Why is There Generational Division in the Church?

Baby boomers, Gen X, Gen Y, Millennials, Gen Z, iGen—there are a lot of issues separating America right now and one of the most divisive is age. People are leaving the church feeling they aren’t understood by younger or older believers. How can we reverse this destructive trend? One way is through understanding. Today, on the Gary Wilkerson podcast, Gary talks with the younger members of the World Challenge team to get their views on the generational divide that’s tearing apart our churches.

Gary Wilkerson: We believe these podcasts are meant to help raise your expectations of what God could do in your life, to give you a greater hope, a greater vision for your future, help you overcome the mundaneness of life and raise you up into the great things God has for you. And speaking of great things God has done and people being raised up, we have some of our, you are not going to have to look too closely at this team around me here to say, these are the younger people that we work together here at World Challenge. I'm in my early 60s, and you guys are, we won't ask everybody here at the table, I hear that's impolite, but we'll start with Cory, this is Cory Ard.

Cory has been working with World Challenge. He does spoken word and rap, and a lot of stage presence and different events, and conferences but also helps us with our conferences and helps us with outreaches that we're doing and stuff, and you've been with World Challenge how long now?

Cory Ard: Been about five years, seven months.

Gary: And then Sarah Steffensen. Sarah, welcome. Glad you're here with us.

Sarah Steffensen: Thank you.

Gary: Sarah helps oversee several of our departments here and ministry, and you've been with us for?

Sarah: About three and a half years.

Gary: Three and a half years. Yeah.

So, and this guy I've known for a long, long time, this is my son, Evan Wilkerson, and he leads a ministry here called faith answers. Tell us a little bit about what faith answers is, Evan Wilkerson.

Evan Wilkerson: Yeah, so faith answers really came out of needs that we see through statistics of youth and young adults leaving the faith or not really being able to handle some of the cultural challenges that they face. So, it's an apologetics ministry that helps equip them to learn how to meet those challenges, and to persuasively engage their culture through their faith.

Gary: There's a lot of statistics now about the millennial or the Gen X, or what's the one under Gen X?

Cory: Gen Z.

Gary: Gen Z. And have you heard of a thing called digital natives?

Sarah: Yep.

Gary: What's a digital native? Is that even younger than Gen Z?

Sarah: It starts at Gen Z. Yeah. People that have never grown up without a computer or a phone in their hand.

Gary: So, I'll be Gen Z or Gen Y?

Sarah: Okay, boomer.

Cory: That was perfect.

Gary: I've heard that used a couple times.

Sarah: Do you know what that means?

Gary: That's like a younger person when an old person is trying to tell him what to do?

Sarah: Yeah, well, it's kind of when they're disconnected. And it's kind of, "Hey, you're not relevant anymore to what we were saying." And then the vice versa is, the young people can't do anything like typewriters or rotary phones or things like that. They don't know what a boombox is, they are looking for power and all the things. They don't know what a payphone is because they never had them. There’s that disconnect. So, it's kind of a--

Gary: Yeah, yeah. I've heard it once before and you're in good company because it was, they call her AOC, she said that to somebody. So yeah, you and her, you got a sisterhood. Just joking. So, alright, so you guys, what are you what are you guys?

Sarah: I'm x. I'm Generation X. So, I just work hard.

Cory: Evan and I are millennials.

Evan: Yeah, millennials.

Sarah: Me-llennials. No, I'm teasing. They say yeah, which is not true.

Evan: Apparently there is a divide between millennials. It's me-llennials and mega-llennials. Is that it?

Sarah: Mega-llennials, yeah.

Evan: Mega-llennials are supposed to be the very productive, successful kind and the me-llennials are the stereotypical millennials.

Sarah: Kind of, got the bad rap for the millennials, but then there's the mega-llennials that are awesome. Innovative and learning. You are and you are too, both of you guys are. 100%.

Cory: Not me though.

Sarah: I know but-

Evan: He's a millennial.

Gary: That’s an interesting perspective that you would have the same generation but two different tracks, one a little bit more productive and other-centered?

