GENERATIONS – Jim Lyon, General Director, Church of God Ministries
Jim Lyon, General Director, Church of God Ministries
His name is Justin. He’s also named Caleb. And Daniel. Her name is Jessica. And Lisa. And Emily. They are real people who represent thousands more just like them. They are 20-somethings, young men and women at various stages of engagement with the Church of God, across the United States and Canada.
I’ve had the privilege of meeting them. Speaking with them. Listening to them. There are some familiar themes in each conversation, even though they do not know each other and are separated by thousands of miles. Their passions travel similar rails and have common destinations. Their palettes of ambition paint similar portraits. What they like and don’t like about the church has been framed by many factors; the Spirit, I believe, among them. Theirs is a voice we all must hear.
The 20-somethings sound much like the 30-somethings. Their names include Josh, Kevin, Jonathan, Mandy, Summer, and Hannah. The 30-something lens has many of the same properties as that of the 20-somethings. They are of the same generation, though born a decade apart.
Generational theory suggests that age does not define common perspective so much as does experience. My mother’s generation (she’ll be 96 next month) can tell you exactly where they were on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Across all economic, geographic, and cultural lines, her generation has that shared experience, which informed so much of the rest of their journeys. My generation (I’ll be 65 this year) can vividly recall the moment we learned of President Kennedy’s assassination; it’s a unifying experiential thread—a marker, without regard to station, gender, or creed. My children’s generation (the 20- and 30-somethings) has been defined by 9-11. The terror attack was one of those Pearl Harbor-like events that became a reference point and emotional foundation for a generation. The children in my wife’s fourth grade class this year were not born when the Twin Towers came down. Theirs is a generation still in formation.
According to Strauss and Howe’s fascinating delineation of generational theory and its predictive power in history, The Fourth Turning, crisis moments that mesmerize a generation produce repeating (and predictable) patterns in a cycle of four generations (spanning every 80–100 years). Straus and Howe originally developed the shorthand for generations now mainstreamed in our language, giving us words like boomers, millennials, generation X, etc.
The Church of God is largely comprised of folks in my parent’s generation—and my own. One of the Movement’s great challenges is engaging the 20- and 30-somethings—and the generation that is now forming behind them. Even as there are four seasons of life (childhood-adolescence, young adulthood, middle-age, and the senior years), so should there be four seasons represented in every healthy church family. The Church of God must not chart its future course divorced from the perspective and passions of the next two generations who must live it.
What have I heard in these last three years of serving the church throughout fifty states and the provinces of Canada? I’ve heard that the millennials are not much interested in the institutional development or even survival of the church as we know it. They are not moved to sacrifice for the infrastructure or the brand. Planting more Church of God flags and measuring success by how many churches we have or how many people we have in them tend to be non-starters. Making sure that the Church of God (in all of its manifestations, from campgrounds to church buildings to agencies to associations to publishing to conventions, and all the rest) survives is not on their front burner. Denominational identities, preservation of a sectarian heritage, guaranteeing that we “reproduce ourselves” as the Church of God, each holds little appeal.
What does draw like a magnet is the ambition to change the world. To actually transform both individual and societal futures. To see justice prevail. And truth owned and experienced, not just discussed or articulated as a set of doctrinal propositions. Millennials (and those following) are inspired by the church as salt and light, radically influencing the world around it, in ways that do not involve so much brick and stone as they do relationships, authenticity, and soul transparency. Sounds like Jesus, I think.
Every generation has valued relationships and authenticity, of course. But the preoccupations of my generation (and that of my parents) is giving way to a simpler, less establishment and less institutional footprint.
The style of millennial worship, for instance, is moving away from “production” (be it in a traditional or contemporary vein) to acoustic (with less emphasis on amps and set-up, and more on the singularity of a voice and guitar or flute or a cappella). Less can be more. Weekly church routines are stripped down to bare essentials (Lord’s Day meetings, something for the kids, time released from church maintenance to ministry in the world outside). On and on the contrasts grow.
It’s not always easy to hear this younger generational voice. Without intentionality, it can be lost in the shuffle of an aging demographic’s pursuit of what it has known. Sometimes, when older generations hear the voice, it is diminished in the drone of, “But what about us? We built the place. Everything can’t be about young people. Respect your elders.” I’ve been there. I can be as self-focused, informed by my experience alone, as the next guy.
But, my days are numbered. It’s Justin and Jessica and Josh and Emily and their peers that will determine whether or not the Movement survives. Their view of the future must be foundational in any reach we make to engage them, involve them, and hand the baton to them.
