One of the challenges that comes from using a resource like Haydn Shaw’s Sticking Points to study the subject of generational differences is that it is focused on how these issues affect the workplace rather than the church. While there are certainly parallels between business and the church, if we’re going to make the most of the 5 generations that make up our church, we’ve got to get specific about how to deal with sticking points. Let’s start with the sticking point of communication.
New technology has changed the way we communicate. The pastor no longer makes his rounds on horseback from farm to farm, nor does he have to be in his office by the telephone to be within reach of his members. But even though more than half of Baby Boomers have graduated to carrying a smartphone, communication is still a sticking point. We begin by acknowledging that each generation has its own preferred means and rules of etiquette for communication. What makes this a sticking point is when one generation says that another’s preferred method of communication is less effective than theirs. Does sending an email or a text message seem impersonal or unnecessary? Does making a phone call seem inefficient and time-consuming? You need to be open and honest about the tensions you feel when trying to communicate with people from other generations.
But why do the generations communicate in such different ways and what is our common need? Well, the common need is information. In the church, we need to know each other’s needs and concerns, what God’s word says and how it applies to our lives, and the activities of the church calendar. Each generation prefers a different medium. Maybe you prefer a printed bulletin or a telephone prayer chain or an electronic newsletter or a text message or snap. It is important to remember that your native communication language is determined in large part by the technology that prevailed when you were growing up.
The key to getting moving in communication in the church is to remember that every generation prefers their own native communication language as much as you prefer your own. If you are younger, say a Millennial or Gen Xer, you’re going to need to go “old school,” at least part of the time. Look the older members in the eye, offer them a firm handshake, and listen to their stories about the church’s history. If you are a Traditionalist or Boomer, realize that younger members embrace technology, not to annoy or isolate you but because they believe it offers real advantages. If you’re willing to learn new technology, you can enjoy its benefits, too.
How can our varied preferences be used to enhance our overall communication? Here are a couple of suggestions. Millennials and Xers are a natural resource for churches looking to understand and use newer technologies. As natives to digital communications, they can help older members understand the advantages and uses of technology to enhance our ministry and fellowship. On the other hand, Traditionalists and Boomers got along just fine before digital communication existed and will have to be shown that a technology is actually useful and not just new before they will agree to purchase it for use in the church. One unique strength that the older generations have when it comes to technology is the ability to see its downsides. If the younger generations will listen, they can avoid some of the pitfalls that accompany newer technologies.
Effective communication in the church means that we’re going to have to incorporate different media and strategies in most areas. There is just no one-size-fits-all solution. While we may post prayer requests or church activities on social media, we will likely also have to offer those same updates in print form for those who are not on-line as much or at all. A church website or social media page is a great place to share membership expectations or church policies, but we still need to meet with prospective members to discuss them and clear up any questions. A telephone call can be an encouragement, but for a young mother with a screaming toddler, it’s just not as practical as an email or instant message. And as much as social media can give us insight into the spiritual struggles of our fellow members, you can’t build a discipling relationship without spending time together and talking face to face. If you left a voicemail with a Millennial and haven’t heard back, don’t get offended, try sending him a text. But at the same time, if you texted a Boomer or Traditionalist, don’t be surprised if you get a phone call in return. It really is possible for us as brothers and sisters in Christ to communicate well and maintain a spirit of peace and unity along the way, if we’re willing to make an effort to understand and appreciate one another.