Sarah: Sure.

Evan: Some of the older millennials don't like being grouped into the category of younger millennials because of some of the stereotypes: entitled, still staying at home, don't really work much, whatever else it is. And so, the older millennials don't want to be in that group. Yeah.

Sarah: Yeah, and we're just angry all the time. I read about Gen X, angry in working and waiting for our time at the table, so hoping to change that. Interesting, yeah.

Gary: Cool. So, statistics talk about the various generations that you guys represent as being sort of drifting from church attendance, religious affiliation, faith as being a key indicator of how they, their worldview and stuff like that. So, I know the statistics, it's getting worse and worse, 20% now of younger audiences are saying that they call them the “none’s”, and none, check the box of religious affiliation none. So, it's the first time it's above 20%, was this last survey they've taken and so it is skyrocketing. But those are statistics, but anecdotally, just in your own life, would you say that's something you've seen lived out in your community sense, the people your age and stuff or is there something else going on that's not seen in the statistics? Does that question make sense?

Evan: Yeah, I think there's another statistic that it's somewhere over 20% that teenagers don't feel they can ask really challenging questions within the church. And so, I've seen some of those statistics play out firsthand when I go to the different churches, and you just see just such a burden of questions on their hearts, and they start bringing it up with you. And they really want to just be able to struggle through these and wrestle through some of the questions that they're having. So, I've seen firsthand how they're asking questions, they're not sure about everything in the Bible, and they don't really know the best way to bring it up, maybe feeling they'll be judged. And so, I think that can be a catalyst to leading to leaving the faith or being bombarded at colleges. They didn't really bring up the doubts that they had at church. And so, now they're in college and where do they go from there?

Gary: Yeah, we talked about that here in the podcast. What's really important to me is having a venue, a place where you can be vulnerable and open and honest about your pain, about your questions, about your doubts, and it's not, and I can speak as an older, baby boomer, those kind of things are not just your specific to your generation. I was talking to my friend Tim Dilena recently and I was telling him, "Lena I feel really bad because I get these occasional waves of just doubt. How do I know this is all real? How do I know there's a heaven? And God how do I know this was, maybe creationism was not as accurate as I believe and there's other things going on," and I was really surprised by his answer. He goes, "Oh, I feel that all the time." Another minister that I believe in that sort of thing. I think we all have doubts and stuff. But are you seeing these doubts and lack of place to ask questions? Is it driving a lot of people away from faith?

Sarah: Yeah, I think the open discussion between generations is really, people don't feel they have a place. So, if they have a question, it's kind of, you either believe the way I do, and if there's any kind of dialogue that's not that, then there's sort of, you don't know what you're talking about. And then vice versa, the young people or us even, I'll speak for myself, I've asked questions and I'm like, "I don't really know why I believe this." It was just something we always believed, and as I kind of came into my own faith was, "How do I know that, that's true?"

You read the Bible, maybe there's not, it's not clear or it's something that's kind of, is it really in the scripture because we're dealing with things that are technologically beyond where the Bible is in my mind and I'm, okay, well how does that work? And if there's not someone or a place for us to ask questions, then you just stay quiet and then you just become more and more isolated. And there's that divide just keeps growing and I know for us, a lot of my friends have been really hurt in church, really hurt in ministries. And a lot of friends I know, they love Jesus and they won't go to church, and it's really interesting. So, we come unchurched. And it's just, it's really sad, because they've had random experiences and things because people are human and normal and in ministry, we're normal.

Gary: What kind of stuff? What kind of stuff and things happen?

Sarah: So, yeah, I'll think of a couple. Yeah, just like they were put into ministry without or like leadership positions in church without a lot of training or a lot of maybe oversight, or they were given way too much too soon or given authority and then not really given the tools to execute properly, or they looked up to everything they looked for the lead pastor and then the lead pastor is human, like we are, that just shatter their belief system, their faith when somebody fails or falls, "If they can't make it, surely I can't." And there's a lot of that disillusionment in my generation where we just talk and we're, "Man, can we just get to the issues that really are important to us?"