When I came to Church of God Ministries, the office demographic largely reflected our churches. As some terrific members of the team have retired or otherwise stepped aside, new staff has come alongside. The result has been a dramatic shift in our generational mix. The statistics below capture the shift:
In 2013: 49 percent of staff were in their 60s, 28 percent in their 50s, 11 percent in their 40s, 6 percent in their 30s, and 6 percent in their 20s. The median age was 59.
In 2017: 23 percent of staff is in their 60s, 9 percent in their 50s, 23 percent in their 40s, 24 percent in their 30s, and 21 percent in their 20s. The median age is 42.
This development has hugely impacted the way we view the world, the Church of God, and how best we can serve. The base camp energy and vibe reflects a new sense of what can be, what should be, and how to get there. Every generation’s voice remains at the table—but the balance has profoundly shifted forward.
ChoG Trafficklight 2.0 will be launched with the Freedom Summit on Friday, June 23, at the close of the Church of God Convention in Wichita. Mike Fackler (a 30-something) who pastors one of our most dynamic congregations (ChoG Highland Park in Casper, Wyoming) will open the door, as he brings the Word in the concluding service. Mike, like so many in his generation, has been profoundly drawn to the Movement’s re-engagement in the fight against sex trafficking and slavery. The ChoG Trafficklight 2.0 initiative (in which we will continue to provide rescue and relief to those held hostage by the trade) will begin to address men, too, and their view of sexuality. For Jesus’ sake. No woman would ever be sold if there were not a man making a purchase. The issue claims the allegiance of a new generation, even as it has inspired my own and my mom’s. Abby Long Knowles (a 30-something) networks our TraffickLight umbrella of ministries and is at the point on the 2.0 launch.
The Gravity workshops on Tuesday, June 20 (preceding the formal opening of the Convention at 7:00 that evening) will bring Ben Hardman and a team of millennial voices to the front, tuned to help all of us understand discipleship, church development, and multiplication through a fresh new lens—which actually is grounded in the simplicity of the original, first-century construct.
A.One.8 is an immersion experience for young adults wrestling with a call to mission and ministry. Conceived and managed by Andrew Gale (another 30-something at the base camp), the first cohort will trek through the developing world with hands-on ministry exposures in July. Named for Acts 1:8, A.One.8 ushers in a new day for a new generation of missional engagement.
Jared Powell (a 20-something) works with CBH as a studio technician and videographer. His eyes and ears have been formed by a world of technology, one medium or another of transmission and communication, and audio and visual cues that amaze. His fingerprints are beginning to show up in what we produce on air, online, and in delivery.
Our finance, accounting, and operations departments are all being transformed by our new chief financial and operations Officer (CFOO), Natalie Farmer. She’s a 30-something. And, as she speaks into all that we do (that’s what a CFOO must do), new ideas, new metrics, and new ways of approaching challenges of long-standing breathe life into the days—and generations—ahead.
Our Wichita Convention lineup includes speakers from this new generation, too, in addition to Mike, including Geremy Dixon, Allan Fuller, Nick Vujicic, and Danielle Strickland. In her 90s, Ann Smith, will take the stage, as well—with a depth and vitality few of any age could match. But, she is a treasure, in no small part, because she has always been on the front row cheering on those younger than she.
As one of the old guys on the team, I am thrilled by the new voices now speaking into everything we do. Oh, I still have some ideas—enough to make most of my co-workers’ heads spin. But, how those ideas land, are polished, or discarded, is now being scrubbed by these partners who hold the future, not just my experience of the past.
Peter famously quoted from the prophet Joel on the day of Pentecost: “‘In the last days,’ God says, ‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. In those days I will pour out my Spirit even on my servants—men and women alike—and they will prophesy.’” (Acts 2:17–18 NLT). We are living this word, I promise, at Church of God Ministries. Young and old. Men and women.
Every generation must have a seat at the table, each listening to and learning from the others. Each generation’s experience is a gift from God. But, as we look ahead, the Spirit-filled wisdom of those who will actually walk ahead, must be given special place. This is one man very excited and encouraged about the Church of God and its capacity just now to embrace two new generations up-and-coming. Justin. Caleb. Daniel. Jessica. Lisa. Emily. And your peers, too. You are being heard.
I am counting the days to see you all at the Church of God Convention in Wichita, Kansas, June 20–23. Be Bold. Reclaim.