The Generational Church

In the 12th chapter of I Corinthians, the Apostle Paul compares the church to the human body. He emphasizes that though there are many parts, each one has a role to play in order for the body to be healthy and capable of growth.

Typically, this passage is applied to individuals and the use of their gifts in the church. However, it is also applicable to generations because in some churches there are as many as five different generations trying to function together as one body. This poses a formidable challenge because each generation sees the world through a different lens and brings a unique set of expectations and preferences to the church based on their shared experiences. The result is that the generations co-exist in many churches but never really interact in a meaningful way or the tension between the generations becomes so intense that a church eventually splits. Neither of these responses is in line with Biblical teaching yet many churches simply don’t know how to respond to the diversity of thought that accompanies a multi-generation church. In order to help church leaders minister more effectively with the generations in their congregation, it is useful to have a working knowledge of the concept of a generation after which it will be possible to introduce the five living generations.

A generation usually covers a span of 15 to 20 years. Including the word “usually” is important because it is possible for a generation to extend beyond 20 years if certain conditions are present. When war, extreme famine, or a major shift in the economy occurs, individuals may postpone starting a family until the crisis has been resolved. In most cases, however, the 15 to 20 year range is accurate because it is during this interval that the oldest members of the preceding generation develop the ability to bear children and begin a new generation.

While the element of time is an important part of defining a generation, it pales in comparison to a second factor. A fundamental characteristic of a generation is that the members move through the life cycle together and experience significant historical events at approximately the same age. As a result of their shared experience, they develop a lens through which to see the world and a set of beliefs that are used to interpret subsequent events they encounter.

With a basic understanding of how a generational perspective develops, it is now appropriate to introduce the five living generations. The oldest generation in the United States is the Senior Adults. Born before 1927, Senior Adults are now in their mid 70s or beyond and represent 5% of the American population. Of the five living generations, Senior Adults have experienced the greatest transformation of their world. When they were children, the automobile was still in its infancy, the majority of Americans made their living on small farms, and only the most fortunate even dreamed of attending college. Despite being raised in these circumstances, Senior Adults have displayed an amazing level of resiliency as they have adapted to the challenges and opportunities of the 20th and early 21st centuries. Due to their longevity, Senior Adults are a living link to the past for communities of faith and can provide an exceptional level of stability to a church.

The second generation, known as the Builders, was born between 1927 and 1945 and has been referred to as the “greatest generation” by Tom Brokaw. Builders overcame a significant number of obstacles during their formative years since the bulk of this generation was born between the start of the Great Depression and the conclusion of World War II. They emerged victorious from the war and earned their name by creating the economic abundance that Americans enjoyed for years to come. Early in life, Builders learned the importance of self-sacrifice and loyalty to the institutions to which they belonged including the local church. As a result, they have remained faithfully committed to the mission and ministries of their home congregation for many years. Builders now range in age from the early 60s to the mid 70s and represent 14% of the American population. While many have entered the retirement years, some are still actively involved in the labor force and a significant number occupy leadership positions in their home congregations.

The Baby Boomers are America’s most powerful generation and represent 27% of the population. Born between 1946 and 1964, Boomers have had an extraordinary influence on American society due to their enormous size and propensity to share their views on a wide range of issues. They first displayed an emphasis on individualism during the 1960s but they carried this trait with them through the remainder of the 20th century. Boomers are now in their fourth or fifth decade of life and many have risen to leadership positions in their careers, communities, and churches. Their willingness to think and act in non-traditional ways is exerting a tremendous influence on churches and will continue to do so for many years to come.

The fourth living generation is Generation X. Born between 1965 and 1983, 27% of Americans are GenXers. A large and unique group that has been referred to as apathetic, cynical, and malcontents

1, GenXers are technologically-savvy because they were raised with cell phones, hand-held video games, and personal computers. As a result, they rely heavily on visual presentations for acquiring knowledge rather than the printed or spoken word. GenXers have been influenced by the rise of postmodernism and its insistence that a single, absolute truth does not exist. This presents a significant challenge to the church in light of Jesus’ statement that “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

The youngest of the five living generations is the Millennials. Born between 1984 and 2002, 27% of Americans are Millennials. Since the majority are still children, it is difficult to make definitive statements about Millennials but the information that is trickling in suggests that they are noticeably different from the generations that immediately preceded them. Millennials are focusing more on modesty in their appearance, respect for authority, and involvement in positive group activities.

2 In contrast to GenXers who were very cynical about the future, Millennials seem to have an optimistic outlook that is reminiscent of the attitude that guided the Builders after World War II.

As the pace of social change has quickened, the distinctiveness of each generation has become more pronounced which has resulted in a number of challenging issues for church leaders. Differing views on leadership style, proper attire in a church setting, and the manner in which the worship assembly should be conducted are but a few of the struggles whose roots can be traced to generational perspectives. Nevertheless, our God still expects His church to consist of multiple generations and to be characterized by positive intergenerational relationships. In both the Old and New Testaments, the process of passing the faith from older to younger generations is clearly presented (see for instance: Deuteronomy 6, Psalm 78, I Corinthians 12, and Titus 2). Even though our culture tries to separate the generations by proclaiming that a “generation gap” exists, the church has been commissioned to bring the generations together because our God values each and every member of His creation and wants all of us to be a part of the rich experience that occurs in an intergenerational community of faith. The challenge is to develop an understanding and appreciation for each of the five living generations and then to be motivated to action by the Word of God.

Dr. James L. Knapp is professor of sociology at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and author of The Graying of the Flock: A New Model for Ministry. He and his family are members of the Western Heights church of Christ in Sherman, Texas. You may contact Dr. Knapp at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it


1 Flory, R. W., & Miller, D. E. (2000). Understanding Generation X: Values, politics, and religious communities. In R. Flory & D. Miller (eds.), GenX Religion (p. 3). New York: Routledge.

2 Howe, N., & Strauss, W. (2000). Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation. New York: Vintage Books. p. 4.

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