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Look Who's Knocking

Jennifer Hooks

The Futuristic generation is standing at your church's doorstep. Are you ready for them?

Effective churches have struggled to successfully connect with Boomers, GenXers, and Millenials for the last 60 years. Keeping up with each generation's quirks and idiosyncrasies is tough work for sociologists, let alone churches with an already-full plate.

If your church is one of those stretching to find ways to make that connection, congratulations! You've convinced the "me-generation" Boomers to pencil in worship on their busy Sunday schedules. You've managed to steer the tough-nut-to-crack GenXers into your pews. And you've tapped into the drive, technological expertise, and social consciousness of the Millenials. No, it hasn't been easy to recognize, understand, and meet these generations on their own ground, but you've managed to connect.

Here's the kicker: You've probably already got one or two members of the newest generation (yes, that's after the Millenials) squalling for Mom or Dad from your nursery right now. That's right -- the next generation is already on the doorsteps of America's churches. Is your church ready to receive them and lead them to the arms of Christ?

To find out, we asked experts, authors, and children's pastors across the nation to unveil the Futuristic generation.

Parents of Futuristics "Gadzooks! I didn't realize we're starting a new generation." That's how one veteran children's pastor put it. You might be echoing that sentiment. The good news is, this is your wake-up call -- so don't hit the snooze button.

Sociologists have dubbed the generation born beginning this year with interim names such as the Futuristics, the New Adaptives, and the New Silents. History shows that generations are usually marked according to historical events. The newest generation, which we'll refer to as the Futuristics, will most likely be chartered as the post-September 11th generation. The Futuristics are born to GenXers and Millenials -- two generations we must better understand to predict and understand their children.

GenXers (born from 1961-1981) have long been described as hardened, anti-institutional, unwanted latchkey kids and adult slackers expected to eventually put the nation at risk because of their aversion to civic duty and patriotic responsibility. GenXers are characterized by their eagerness to embrace risk professionally, but they're skeptical and cautious about relationships -- especially marriage. As a group, they distrust institutions, reject authority, and cling to their splintered, angst-ridden culture. As parents, GenXers have determined not to repeat the mistakes they perceive their parents made in childrearing. So they've crafted their own method of parenting. Consider this quote from Ariel Gore of the San Francisco Chronicle: "A snapshot: a man and his son are walking down Haight Street. Both of them are carrying Spider Man lunch boxes. Welcome to parenting, Generation X style."

Millenials (born from 1982-2002) are considered the most cherished generation since the heroes of the G.I. generation, and they represent a major shift in society's opinion about children. These kids were ushered into the world with "baby on board" bumper stickers. They're more protected, prosperous, higher-achieving, and technologically oriented than any other generation in American history. The Millenials are the societal antidote to GenXers. Viewed as team-oriented, modest, upbeat, and intelligent, Millenials as a whole hold high moral and civic standards. They feel duty-bound to set right the world they're inheriting. And they reject the negative, angry image of GenXers.

"I think we're more preppy. They liked that grungy stuff. It was, like, cool for them not to take a shower," said Alexandra Fondren, age 13, in Neil Howe and William Strauss' book Millenials Rising: The Next Great Generation.

Millenials were born to parents who sheltered them mercilessly. They were safeguarded physically and mentally. They were signed up for every activity, team, club, or organization available -- inside and outside of school. Building their self-esteem was paramount. Experts agree that their team-centered -- rather than individual-centered -- worldview will shape their future ability as a group to handle conflicts and pursue historical achievements.

As new parents to the next generation of children, experts predict that the Millenials' strong desire for community and personal confidence, patience, and intelligence will drive their parenting choices. Strauss and Howe predict that Millenials will lean toward overprotecting their children and that they'll foster a culture of conformity among their kids.

Larry Shallenberger, a children's pastor in Erie, Pennsylvania, offers this insight: "GenXer and Millenial adults will respond to programs that offer character-building and service opportunities for their children. GenXers realize that their Boomer parents were perhaps too permissive with them, and they'll look toward neo-conservatism. Millenials might be looking to pass on to their children the service orientation that they adopted."

