone can set up an account for free and be connected to thousands of people in a very short time. Churches can use social networking for informal communication about programs and events while also sending inspirational messages on a regular basis.
Involvement, diversity, acceptance, suspicion, technology, integrity and authenticity are terms that have all been used to capture the spirit of Generation X. Current midlife adults challenge our institutional approaches like no generation before them. Our success with them depends upon our adaptability, our integrity and our competence.
We must broaden our faith formation delivery systems to use technology generously and judiciously. Church leaders who recognize the spiritual significance of midlife crisis can help midlife adults recreate their futures, while honoring their current commitments, and re-engage them with fresh perspectives. If midlife adults successfully push the church to develop new ministry approaches that are meaningful and relevant for this stage of life, they will have done all of us a great service.
This article first appeared in Episcopal Teacher:
Winter 2016, Vol. 28, No. 2, Special Issue: Adult Formation, page 12-15