Wednesday, August 03, 2011

What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate

Over my vacation, I did a lot of thinking and reading and planning about ministry in both general and specific ways. One thing that kept coming into my mind was how advances (if it be fair to call them all advances) in technology and communication have changed the way that each generation relates to one another. Of course, these advances have occurred simultaneously (sometimes as a cause and other times as an effect) with many other changes in our society. I found myself coming back over and over again to these ideas as a fundamental reason why there is often misunderstanding between church members of different generations. Of course, in many cases, church leaders have simply decided to ride these waves of change, resulting in mono-generational churches, which are either predominantly filled with older people or younger people. I can't help thinking that this is not pleasing to God. If the Kingdom of God is reflected through the local church then a church should be diverse. Most of the time when we think of diversity we are talking about ethnic diversity, and indeed we should talk a lot about that! But I do not think we talk enough about generational diversity. I believe that it is necessary for a healthy church to be home to many generations, each of which is trying to understand one another, to love one another, and to embrace one another in the bond of Christian fellowship. After all, the Gospel that unites us should be stronger than any uniqueness of generation, ethnicity, or socio-economic status.

I got to thinking about how our church has a wonderful blend of adult generations, a blend that is becoming more diverse with each passing day. In our congregation, we have members in their 90s, and college students in their teens and early 20s, and folks from all generations in between. For convenience, I have lumped these folks into four broad categories. First, there are the Builders, those folks who are 70+ years of age. This is the generation of my grandparents, those whom Tom Brokaw called "The Greatest Generation." Then there are the Boomers, folks who are in their 50s and 60s. This is the generation of my parents. Then there is my generation, which has gone by many names over time, but probably most commonly called Generation X. We are today in our mid-to-late 30s through the mid-40s. Then there is the generation coming behind us; we might call them Millennials. For those on the older end of Generation X, these are our children. For those on the younger end, they are our younger siblings, the people we drink coffee with on occasion, and the people we are mentoring in our workplaces. They are in college, or have recently graduated from college or grad school. Today they range in age from, let's say, 18-34.

Now, any time we lump people together in broad categories, there is a risk of over-generalization. For instance, if we say that Millennials are a Twitter generation, we must not think that Boomers and Gen-Xers are not using Twitter. Likewise if we say that Builders are "front porch" folks, we mustn't think that Millennials are not ever face-to-face communicators. We are talking about generalizations, maybe even stereotypes, but ones which have a thick strand of reality running through them. We are talking about comfort zones and preferences.

When it comes to the Builders and their preferred mode of communication, we are talking about a generation largely comfortable with the face-to-face visit. I call this "front porch" communication, but it encompasses more than just casual chats on the front porch. I can recall when my grandparents had something to mail, or something they needed to take care of with the phone or power company, they would get in their car and drive to the place where these things could be handled. They went to the post office. They went to the phone company office or the power company office. Their banking was done inside the branch with the teller. Their travel plans were made at the desk of an agent at the AAA office. And when they want to find out how someone is doing, or catch up with an old friend, they drive to their home and visit with them. They keep their homes clean because they never know when someone may be dropping in on them.

My parents did not do things this way too much. Boomers never knew what life was like without a telephone in their home. So, if their parents were a "front porch" generation, the Boomers are a "telephone" generation. If there was a problem with the power, they didn't drive to the power company; they called them. If there were travel plans to be made, phone calls were placed to the airline, the hotel, the rental car agency. Since this generation moved farther away from home than their parents did (again, because of the "advances" of society), family ties were kept tightly tied by frequent phone calls. Since divorce rates skyrocketed with the Boomers, sometimes the telephone was the means of keeping in touch with their children. While we probably won't find a generation that works harder than Builders worked in their prime, the Boomers were the first generation where two working parents was the norm. Theirs was the first generation in which most of their work day was spent on the telephone. Fast food and local restaurants were the places where the family meal was shared (if a family meal was shared at all). The home was not kept tidy because there was no time to keep it tidy between work and the kids and all. Drop-in visits were not appreciated like they were in their parents generation. The telephone enabled the builders to take care of most communication without face-to-face interaction.

My generation, Gen-X, grew up with telephones, and saw the gradual rise of cellphones, but more importantly, the computer became a staple in homes and offices for my generation. I can remember being told in elementary school that we better learn something about computers because one day they would rule the world. We bought a computer when I was a child, a Texas Instruments job that hooked up to the TV, but I honestly have no idea what it would do. I imagine it was a fancy calculator. When I went to college, we had computers in the dorms and computer labs on campus. Professors didn't want papers typed. They wanted them laser-printed in a certain font. Our lives became consumed with computers. And at some point in our formative years, this thing called the internet came about. With it came email, and my generation found that with a few clicks of the mouse, we could communicate instantly, in real time, with anyone in the world. We had CompuServ addresses and AOL accounts. We stopped buying stamps and going to post offices. Everything we needed to do could be done online and through email. While we use the phone, and cellphones, and make personal visits, email is my generation's comfort zone. It is where we have done our work, our schooling, and our friendships.

A few years ago, I was trying to connect with one of my Millennial friends, and I sent dozens of emails with no response. I gave up. When I was finally persuaded by a friend to join this thing called Facebook, I found that Millennial friend on Facebook and sent them a message. I heard back from them in seconds! When I asked why they didn't respond to my emails, they said, "Oh, I never look at email. Email is too slow!" I still can't wrap my brain around that one, but I have come to learn that the Millennials are not an email generation. They are a texting and social networking generation. Essentially, they communicate by way of their cellphones and laptops, each of which is turned on nearly 24 hours per day. So, they will send texts, facebook messages,  and tweets.

Now, it may seem that I have gone to great lengths to state the obvious, but there is a reason for it. When generational conflict arises in a church family (as it easily does), I believe that what we have here is a failure to communicate. The Builders didn't see the facebook post. The Boomers weren't home when the Builders dropped by. The Gen-Xers let the call go to voicemail. The Millennials stopped checking email a decade ago (or so it seems). And we misunderstand this as a lack of concern. But it isn't. Rather, it is just a crossing of wires, like the speaking of different languages. Call it a contemporary Babel if you will.

So how do we as a church handle this? First, we need understanding. If you are a Builder, and no one has dropped in to see you for a while, don't get angry or upset about that. Be understanding that the other generations in the church have not valued "front porch" time like your generation did, for better or worse. If you are a younger person, a Gen-Xer or Millennial, don't be angry or upset that an older person didn't receive or respond to your text, tweet or email.

The second thing we need is a willingness to learn "a new language." Older folks can pick up the phone and call, and even invite that younger person over for coffee or lunch or dinner, or just to sit and chat. If you have the means to get online with a computer, try out some of the methods that other generations are using. You might actually like it, and it has become affordable and very user friendly over time. You could even invite someone from the younger generations to come help you learn to use it. Younger folks need to pick up the phone from time to time and call older folks or drop in to visit them. And every generation can appreciate the time, effort, and expense involved in a hand-written note sent the old fashioned way. Generational miscommunication comes when we grow frustrated that others are not "speaking our language." What if instead we learned to speak their language?

It is give and take: understanding and willingness. But if we will love one another in Christlike ways, we can have a church that glorifies Him by uniting several generations who have nothing in common but the Gospel into one family where communication takes place in ways that are both comfortable and uncomfortable to our own preferences.