Having been involved in the world of business prior to entering full time pastoral ministry, I’ve been involved in strategic planning processes in multiple diverse organisations. One of the early questions that gets asked is ‘who is our target market?’ Identifying exactly whom we’re targeting helps define the next part of our planning and the subsequent implementation of our ideas.
Identifying target markets is easy in most organisations, but notoriously difficult in the organisation of the church. Are we orientating ourselves towards reaching Millennials (those currently aged 15-35), Gen X-er’s (aged 35-50), Baby Boomers (50-70) or Traditionalists (70+). What about the undefined generation who are under 15 right now – I’ve heard someone call them the ‘always on’ generation!
Are we seeking to guide new Christians or mature Christians, or are we all about targeting not-yet Christians? What about the differences that arise in cultural diversity, or socio-economic disparity or political persuasion? How do we address theological views that exist between all of these different people?
In his book Generational IQ, Haydn Shaw makes a profound statement when he says that for the first time in history we have five generations living together in our families, churches and communities. Five. That’s a huge change, and it causes quite a shake-up because every generation is pushing to be heard and understood, to find their own way, to recover what they feel the previous generation fumbled away, and to work out their parent’s unfinished business.
I lead a faith community with all of these five generations present. Our youngest member is still adjusting to light in her eyes, while our oldest member is trying to keep his eyes in focus. There’s a 95-year difference between these two and in a large congregation like ours we have at least one person aged every year in-between. Our target market includes everybody listed in the paragraphs above.
Managing the tensions that arise with five generations seeking to get along is something I don’t feel adequately prepared for. As a Gen-X leader my lens is clouded by a Gen-X worldview that was shaped by being raised in a context very different to my millennial children who can’t quite comprehend how humanity could survive without the internet (I mean how did you submit an assignment at 11.59pm?).
Leadership demands adaptability and resilience, and leading a faith community that seeks to both reach, incorporate and celebrate the five generations that coexist with each other is a growing challenge for all church leaders whose faith communities exist in most mixed-suburban settings. I realise this can be different for faith communities in niche market locations such as the CBD or millennial enclaves, or for churches who identify their target as a specific generation (although I’d argue this isn’t a biblical model).
The reality is that there are no easy answers to this challenge. There are many books written and many lectures given, but practically mixed-generation churches are struggling to find workable solutions on the street, and not through lack of trying.
I propose that the solution does not lie with leadership, it lies with discipleship, and the responsibility that every follower of Jesus has for their own discipleship. Church leaders can provide a framework for discipleship and are often those who have time to discern appropriate discipleship tools, but ultimately this is a journey each follower of Jesus decides to take for themselves, with others in mind.
The journey of discipleship is nothing new. The Apostle Paul wrote to Christians in Ephesus quite a while ago, giving them advice about how to deal with the challenges that arise in hanging out together as a local church when difference divides. He wrote (Ephesians 4:1-3 NIV), I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
To live like this is hugely counter-cultural and I wonder if sometimes it’s just too hard. Humbleness, gentleness, patience, they’re great attributes when life is going well, but what about when someone annoys us, or when we aren’t getting what we want and what we think we deserve?
To figure out God’s purposes in our generation we need to figure out how to live with each other when people are living the longest they’ve ever lived. We need to be people of courage who truly live what Jesus and the other New Testament authors implore us to live. It’ll be hard, and we’ll want to go down the road to the new flavour that seems more palatable, but more is to be gained through courage and perseverance, and when our target market is growing the Kingdom of God, our strategy should be love and grace.
As G. K. Chesterton once said, ‘Things must be loved first and improved afterwards.’ Let’s have the courage to love those around us and show that Jesus really is the answer for the world today.