Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Church and the generation gaps

I was reacquainted with an old smouldering anger last night, as I listened to a talk being given about the generation gaps as they relate to Church. I belong to the Baby Boomer generation (people in this country roughly between 48 and 65. The generation below mine is referred to as Generation X and the one above, as the Builder Generation. Below Gen X we have Gen Y. These differences between the generations are being explored in order to give us some insights and understandings into church life. I'm angry because an analysis like this was needed 40 years ago, when the Boomer generation were entering the ministry of the Church of Scotland and the decline in church going was beginning to show. Then, the response of bodies like the General Assembly was one of apprehension that, wait for it, too many people were entering the ministry and we would have too many ministers in the future if the trend kept up. Of course the trend was never going to keep up simply because there was at that time a big pool of potential candidates due to the spurt in population growth: (the boomers are called the boomers because there was a baby boom back then!) This was unlikely to continue once the population began to decline again.

The reason that there should have been a considered look at the generation gap back then, is because many of the boomers could have been helped far more to ready the church for the future generations if the church had been forward looking. What happened was that the Boomers came in, and were held to ransom by the Builder Generation which was effectively in control of the church during the 70's, 80's and 90's. This was a critical time for the church. The Builder Generation is essentially a backward looking generation - not in terms of their desires and aspirations, but in terms of their attitudes and their style. They give respect to status, traditions, structures handed down from the past, and to the given order of things. Boomers were ready to challenge all that and move things on. But they deferred to the Builders who were largely the people attending, supporting, maintaining and controlling church life. Those who challenged the Builders too much found themselves stressed into illness or pressurised into conforming, or both. Small wonder that many of us capitulated and worked hard to make everything fit the Victorian model of church life with which the Builders had been very contented. The working model for the minister's job description which had served the Builders well, was expected to fit the new and changing circumstances of the Boomer Generation people. This conflict was never mentioned in those days where it needed to be mentioned most - the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and its committees. We are now reaping the results of these times. Many congregations are in what feels like terminal decline with few applicants for the ministry and churches closing or amalgamating.

My anger isn't an anger against the Builder Generation - it's against a church that just couldn't or wouldn't see. Of course the General Assembly and its committees were controlled by career ministers with Builder aspirations and mentality, so that was never going to help during those critical years. We are now in the hands of the Boomers - the generation who may feel guilty that it didn't do more to pass the baton on, and that guilt may in itself need addressing in the not too distant future, before we have all retired.

But, I am an optimist with regard to the church. She has survived for the best part of 2000 years. I think she can survive these generational upheavals too. Here in Scotland she may be leaner and smaller in the future, but hopefully fitter too. I think the roadmap of church life will need to be radically rewritten. Generations X and Y I think will have a relatively free hand to do that - the Church is too sick now to be able to stop it thank goodness, so here's to an interesting and eventful future.

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