A Futuristic World Futuristics are joining a world in which cutting-edge technology includes landmine destroyers; date-rape-drug-spotting coasters; virtual ultrasound in which parents can "feel" the face of their in utero child; dolls that do math, speak multiple languages, and read flash cards; 3-D online environments in which people can live a second life of their design; minivans that transform into sports cars and are powered by hydrogen fuel cells; and the Earth Simulator, the most powerful supercomputer ever built that keeps track of everything in the world -- rainforests, smoke-belching factories, the Gulf Stream, everything -- so it can look forward in time to see what'll happen to our environment. All these things may seem like science fiction, but they're not. They're all real and in existence today.

Futuristics are born into a world where Johns Hopkins University's top Applied Physics Invention of 2002 was the Combined Chemical/ Biological Agent Detection by Mass Spectrometry -- a system designed to thwart terrorist attacks. Futuristics may never know what pre-September 11, 2001, America was like.

"The Futuristic generation is marching toward an all-inclusive life," says Tracy Carpenter, a children's ministries director in Corona, California. "Kids are online at age 3, or they're playing with every kind of computerized toy possible. Information is at their fingertips; the exposure factor is huge. The Futuristic generation will choose their teachers, their food, their churches, their pastors. Why? Because people want more choices and more control."

Such an all-inclusive life introduces a host of new -- and unforeseen -- dangers. "Technological changes bring everything in the world into the kids' realm," says Connie Neal, author of Walking Tall in Babylon. "We used to be able to keep kids from worldly influences; now they're barraged in ways we don't want them to be. We need to protect kids by teaching them to wear the spiritual armor of God -- instead of putting all our efforts into building a wall to keep the world out."

Futuristics Now One question children's ministers must answer before they can proactively minister to the coming generation is: Who will the Futuristics be?

Cultural trends, history, and current events tell us the Futuristics are likely to be similar to Woodrow Wilson's Progressive generation that sought fortune and glory in mining, railroad, and oil well ventures and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Silent generation that witnessed America's rise into a global superpower. Strauss and Howe predict that this generation -- like the Progressives and the Silents -- will be "sensitive and complex social technicians, advocates of fair play and the politics of inclusion. Overprotected as children, they'll become underprotective as parents."

Strauss and Howe also predict that Futuristics will be "overprotected at a time of political convulsion and adult self-sacrifice. [They'll] become sensitive helpmates, lending their expertise and cooperation to an era of growing social calm."

So who are the Futuristics, and how can churches connect with them early on?

Seeking Stability -- Thom Rainer, author of Surprising Insights From the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them, says, "This new generation will be born to parents who'll be desperately seeking stability in relationships and families. The loneliness of the parents will be the inherited value that the Futuristics will try to avoid. Churches that understand how to connect strangers and unchurched people to their fellowships through intentional relationship connecting will have the best hope of reaching this generation."

Futuristics will be bonded by a strong desire for community. And while their lives appear more and more complex technologically, experts believe that Futuristics' emotional lives will tend to be more simplistic; more black and white.

"If the current trend of Millenials continues -- which I believe it will -- their children will be seeking places and people that hold to absolute truth," says Rainer. "The Futuristics will most likely reject and rebel against the relativism of postmodernism, and seek places and people that really believe in an objective reality. This provides a tremendous opportunity for the church to recommit itself to an uncompromising stand on the truth of God's Word. Churches that reach out to this generation with truth at early ages will likely see a great harvest."

Searching for Self -- Children's pastor Anthony Meyers of Potter's House in Dallas, Texas, says, "The new generation won't fit into the cookie cutter mold of others. They're a unique breed and the ministries that tap into the cultural and social issues they face while guiding them toward God will be the most effective."

Generations are easily stereotyped, but it's vital to remember that we deal with individuals, not extensions of a generation label. Ministry to Futuristics will require that we get personal.

"We must see kids for who they are -- not who their parents are," says Carpenter. "People going into ministry need to look at becoming teachers, coaches, and social workers. We need to get into places where kids are and will be vulnerable. We need to be a light to these kids, but we can't shine our lights where the light already is -- we must go out in the dark. We can't keep entering empty rooms. If we don't go through the doors of the full rooms -- even when it makes us uncomfortable -- somebody else will. Frankly, I think loads of pastors will believe they're right where they want to be on the map, when in reality they'll be on the other side of the world."

