Why NextGen Won’t Build Churches Like Their Parents Built

Builders and Boomers had relationships and needed to build structures. NextGen have the structures and need to build relationships.

The members of NextGen (Millennials, Gen Z & Gen Alpha) defy categorization. But that doesn’t stop us from trying to categorize them, anyway. As I just did.

Especially for Baby Boomers like me. We love categorizing people. It makes ministry easier. Simpler. Safer.

You know, boring.

As I wrote in Why Church Leaders Will Never Understand NextGen, the main reason we’re having a hard time figuring out how to minister to this generation is because NextGen isn’t really a thing. We made them up.

How We Started Doing Generational Ministry

Baby Boomers were the first generation to be defined as a homogeneous group.

First of all, because there really was a baby boom in the decades following World War II.

Secondly, because our arrival corresponded with the rise of the universal media. Three TV stations, one or two local newspapers, and a Top 40 song list. And we lapped it up.

Boomers loved having these experiences in common. In fact, we got so used to being defined as a group that we looked back at our parents’ generation and called them Builders. And that moniker fit. They had won the war, then the peace, then built the infrastructure of our nations.

But then came the next generation and we didn’t know what to do with them. So, we literally put an X on them – and Generation X was christened.

Gen X was hard to categorize because the universal, one-size-fits-all media landscape was giving way to a multi-dimensional, choice-heavy society. In 1992, Bruce Springsteen sang 57 Channels and Nothing On, and we all wondered how anyone could navigate life with so many options!

Now come the groups we call NextGen. With every possible option literally in the palm of our hands, the idea of limited choices or shared experiences are almost gone. This makes categorizing these generations not just impossible, but foolhardy.

The one-size-fits-all, homogeneous generation is over. But it really only existed for 50 years anyway. From about 1945 to 1995. We don’t have a name for any generation before the Builders because, without mass media, people were identified ethnically and regionally, not generationally.

NextGen are forcing us to minister in a new way. New for us, that is. But it’s really the oldest way of all. We can’t treat them as a group, or even as subgroups. We have to actually minister to them one-on-one as individuals, instead. Oh, the (mock) horror!

What Kinds Of Churches Will NextGen Build?

NextGen won’t build the kinds of churches their parents and grandparents built. I don’t know what kinds of churches they will build, but they’ll be very different than what we’ve been used to in the last two generations. Here’s why.

Builders and Boomers took relationships for granted and needed to build structures. NextGen take the structures for granted and need to build relationships.

My parents’ and grandparents’ generations were literally building and rebuilding nations following the war. For the first time, construction companies didn’t just put up houses, they designed and built entire neighborhoods almost overnight. They ran telephone and electricity cables. They constructed freeways. And they erected church buildings in the same way.

For my parents and grandparents, a permanent church building with pews bolted to the floor, a full-time pastor and denominational label meant permanence and status. In those generations, the fastest way to get money out of their pockets was to launch a capital fund building campaign.

Not so for my kids’ generation. Launch a capital building campaign today and you’re likely to be met with blank stares or questions like “why should I give my hard-earned money to help you build a building?”

The High Value of Restoring Broken Relationships

NextGen aren’t wrong to feel that way. And they’re not uncommitted. They just have different needs and see ministry through a different lens.

In addition to giving them permanent physical structures, previous generations also gave them an emotionally impaired, morally ambiguous, relationally impermanent society. We were the generation where divorce and/or parental neglect were virtually assumed. That gave way to the sometimes equally damaging do-everything-for-them helicopter parents.

Most of the relationships that previous generations took for granted have broken. So this generation has a high degree of skepticism, low trust in institutions, and finely-tuned phoniness detectors.

The previous generations sang songs of permanence and trust in our structures, like “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” This one sings about restoring broken relationships and identity, like “I am chosen, not forsaken. I am who You say I am.”

Neither is wrong. They just have different needs and ways of expressing them.

Now that we have some idea of why NextGen is different, maybe we can start talking about how to do better ministry with them. Read more about that my follow-up article, Ministering To NextGen By Leveraging The Relational Power Of Healthy Churches.

(Photo by Stephen Chin | Flickr)

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