2016-06-30
Excerpted by permission from ReGeneration Quarterly.

To understand the power of "generation" talk in America, you've got to think like a marketing executive.

One of the cornerstones of modern marketing is the theory of segmentation. Once upon a time, soap manufacturers made soap, a product that pretty much everyone needs. Then along came Proctor & Gamble, who realized that they could make several different kinds of soap and market them to different audiences. In the process, they could sell not just soap but also an additional intangible sense of quality.
I don't understand why so many people think that segmentation can save the church.

The goal of the modern marketer is to identify, or to create brand-defining differences, and sharpen their distinction in the mind of the consumer until he is unwilling to cross that sacred line between Ivory and Camay--because that other product just isn't "for him."

Segmentation works. Ford sells more station wagons by selling two versions, one called the Ford Taurus and the other called the Mercury Sable, than it would if it sold just one.

What I don't understand is why so many people think that segmentation can save the church.

"Generation" is, to use a popular term these days, a construct: an artificial convention by which a society agrees to divide up a continuous range into segments. With one significant exception, which we'll get to in a minute, birth rates are a continuous phenomenon. So what is it that has made Americans so uniquely preoccupied in recent years with the construct of "generations"--whole groups of people who move through life, monolithically, with a common identity based solely on their date of birth?

The answer comes down to the Baby Boomers.

The Baby Boomers are the significant exception to the continuous shape of the birth-rate curve in the U.S. since its inception. We may all be tired of hearing about the Baby Boomers, but the Baby Boom was a genuine, and exceptional, event in American history, precipitated by and accompanied by cataclysmic historical events.

By contrast, the so-called "millennial" generation, which includes the babies being perambulated down your neighborhood street, will be numerically larger than the Baby Boom--but there is no similar confluence of events that contributed to this new boom. Rather, it is a mundane convergence of trends that include the Boomers' own delay in having children.

But while these features of the Baby Boom are well known, what's less often remarked is how, for the Baby Boomers and those who marketed to them, generation became a key means of market segmentation. One famous slogan captures that strategy in its early stages: "Not your father's Oldsmobile." For the first time, a car was being sold as the best for a particular age group.

Madison Avenue must have breathed a huge collective sigh of relief when a young Canadian writer hit the best-seller charts with a novel called "Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture." Within a year, Douglas Coupland was being offered five-figure fees to speak to corporate marketers about the new "generation" and how to "reach" them--offers which fell on ears strangely deaf to commercial success.

Many generationally targeted ministries are responses to our culture's effectiveness at convincing kids that they shouldn't be caught dead in their father's church.

Undaunted by Coupland's unwillingness to sell his generation's then-tortured identity, consumer culture went to work defining a generation whose principal characteristic was its resistance to being defined.

Now America is suffused with generational consciousness, even though whole generations have little in common in a country as diverse as the U.S. If you doubt this, put a 10-year-old from Palo Alto in the same room with the daughter of a migrant farmworker from the Central Valley, and see what they have to say to one another.

It's remarkable how inaccurate many predictions about generations have been, beginning with the Baby Boomers, who were going to be anti-authoritarian and pro-environment, until they read the latest research on smoking's links with cancer and got behind the wheel of Ford Expeditions, respectively. Gen Xers were doomed to a life of slackerdom, until nine-figure IPO's and Palm V's were dangled in front of them. Today the Millennials are civic-minded, teamwork-oriented, industrious do-gooders (when they're not pale-skinned Quake addicts shooting up their high school); tomorrow, who knows?

Two of the most accomplished, and in some ways nuanced, practitioners of this sort of analysis are Neil Howe and William Strauss, whose book "Thirteenth Gen: Abort, Retry, Fail?" did much to cement generation-speak in the popular lexicon. Strauss and Howe see our country's history as a kind of grand cycle in which every fourth generation is "civic-heroic."

The GI generation, Strauss and Howe say, was the last civic-heroic generation; the Millennials, now beginning college, are the next. But this kind of analysis is incredibly shaky as prediction. How would we have known that the GI's were a great civic-heroic generation if not for the obliging world events of the Great Depression and the Second World War?

"Abort, Retry, Fail?" was a great title for a book about Gen X in 1993, but because Strauss and Howe (like nearly every other cultural commentator) failed to predict the stunning economic renaissance driven by technologies their "thirteenth gen" controlled, only a few years later it seems hopelessly off course.

The segmentation of the American church is dangerous to its health.

"Generation," then, is a convenient fiction born of equal parts historical accident, marketing genius, and over-simplification. But is it useful for the church?

Unlike some, I do not find this a simple question to answer. I've spent the last nine years working with 18- to 22-year-olds as a campus minister with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship--a segmented ministry if ever there was one. Many generationally targeted ministries are simply pragmatic responses to our culture's effectiveness at convincing kids that they shouldn't be caught dead in their father's church.

Segmentation is an inescapable feature of our environment. But there's such a thing as too much of a good thing. The segmentation of the American church is dangerous to its health, because the church is not in the business of marketing a product. Segmentation, when not practiced with great care and humility, can be fatal, because the real danger of segmentation is that we will forget the gospel.

For surely one of the scandalous things about the gospel--indicated by Jesus' own practices of welcoming sinners and eating with them, calling tax collectors along with fishermen to be his disciples, and praying for the forgiveness of his executioners--is that it does not fit the marketer's formula "for people like me."

It is in fact for people not like me.

Christianity is not a product that can be added seamlessly into the lives of consumers like one more lifestyle-enhancing appliance. It is instead a call to a completely different way of viewing the world.

Certainly, behind some "contemporary services" or new church plants are thoughtful evangelists who are contextualizing this gospel. Equally certainly, behind some others are self-absorbed young people who just want to run something all by themselves--No Grownups Allowed.

But behind the majority of segmented ministries, I suspect, is a failure to welcome the stranger.

Like stressed-out parents sending their junior-high kids off to a summer of tennis camp, established churches give their young adults a generous send-off gift to start their own thing. They do this out of love, of course, and even in the name of "empowerment." But secretly, more than a few pastors and elders are happy to see a segmented "contemporary service" or "Gen X church" thrive as long as nothing in their world will have to change.

Meanwhile, as the experiences of countless energetic and entrepreneurial young adults can attest, the thrill of starting something new "for people like us" is mighty tempting when set next to the plodding rate of change in established organizations. Add in a worldview which takes consumer culture's generational segmentation for granted, and new churches can seem like the only way to go.

Yet what is needed is almost exactly the opposite: to form in every generation the will to love the stranger in every other generation.

Here in the wasteland of a segmented culture, we already know the curse; the promise is that God still has ways to overcome our alienation from one another. Those people with whom modern culture has convinced me I have nothing in common actually are "people like me." The church, if it is to be the church, will undo what the marketers have done.

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