It's not really our parents’ issues, it's issues that are more, touch us. And so, it's an interesting thing and I have a lot of friends that are just kind of all over the place, they love Jesus but they, some are connected, some aren't, some just kind of go because they feel guilty. We were just talking this morning about just desiring a deeper, something more, more and more connection, more vulnerability, authenticity, those things are really important and a safe place to say that without being in trouble.

Gary: That's brilliant. I love that. Good, good. Cory, what are you seeing happening culturally with Christians and folks your age?

Cory: Well, I would probably say the same as Sarah is, I'm seeing, well, at least lot of my friends, it's a lot of church hurt. And I think it's more of, less of what she was saying with leadership and different things like that but more of a relevancy and community, and almost like a belonging. They don't feel they fit in, or the word, it is, God's goodness that brings them in, and to repentance and they're not seeing a lot of goodness, it's a lot of, less of a Holy Spirit and a leading, and a guiding and more of, "This is what you need to do to change, and this is what you need to do in order to be in this church or leadership." And I think that's where a lot of the hurt is coming from. I mean, I feel there are some churches that are forcing people to change and forcing, and it hasn't become real inside of them yet. And so, that's what I've just seen in a lot of my friends who are fleeing or running away from the churches. That's the kind of hurt that they're experiencing.

Gary: Do any of the three of you have a close personal friend that's actually experienced that? Somebody that you know.

Sarah: Yeah, multiple. Most of my friends. It would be, that is the 80% of my close friends have experienced this or are experiencing this. Yeah, and so it's really close to our heart because we're like, and you're in the midst of that, and you just like, God.

Gary: Well, that didn't happen... I'll go back. When I was a kid, that didn't happen that much. Is that because these people, did you say people suck?

Sarah: No. Sometimes. No, I think people stuck in their church. People stayed in their churches. I think it was, "This is my church, this our family, maybe it's dysfunctional." But I have seen people, having been at this church 10, 12, 15, 20 years in New York, a lot of the people in our church were in our church for 25, 30 years in a church, raised their kids. And I was, that's crazy. But our culture, we're, two, three years, we can switch around there's a lot of choices. If I get offended, I can go somewhere else, if I like the worship better I can go somewhere else, better coffee, and so there's a lot more options, but majority of the people I'm in relationship with are genuinely struggling with this, it's a deep hurt and deep desire to figure this out.

Gary: Are leaders in this generation more hurtful than they used to be, and that's why more people are being hurt? Or are people a little bit softer skins? Maybe it was the same kind of leadership prior generations or then I suppose there's a third option, this younger generation is just not going to put up with it, "Okay leaders have always been this way, but we always just accepted it." Or a combination of all of them?

Cory: I'd say maybe a little combination of all of them, but more of the ladder to the softer kind of culture and the, "I'm not putting up with this," culture. I feel that there is more a soft skin. We're definitely in the more offendable time. You can't say anything without somebody being offended or being hurt. And so, I think people are having to watch your words and then on the other side, I feel that the millennials and Gen Z, and these younger people who are going to church, they just they won't put up with it. And because of that, I think that's where they make their absolute, "Ah, this church thing isn't for me” or “There is no God," because of maybe one minor or big situation may have impacted their faith. So, I think maybe those, combination of those two, the most.

Sarah: Yeah, I think for a lot of, myself included, that a lot of the pastors are required now to be CEO level businessmen. And so, a lot of the emphasis and a lot of the structures in churches are changing from pastoring, where you could go sit and have a meal and talk about life or faith or discouragement to more, "Hey, we want to drive, we need to impact, we want to win the souls," and that's so good, and that's great. It's just, it has changed. So, it's been, it's become colder. A lot of us, I remember attending a church where the pastor knew us for a long, long time. I never really talked to him, and it was just interesting, we weren't that big of a church. It was kind of, okay, they were just very focused on the business thing, and it was very less pastor-y, less mentoring or anything. And so, I think that we're hungry for that.

