Deconstructing Church: Five Stages of a Generational Revolution
Since the 1970s I have been an eyewitness to the Boomer revolution in church. In 1970 all the power was in the hand of the so-called “greatest generation.” We Boomers didn’t think the way they did church was so great. We had our own ideas and initiated a massive revolution. By the 1980s we had overthrown this older generation and were solidly in charge of the church, which we promptly changed into the kind of church we envisioned. Now come the emergents who want to do the same. How will we react?
While pondering the Boomer revolution I think I see five stages of a generation revolution. And I think most Boomers are now at stage five while the emerging generation is at stage one and two. Here are the five stages I’ve come up with:
The first stage is a “prophetic stage”—the new generation speaks out again what it sees as bad about the church. They see bad and complain. At this stage the Boomers bitterly complained in the 1970s about all the bad in their parents’ church: legalism, separation from the real world, second-rate old-fashioned music, dark poorly-lit sanctuaries, formal organs and robed choirs, judgmental preaching, extended altar calls, lack of preparedness, denominations, camp meetings, prayer meetings, and business meetings. In my denomination Boomers rebelled, openly defying rules forbidding movies, divorce, and all other church rules about “externals” like jewelry, dress, and hair. At this stage many Boomers weren’t even sure they ever wanted to take charge of the church. Some complained for a half dozen years then simply walked away from church forever. Those who remained complained and criticized and pointed out what was wrong with the church until eventually they moved into the second stage.
Most of today’s emergents reside squarely in stage one—they are developing their generational list of everything wrong with the church and deciding if they even want to inherit it at all or maybe they’ll simply walk away. Stage one is a sour place to spend much time. Fortunately for the Boomers, it was fairly short since we outnumbered our parents and knew how to fight these power wars. Plus Boomers had a bunch of sympathetic denominational leaders who provided cover for us. And we were so numerous that we took charge fast. Today’s emergents have been slow in grasping power and seem stuck in stage one complaining.
This second stage grows out of the first and overlaps with it. It is a tad more positive in its negativity. Now the new generation adds to its criticism of what is bad by seeing what is missing from the church—what needs to be added. Some of today’s emergents are already in this stage as they complain about the church needing to add more ministries and programs addressing the poor, the suffering, AIDS, and the environment. This stage still deconstructs as long as it focuses on the past and what is missing. But once it shifts to the future and the new generation begins to envision a church adding these new values, a positive imagination (a vision of sorts) will begin to draw the new generation into stage three.
Eventually the new generation knows everything wrong with church, but the more mature members start asking the third question: What should we keep? Here they recover the baby from the bathwater they are tossing out. This stage is led by thoughtful leaders of the emerging generations—they are “conservatives” in asking what should be conserved from their parent’s church. Those who get to this stage first are often elected leaders first, for they are seen as consensus builders. This is a “consensus stage” as the new generation finds core common ground among themselves and the previous generation. Here they start to make peace with some from the older generation as they show they are going to keep some things precious to the older generation. A few thoughtful emergents are at stage three right now. They will probably be the leaders of the future.
In the following decade the younger generation gets solidly in charge. At stage four they develop the infrastructure for their new church. They shut down the bad, introduce their add as they retain some keep. They build the church after the fashion of their own values. They shut down programs and start new ones, launching initiatives, organizing conferences, introducing new methods and discarding old ones. The Boomers did this in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Eventually there is such consensus among the new generation in charge that these new values are enshrined as denominational goals, expectations, values and even rules. A new kind of legalism emerges where everyone is expected to line up with the new consensus and “get with the program.” A new consensus emerges. The new generation’s changes become “normal.” Those who don’t line up are opposed, dismissed or quietly sidelined as “out of touch” or “not on board.” By the time the “build stage” matures most everyone in the church is on the bus and the foot-draggers have been marginalized or chased to the back of the bus. In my denomination the Boomers peaked at the “build stage” about the year 2000. At the peak the leaders can hardly imagine church any other way but the way they have remade the church. They believe “we got it right finally.”
The peak doesn’t last long. Once the Boomers built their revolution into the fabric of the entire church here comes a new generation who isn’t impressed with the church we’ve made. They see what is wrong with the church we made and want them to inherit. They see bad (!) in our church and see lots of things missing that should be added. They complain. We Boomers who now have all the power forget we were once the complaining revolutionaries and now act like we are guardians of the faith and practice. The emergents become a threat. The builders have become protectors, like the old conservatives we once faced. Our children are at stage one and two while we live in stage five becoming protectors of our precious revolution. The emergents complain; the Boomers defend.
Boomers have a choice. We can ignore the coming generation completely and make sure they never get any power. Or, worse, we can attack the emergents and simply drive them out of our churches thinking we are preserving “the right way” to do church. We can leave the emergents languishing in a pool of negative deconstructing and never share enough power for them to change things. We can drive them out of our churches and collect each others’ tithes making a comfortable church for ourselves for the rest of our lives. But, there are much happier endings too. We could mentor the emerging generation into taking power in the church and making the changes God lays on their hearts. Or, if we insist on preserving our own kind of church for ourselves, we could at least sponsor emergents as they plant new churches fashioned on their own values. It is our choice. We have virtually all the power in today’s church. I wonder what we will do?
While thinking about the above over summer I have been asking myself three questions:
1) What mistakes might Boomers make at the Protect stage?
2) What will get emergents to move beyond the drop and add stages to deciding what to keep?
3) Might individuals go through similar stages in their own personal faith development?
So, what do you think?
(Copyright 2008, Keith Drury, www.drurywriting.com/keith)
Keith Drury served The Wesleyan Church headquarters in Christian Education and Youth leadership for 24 years before becoming a professor of religion at Indiana Wesleyan University. He is the author of more than a dozen books of practical spirituality, including Holiness for Ordinary People, Common Ground and Ageless Faith. Keith Drury wrote the Tuesday Column for 17 years (1995-2012), and many articles can be found on his blog “Drury Writing.”
Keith Drury retired from full time teaching in 2012. Keith is married to Sharon and has two adult sons and several grandchildren. He is retired in Florida with Sharon and enjoys cycling.