At any given time in the life of a local church it aims to reach the people in their community with the Good News about Jesus Christ. In seeking to do so each local church must engage with people who are shaped and formed by the culture in which it exists. As each generation of children within their community grows up they are shaped by the surrounding culture. And as this culture changes over time, the different cohorts of children are shaped in different ways creating distinctive generational groups.
Generation theory is not a new concept and there is still debate about how much it influences church styles and ministry approaches. Do we keep doing the same things we have always done or do we adapt to the culture around us? The ministry reality for most churches is a bit of both, we preach the same Gospel in different ways to differing generations.
So what are the key generations in our church?
- Boomers - In the post WWII era the Baby Boomers grew society at such a fast pace because there were twice as many baby boomers as their parents. The culture expanded to include this boom in population growth. The first generation of dedicated youth ministers grew up to reach this generation.
- Gen X - After the baby boom of the post war era, the population growth was more moderate through the 1970's and 1980's. The next generation to come through society are known as Generation X or Gen X. There were slightly less Gen X people than Boomers and they always felt they were in the shadow of the Boomers. Many Gen X grew up in a church with a separate youth ministry which aimed to keep young people from dropping out of the church.
- Generation Y or Millennials were those that graduated high school after 2000, in the new century. This generation saw an expansion of communication technologies such as computers, mobile phones the creation of online social networking. There are slightly more Gen Y than Boomers.
- The current group of children growing up right now are sometimes referred to the iGeneration because of their use of iPads, iPhones and other technologies from birth. This generation will grow up in a church that is no longer dominant in their culture.
Some churches seek to minister to one particular generation and do that really well. They become experts at reaching this generation and attract people from this generation; they adapted ministry styles and programs to suit this new generation. Other churches start with one generation and seek to add other generations in their focus over time. Usually these churches keep stage of life programs but adapt it to each generation as the generations cycle through the church.
For example at St Hilary's Kew Reverend Peter Corney, one of Australia’s first youth ministers, targeted his ministry to Baby Boomers when they were young. The style of ministry at St Hilary’s was adapted to engage this generation with programs to suit their style and tastes. As Boomers grew out of the youth ministry and were replaced by Gen X, the church ministry team added programs to the ministry mix to reach both generations at the same time.
A decade ago when Gen Y moved into the children's and youth ministry, St Hilary's had to expand its ministry to cater for Boomers, Gen X and Gen Y. Now that a new generation of children comes into our children's ministry our church aims to minister to Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y and the iGeneration. Currently we are exploring how we will add the next generation of toddlers, Gen Alpha, into our ministry mix as well.
More generally, any local church that attracts a particular generation through children's ministry or youth ministry can develop ministry styles in one of three ways:
- Cohort focused - These churches do well by attracting a targeted generation and travel through life with this same cohort of people or the same generation. If a church keeps developing programs for the people they have, who are all from within one generation then the church will become dated and loose touch with successive generations.
- Age group focused - These churches focus on a stage of life and keep focusing on the same stage of life. So a church with a strong youth ministry may stay focused on youth ministry even though some members graduate to the young adult phase. These churches welcome other people to stay but they don't offer particular programs to every generation. People will be attracted to these churches if they are in the targeted stage of life but tend to leave once they reach a new stage of life.
- Intergenerational - thirdly a church can aim to be multigenerational. Rather than going after one specific generation or one specific stage of life they seek to offer ministry to all generations through all stages of life. Whilst some churches say that they are multigenerational this style of ministry is much more complex than being stage of life focused. It requires every generation to adapt to the times rather than staying fixed on how things have always been done before.
Ministry to one generation can be hard enough but catering to four generations at once? This task of being a multigenerational church is what many churches want to do but it is the most difficult path. Many churches say they are multi generational but they just want young people to join the way they have been doing church for decades.
The challenge for our church at St Hilary's is to realise that we aren’t just a Boomer church even though Boomers were once the key targeted age group. Again, just because we once had a strong youth ministry in the past doesn’t mean that St Hilary's is just a Gen Y church. Currently at St Hilary's we are seeking to minister to five generations at once; each generation with their own styles and needs. This is not the easiest path forward but it is the path that we feel God has called us to. With God’s help we hope that we can pull it off.
Reverend Mark McDonald
St Hilary’s Kew.