WORLDVIEW: Churches as generational mission labs

Baptist Press
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Posted: Jul 28, 2011 5:22 PM
WORLDVIEW: Churches as generational mission labs
Editor's note: Visit "WorldView Conversation," the blog related to this column, at http://worldviewconversation.blogspot.com/. Listen to an audio version at http://media1.imbresources.org/files/135/13592/13592-76399.mp3

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)--You're just entering your prime, baby.

You're not older; you're better. You hit the gym with a vengeance. Aches and pains? If you've got 'em, you're not admitting it to yourself or anyone else. You've got big plans for the future. Sixty is the new 40. "Retirement" is not part of your vocabulary (you probably won't be able to afford it, anyway).

You're a boomer, of course. You and your generational comrades have been turning the world upside down since you were pimply teens. So you're not going to let little things like age, gravity or mortality slow you down.

Of five emerging trends in American churches cited by LifeWay Christian Resources President Thom Rainer in the Summer 2011 issue of Facts and Trends (http://bit.ly/pdXyim), this one struck me:

"Senior adult ministries in churches will experience steep declines."

Wait a minute. The U.S. population is aging, right? Senior adult ministry ought to be a growth industry. To the contrary: Boomers don't do "senior."

"As the large baby boomer generation moves into their older years, they will resist any suggestion that they are senior adults, no matter how senior they may be," Rainer explains. "Unfortunately, many churches are slow to adapt to new realities. If they do senior adult ministry the way they've always done it, it will be headed for failure."

It makes perfect sense if you understand the boomer psyche. As a generation, we are deep in denial about aging. In our minds, we're still hip, young and wrinkle-free. And to be fair, medical science has added quite a few years to our potential life spans. In many cases, we really do have more energy and vitality than our parents had when they hit 50 or 60. So we don't need no stinkin' shuffleboard. We're just getting started.

In a recent column I quoted New York Times writer David Brooks, who lamented that so many young college grads are being "sent off into this world with the whole baby-boomer theology ringing in their ears. … are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture."

It sounds good, but encourages boomeristic self-involvement at the expense of service to others -- and to God. Here's a thought: Instead of passing on our worst trait, what if we boomers reinvented "senior adult ministry" in the years to come? Rather than waiting for churches to minister to us, what if we turned them into laboratories where boomers mentor our successors, the Millennials, to reach our communities and the nations with the love of Christ?

Another trend Rainer highlights: "Our nation will see the emergence of the largest generational mission field in more than a century. According to our current research, the Millennial generation, those born between 1980 and 2000, will have a very low Christian representation. Our estimates now are that only 15 percent are Christian. With a huge population of nearly 80 million, that means that nearly 70 million young people are not Christians. … They are not angry at churches and Christians. They simply ignore us because they do not deem us as meaningful or relevant."

In this sea of spiritual lostness, churches are floundering to stay afloat.

"The facts are, evangelical Christianity, not to mention mainline Christianity, is declining in America," Rainer commented in a Baptist Press story earlier this year. "Why? One of the primary reasons is the church -- many local churches, I should say -- have become more about what we can do for our members than what we can do to reach out beyond."

But Christian Millennials are asking, "What can we do to become incarnational in our communities? What can we do to reach the nations?"

Christian boomers, who have actively participated in the historic expansion of the Gospel across the globe in the last generation, can help them answer those questions. As a group, Millennials respect their parents and other elders and value relationships with them. That goes double for Millennials in the church -- if churches make the effort to nurture that influence.

"They have learned from older people all their lives, and they don't want to stop now," Rainer writes. "They want to be led and taught in their places of work, in their churches and in their families. They particularly want to learn from couples who have had long and successful marriages. Many Millennials see such examples as heroes to emulate."

That's right, boomers. We can be mentors, even heroes, to Millennials who are searching for godly models of missional servanthood. I can't think of a better way to defy aging.

It sure beats denial.

Erich Bridges is IMB global correspondent.

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