I’m glad churches want to know how to reach Millennials. They aren’t fans of organizations, so these 15-34 year olds don’t trust organized religion and churches as much as other generations do.
More than that, churches do not yet understand how to respond to the new life stage of emerging adulthood, so we have a lot of work to do with twentysomethings. I couldn’t be more excited they are getting more focus.
But I’m worried even more about a different generation: the Baby Boomers.
And if we aren’t prepared, they will catch churches by surprise.
Surprise #1: Boomers are returning to church, but we are now focused on ministering to Millennials.
Boomers are coming back to church more than any other generation. As Boomers wind down their careers and retire, they are searching for significance, meaning, and purpose. Almost a decade ago the greatest experts on Baby Boomers reported that Boomers were moving into a spiritual phase of life. Boomers volunteer more than any other generation, they go on cause vacations, and some of them are going back to church.
One of the greatest fake-outs the evil one can do is to make sure that the church pays almost exclusive attention to Millennials when Boomers are the generation ready for the harvest.
Surprise #2: Boomers have never been a quiet generation that fades into the background.
Baby Boomers brought us coffee shops in churches because they refused to drink Maxwell House out of a big Bunn urn, or worse, be forced to suck down the generic stuff with the green stripe (my parents’ adult Sunday school class bought that stuff to save money during the recession of the 1980s).
Sociologists have referred to the Boomers as the “pig in the python”—meaning they are a huge generation who has, by their sheer size and economic power, always commanded attention. While the Traditionalists are loud about worship styles and how much personal attention the pastor should provide, if the past fifty years of Boomer behavior are any indication, we ain’t seen nothing yet.
The leading expert on Boomers suggests they value youth more than anything else, not so much because they worship looking younger, but so they will not be pushed aside and lose their influence. That’s one of the biggest reasons most Boomers aren’t interested in traditional retirement. And just as they transformed church coffee, so they are already transforming retirement and requiring your church to transform the way you do ministry with retired persons.
And that leads us to our third surprise.
Surprise #3: The Baby Boomers have much higher expectations for church.
Jack Welch is famous for regularly saying, “Most businesses are over-managed and under-lead.”
But after having worked with thousands of people in both businesses and churches, I think it’s just the opposite in the family of God. Most churches are over-lead and under-managed. Their staff have great visions, but they don’t manage well. I certainly didn’t the first decade I was a pastor, before I spent twenty years working in business and management.
Boomers don’t have patience for poor management. Whereas the Traditionalists would volunteer even if things were not well-organized, many Boomers are used to working in corporations where things, while not perfect by any stretch, are often better managed than even in the large churches.
Where churches are used to retirees showing up with time on their hands and asking the staff what they can do to help, Boomers are used to walking in and telling what they can contribute. Many more Boomers than Traditionalists have management experience that exceeds (often far exceeds) that of their pastors. Many of them see needs in the church staff or church ministries that the pastors don’t even recognize because their pastors think that’s just the way things are in church.
Here’s one example:
Many pastors think that volunteers who put in the most time and are willing to do whatever is asked of them are the stars and deserve a say in decisions. Whereas these experienced managers think that people with management skills should make the decisions so that everyone will be more productive. They simply don’t have the patience to listen to a hard worker explain an impractical idea for twenty minutes. As a result, many of these high-capacity Baby Boomers volunteer for nonprofit organizations because they’re more professionally managed and less frustrating.
Boomers can be a major force for impacting the world, but churches of all sizes will need to up their management game or the Boomers will go someplace else to make a difference.
The Boomer harvest is ripe. Don’t overlook them or let them surprise your church. This is the critical time for your church to give Boomers a vision of what’s possible for their spiritual life and what of the difference they can make with this next stage of their lives.
For fifteen years we’ve been telling Millennials that they can be a generation of difference makers. Isn’t it time we tell their parents and grandparents the same thing?
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