A lot of the young people I talk to are just hungry, so hungry for mentors and just someone to sit down and talk with them. Last night, our house was full of young people that just are going through transition right now and need a mentor through that. And they're just, they'll show up, anywhere you want to be, they'll just make it, because they're hungry for it. And it's just, for me, I'm like, what do I have to give? I don't know, but I know a little more, but I know that for me, that's something we always want, is a mentor, someone that will guide us and coach us and I don't know if there's just the time, it just seems it's so busy now, there's so many things that have to go into that, that just makes you feel you can't really have time. There's a lot of stuff going.

Gary: So, you kind of answered the question I was just about to ask, but I'll ask it and then you can kind of maybe unpack it a little bit more. So, this right now it seems we're facing, leadership is seemed to be hurting a lot of people. Those people are leaving the church. They're being hurt either by being, either too soft skin, or finally being honest with the reality of negative things that are happening on the others, what you were saying, Cory. And you met with a group of young people last time, I know you dwell on teaching seminars and conferences, and retreats and stuff for young people, what do you say to them? Okay, they're hurt, they're either leaving the faith or leaving, or they have that, "I'm still spiritual, but I don't go to church." What do you guys say to them? I'll start with you Evan.

Evan: Yeah, I think it's, of course, pointing it back to personal relationship with God because that's the whole struggle that they're facing at church. They're going to church because they want a personal relationship with God, or they want genuineness and they want truth. And so, maybe they don't always find it at the church. So, you bring it back to that place of, "Okay, so maybe people haven't been faithful to you in your life, but we can see that God is absolutely faithful to you. Can you look back at places where God has been faithful to you?” And I can share my testimony of how God has been faithful to me.

So, I think it really, you have to point them back to personal relationship with God and that, the way that people represent Jesus is not always how Jesus actually is, that there is hypocrisy. There are times where people are led astray and they leave the church because they think Jesus is someone who was really involved, intimately involved in their hurt, but Jesus would do something so much different the way the church handled it, or someone else handled it. And so, I think it really comes about who is Jesus really? And not those who have misrepresented him.

Sarah: I think that for us, when I'm talking to young people or friends, it is all about the character in that season. So, for me, it's always, always there's just something in us that we need to develop or strengthen. And God wants us to pray over it and continue to pray over it and to build perseverance, to have grit. I think that, that's the hardest challenges that we can leave. There's a real culture of just, we can leave, we can cancel people, we can unfriend them, we can go to another church and start all over again tomorrow if I want, but there's something to be said about sticking and staying, and working through something, even in uncomfortable seasons. That produces a character that is just, it's valuable.

And for me, I've been through really good seasons in ministry, and really hard seasons in ministry, I've been in great churches, and really broken churches, but I'm still in all those places. And so, it's, God, what is my role here? Am I an encourager, or do I need to, there's been times that I've just quietly served, can you just keep going? There're times that God's like, "No, you got to say something," and then you're in that role and I hate that role. And then there're times where you just get to say, being a friend to the pastors or leaders, "This is my role here, is to protect and to speak good when it's tough, and I think that we can do that, would build such unity. And so, I'm just about sticking, unless you're being abused or something really crazy, but mostly God's going to use those things as character development, and produce a fruit that's going to last, so when the winds come you don't shake, because you're like, "I've been through this before."

 It doesn't stir you up the same way that it used to, you used to be, "Oh, this is the end of the world," but now you're, "Oh, this is normal." And that was it. This is so normal, last night with a group of people and I'm, "Just so you guys know, you're not crazy, this is totally normal. This happens. Here's the truth. Pray, keep praying. Let's hear what God's going to say about this and just keep going, and don't be discouraged," but you can't get it from a book, you can't get it from watching Instagram, you have to be grounded in prayer, and the Word and if you don't have that, there's nothing else. So, it’s just like, all that other stuff falls away.

