We didn't set out to reach Gen Xers when we started New Song Church in 1986, mostly because nobody had ever heard of a Gen Xer.
The people born between 1963 and 1981 had not yet been saddled with the label that Douglas Coupland now wishes he had never invented. We used to call them "the people in between," because they didn't fit into church youth ministries but didn't feel ready to join family-oriented congregations.
We were encountering the leading edge of a generation who processed information differently, were cynical about established organizations, and were deeply committed to their friends--characteristics that have now been well documented by sociologists.
When it came to church, they valued raw honesty and experiential worship. Like every group of human beings, they also liked being around people like themselves, hearing their own music, and talking about their own issues. New Song Church gave them the chance to develop a church for their generation.
We took a pretty traditional church-planting approach in starting New Song: build up a core of people, gather them in a weekly service, reproduce small groups to assimilate those who came, and develop compassion ministries so that the church wouldn't become ingrown.
So far we really weren't doing anything new. The difference was who was leading and giving the church its distinctive character. Most small group leaders and, eventually, staff members were in their early twenties. A nineteen-year-old led the worship. We referred to elders as "youngers." And young people came, became Christians, and stayed.
Back in the days when Gen Xers were being referred to as "slackers," New Song Church demonstrated that members of this generation were not "slackers" but rather passionate, creative, and committed ministers.
But older people came, became Christians, and stayed, too. They weren't drawn by the music or the clothing styles. They just loved being around young people. What made New Song more than a young adult event was the involvement of the older generation with the younger generation. Those who were older served in our nursery, on our financial team, as small group leaders, and as mentors. Even though we intended New Song Church to be for Gen Xers, it has become a church that spans four generations. And it is better for having done so.
Dieter was hired to develop a "ministry for the next generation." At the time of our move, Willow Creek was 18 years old and was already experiencing a gap between its youth ministry and its adult membership. In order to bridge that gap, we developed Axis, which functioned like a Gen X church within Willow Creek.
This is not the place to fully critique the "church within a church" approach, but it's no panacea. Creating new churches within churches leads to the hall of mirrors question: When will it ever stop? The potentially endless proliferation of new subgroups begins to look like it is based on nothing more substantial than catering to new styles. That kind of shallowness won't last.
The motivation--to make sure that younger people stay in church--is sound, but the strategy can backfire, taking on the tone of a junior-senior relationship.
Often, this kind of Gen X ministry is created and ultimately controlled by the older generations. Rather than being as legitimate as the "main" church, the Gen X congregation is seen as something that people will grow out of and graduate from, like high school. But how do you graduate from your own generation?
Worst of all, this approach to ministry is usually based on the assumption that the characteristics of Gen Xers are things that they ought to grow out of. When they do, goes the implicit reasoning, they will join the rest of us adults.
Very rarely does anyone ask, "Could it be that the characteristics we want Gen Xers to grow out of are the very characteristics that the church ought to grow into?"
For in retrospect it's clear that Gen Xers were not bringing a generational challenge as much as a philosophical challenge to established churches.
Postmodernism, the native worldview of Gen X, doesn't say, "I was born between the years w and y." It says, "My view of the world, truth, and spirituality is significantly different from your view of the world."
And the truth is that we all, regardless of generation, are moving toward postmodernism. It just happens that Gen Xers were the first generation to manifest its characteristics.
At first, they were identified as the latest variation on the old theme of disenchanted youth. But in fact, they were and are the tip of a wedge cutting through our culture. Every generation after them is postmodern, and postmodernism is changing all of us.
As this wedge widens, the church's modern approach speaks to a smaller and smaller percentage of people. Gen Xers are not your church's youth ministry. (The leading edge of Gen X is now well into their thirties!) They are the early ambassadors for a new and disorienting world.
The only real hope for the church-within-a-church model is if it is seen as the beginning of a transitional time for a whole church--relearning ministry styles and strategies for a new environment, and sharing power and resources with those who have some fluency in that new environment.
Management guru Peter Drucker has said, "The biggest issue facing the church is the issue of succession." But this issue will certainly not be solved by relegating the church's future to the fellowship hall, where they will stay until they are "ready to join the rest of us."
The church needs Gen X, and generations that will follow, now, as tour guides to the emerging realities of our culture. The church needs to learn from Gen X.
Our family has recently made another transition. We are now living in San Francisco, helping to start new churches in the city. In San Francisco, both "youth" and those who are older have characteristics we have often associated with Gen Xers. And it's clearer than ever that these are cultural, not merely generational, characteristics.
In San Francisco, with its bellwether combination of sophistication and cynicism, we are getting a sneak preview of the challenges that await the whole North American church. We are also picking up at least one handy metaphor for ministry in a postmodern context: San Francisco's famous fog.
The familiar markers of even a nominally Christian society are gone. And yet in the midst of this foggy disorientation, we are filled with confidence that God will lead us. When we talk with other city pastors and church planters, we discover that they are feeling the same mixture of trepidation and excitement as we enter a new era.
And at least some moments of clarity are emerging from the mist, convictions that we think will shape the postmodern (not "the Gen X") church in its many manifestations.
One thing that's clear is the futility of the debate over whether to be trendy or traditional. Rather, each church will serve its community in the name of Jesus in a way that seems organic to that place. The church will be a place that transcends style wars.
This is what Gen Xers want for the church. According to Tiffany and Peter Robinson, a couple of Gen Xers, "Our generation, without necessarily knowing it, is calling the church back to what the church has always been called to be--a multi-generational, multi-cultural, open, orthodox, and culturally engaged body of believers. This is what the church will need to be in order to speak to the postmodern culture with any legitimacy. So Gen X ministry isn't the 'wave of the future' as much as a timely influence for a more full-bodied church life."
Local churches will become places of life transformation, not just information. Whether a particular local church is small or large, it will develop family-like relationships among people who are different from each other. Postmodern churches won't hand out simple platitudes, but honor the mystery that most people feel is a normal part of their lives.
Finally, postmodern churches will have the amazing opportunity to tell the story of God to people who do not know it. These people haven't abandoned God, because they were never with him to begin with. Many have not even rejected God so much as ignored him. Others have rejected a god who is a mere caricature of the living God.
We are constantly surprised and delighted by people who think the Good Samaritan was invented by the government so they could name some laws after him; or who come to church once and like it, but don't come back the next week because nobody told them we do this gathering every seven days; or who freely admit that they have never heard anything Jesus taught.
Many postmodern people do not have any residual understanding of the triune God and his story. To assume that they do is deadly to anyone who wants to communicate with them. But anyone who will drop that assumption and tell the story of the God who searches out the lost will find a curious audience waiting.
The glorious future of Gen X ministry is that there will be no need for Gen X ministry. Churches that choose to listen to, include, empower, and guide Gen Xers into a shared postmodern future will thrive.