As Futuristics seek to eliminate shades of gray from their emotional and spiritual lives, experts warn that the risk of conformity for conformity's sake threatens. There will be a tendency to invite only the "joiners."

Shallenberger adds, "My guess is the spiritual risk for the next generation is that they'll experience Christianity primarily as a tool to promote social conformity. The dangers are that individuals will either reject Christianity on this basis, or those who connect will be introduced to its ethical demands at the expense of experiencing grace and relationships. Futuristics may be introduced to the duties of Christianity at a faster rate than they are to the relational sides of faith. The Christian story may continue to be presented as a collection of moralistic fables rather than salvation history. This generation might move away from the postmodern trends and embrace 'how tos' and lists of life principles."

Mastering the Medium -- "Although the gospel never changes, the method of delivery must," says Meyers. To prepare for the Futuristics, Meyers' ministry is "keeping up with technology and cultural trends. We get them more involved. [They're] birthing their own identity in the ministry. They then take ownership and help evolve the ministry itself."

Carpenter recommends that pastors become fluent in computer-ese. Computers -- and all developing forms of communication and information sharing -- are here to stay. Those who reject new technology ultimately will reject the new generation, whose lives will be largely based on it.

Another likely shift will be the need for churches to continually expand their figurative walls to include the unchurched. There must be a willingness -- an eagerness -- to "meet them where they are," as Meyers puts it.

Dale Hudson, a children's pastor in Springdale, Arkansas, says, "If we're going to impact this next generation, we must continue to reach out to those outside our church walls. The churches that are content to stay in their 'holy huddles' will not impact the next generation. Do it through sports programs, community festivals, and so on. And by investing in people's lives one by one."

Building a Bridge -- "Parents need to have a realistic view of the times their children are growing up in. The doors of communication between parents and children need to be much wider," says Meyers. "The Futuristics will be looking for deeds, not words. They want their parents to be role models and leaders, not just to talk about what should be done. More than ever, parents must lead by example." The church-to-home connection seems stronger, but ministries must be diligent about partnering with parents of Futuristics. Without the GenX and Millenial parental stamp of approval, the church's role in children's lives will become an expendable one for many Futuristics.

"One thing never changes from generation to generation: Kids are starving for someone to love and care for them," says Hudson. "It's not the 'cool stuff' that our children's ministry has that will change a child's life. It's our adults building a relationship with that child and connecting her with Jesus. It only takes one adult coming into the life of a child to see that child's life changed forever. All it takes is one loving, 'real-deal' adult."

Ministries will need to think far outside the box in order to establish their roles in families' lives.

"[Children's] spiritual needs remain the same; the challenges of the world around us will most likely get worse," warns Neal. "Therefore, we need to work with parents to help kids learn to guard their hearts. We can help this generation of parents be the strategic influencers they need to be if we don't just do their job for them in terms of nurturing their kids spiritually, but if we also help them accomplish that mission at home."

The Last Word Churches historically have lagged when it comes to changes in our culture, but there's a movement afoot to tap into society's pulse. It's a two-step process -- first recognizing, then connecting with, new generations.

"It's a hard job, keeping up with the next generation. But there'll always be a next generation. That said, a major focus of ministry must be the youth -- not viewing them as an appendage, but as a key organ," explains Meyers. "If the next generation is viewed as a little pinkie finger, then if times get tough, you can cut it off. But if the next generation is a lung -- the life breath of the church -- if you cut it off, the church will have a hard time breathing and begin to slowly suffer and die. If you pour into the next generation's spiritual arena with a serious focus, they'll become the legacy of the church." "I can see the Futuristics becoming the greatest Christian missionary force in our nation's history," contends Rainer. "The Christians of this generation will be a small minority of the total population, but their commitment to Christ and his Commission will be unwavering. This generation won't know what it means to be a casual Christian."

The Futuristics, like their Millenial and GenX parents, will be a powerful and distinctive force -- one that'll propel Christianity into a future we can only imagine. cm


Jennifer Hooks is managing editor of Children's Ministry Magazine. Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change.

 

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