Why Church Leaders Will Never Understand NextGen

We need to stop seeing people as demographic groups and get to know them as individuals.

If you’re an older pastor, Millennials, Gen Z, and Generation Alpha (collectively, NextGen) are a mystery to you.

Boomers like me were/are a readily-identifiable demographic. Gen X shifted the field. And NextGen is making it a whole new game.

For instance, in the boomer era it was not unusual for over one-third of the nation to be watching the same TV show. During the day, up to half the neighborhood listened to the same radio station on their drive home. And every adult in town read one of two newspapers.

If you mention The Brady Bunch, The Beatles, or Watergate to a roomful of boomers, virtually every face will light up with nostalgic recognition.

Not so with NextGen. Today, there are no one-size-fits-all channels. It’s Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, iTunes, Spotify, podcasts, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and so much more. All with use-it-when-you-want-it capabilities.

Because of the massive array of choices, there aren’t nearly as many communal experiences as there used to be. But church leaders keep looking for that one key to the heart of NextGen.

Here’s a harsh reality every church leader needs to hear – starting with me.

There is no key to the heart of NextGen, because they aren’t really a group (or groups). They’re individuals who just happen to have been born within a general timeframe.

As long as church leaders keep seeing NextGen as a monolithic group, we’ll keep getting it wrong. New generations defy the kind of group categorization we’re used to.

Good for them.

This is the first in a three-article NextGen series. Check out the other two articles:

The Way Jesus Sees People

So, if NextGen can’t be clumped together as a group, like we’ve done for the last 40+ years, what should we do instead?

We need to see them like Jesus does. As individuals, not demographic groups.

Jesus never saw people the way others categorized them. He didn’t treat a woman like all women, a Samaritan like all Samaritans, or a leper like all lepers. His meeting with Nicodemus (John 3) shows us that Jesus didn’t even treat all Pharisees through the same lens.

Jesus saw and treated everyone as an individual.

The New (Old) Church Leadership Reality

So why do we keep looking for the key to understanding NextGen as a group? And why are boomers especially susceptible to this?

First, because boomers like being seen as a group. Our common experiences make us who we are. And we assume others must be the same. They’re not.

Second, because seeing people in demographic groups is easy. Getting to know people one-by-one is hard. And helping those individuals unite on common ground – like in a church – is harder yet.

It’s so much easier to categorize people by labels like boomer or Gen Z, liberal or conservative, and create a program based on those categorizations. Plus, it used to work! Boomers shared so many common experiences that you could build a successful ministry using the church-by-demographics model. As long as you fit into one of the pre-designated groups, we had a great church experience for you.

If you didn’t fit into one of those groups? You were left out. (Sorry, but it’s more true than I want to admit.)

That era is gone. The ways we give and receive information is vast and expanding. The life choices available to us are endless. This is causing us to be splintered like never before, but it’s also opening up opportunities that have never existed.

The massive variety within our culture is nudging Christians to do church in a more first-century way than the twenty-first (or twentieth) century way we’re familiar with.

We must change this up. Stop judging people by the group we’ve put them in, and get to know them as individuals.

As long as we do that, we will be able to touch people’s lives with the good news of Jesus. But if we insist on using one-size-fits-all methods and programs, we will fail.

Church leaders have two options:

Option 1: Church-by-demographics

Keep doing what we’ve been taught. What worked in a previous generation. What got us where we are, but won’t get us to the next place.

Keep designing churches and ministries that target people demographically. Keep teaching upcoming pastors that successful ministries are built by exploiting generational / cultural / socio-economic dynamics.

You might even gather a good number of NextGen that way. Because a lot of them do follow the crowd, just like their boomer parents.

But we’ll lose far more than we’ll gain.

Option 2: Invest In People

Get to know people as individuals. Listen first, talk later.

Stop looking for easy answers, and refuse to bite when they’re offered.

Give up on church-by-demographics and invest in people.

The Gospel Always Works

Understanding how people live their lives, receive information and build relationships is not a call to water down the gospel to the lowest common denominator.

If anything, by their stubborn refusal to be categorized, NextGen are forcing us to stop catering to them and stand up for what we believe in, since there’s nothing else to hang on to any more.

Let’s quit catering to what we think the NextGen demographic is looking for. And while we’re at it, stop catering to boomers, builders, and kids as a demo, too.

Instead, let’s live a life that draws them to Jesus.

For more, check out Why NextGen Won’t Build Churches Like Their Parents Built, here.

(Photo by Rising Damp | Flickr)


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