Cory: I think it's a little less, not much, of what to say to these people, and more of just living it out and showing them as they've been hurt, showing them that you won't hurt them in both your actions and your words and what you say, and how you affirm and lift them up, and guide and lead, but I think in those moments we are to raise up and to lead better, lead differently, hear them, listen to them, what hurt them before, and to model in a way that we are, I mean, I guess as Paul said, all things to all men, and even getting down to their level, obviously not sinning, but just getting down to the level so they can see, "Oh wow, you're not so different from me, the only difference is you really live this Jesus life."

And I think for myself, that's what I've tried to show. I know personally, all the young people that I grew up with going to church, if I'm being honest, it's the same high 90% of them aren't going to church anymore. And so, for the last several years, even just recently, a guy that used to live in my house growing up with my mom, I just brought him home one day, "Mom, he doesn't have a place to live." And she just kind of looked at me like, "Another one?" But he ended up becoming like a brother, but got hurt in the same church that I myself, and my family ended up being hurt in.

And my mom and some of my siblings are still going through that hurt even to this day, but this guy started coming around, and he's coming around more and more, but he had in his mind that we were the same, or we were the same as them, the pastors and the leaders of this church and I mean, for years, he didn't want to come around just because of that. I think because how we've modeled and how we've talked, and encouraged and lifted up him and his wife, that he's coming around more because he sees, I think he sees the Christ in us.

Gary: And there has to be some discernment in us as leaders to know what to say to somebody who's been hurt, because some hurt is legitimate hurt. It sounds like your church there, maybe there was some legitimate offenses or things going on that shouldn't have been going on, abuses that and then so those legitimate hurts. Then you have the offensives, sort of, "My pastor told me I couldn't sleep with my girlfriend. I'm offended." And so, it's really important that we, I think if Jesus was a pastor or a church now, he would offend a lot of people, because he did in scripture too, and so not all hurts or offenses are legitimate in the sense of, they’re legitimate in the sense because you actually feel them, so don’t want to just tell people, "Oh, get over it," and help them through it. Even if it's a hurt that comes from something maybe they should have been listening and learning rather than being offended by it, but either way you have to do that, but seems like you guys are saying, if I catch what you're saying, some of the difficulty in the 80s and 90% of your friends comes from, you talked a little bit about hurts, and then a little bit about doubt. Will those be the two main ones or is there anything else that we’re...?

Sarah: Unmet expectations. I think that people want their pastor or leader to just be everything, almost just the complete Instagram version all the time. And so, they can't be normal, they can't sin or hurt someone and it's, I think unmet expectations shatter them because they're, "Wait, if they can do it, I can't do anything." And you're like, "Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. No one can do it. Let's just start from there. We're all sinners." And so, I think managing those expectations and trying to explain, they're called in a role of pastor just, you might be IT or whatever, that's the role that they're filling, but they're still human. They're just a person with wives and kids, they are just normal.

And that's so passionate because I'm, "Are you kidding me? It's so unfair, because how do you can live like that?" And so, but I notice a lot of that. It's really judgmental, and it's weird because you wouldn't want to be on that same level because there's a lot of grace for you, but this is there, they should know better. I've heard, "Where's their discernment?" I'm like, "Are you kidding me? Are you always in discernment?" And it's just interesting the level of disconnect with some of my older friends that for leadership, ministry and otherwise, any type of leader they have to be perfect and that's crazy. Only perfect person we know is Jesus.

Gary: Yeah, perfect and such high level of skills and expectations, because so many great sermons on YouTube right now. You can go and listen to some of the most articulate, skilled, clever, funny sermons, and most churches aren’t led like that, they're more communities which is really healthy. A healthy church isn’t led by somebody who's a great speaker, and somebody that can build a biblically functioning community. And so, sometimes we're not satisfied with biblically functioning community, because we want to go on Sunday and be entertained and have that good speaker.

As a pastor, that's tough too, because I listen to sermons online, and it's, I'll never preach like a TD Jakes or somebody else. They're just these fiery, and some of my closest friends are these incredible preachers and stuff, but if the congregation or the community of believers is expecting that level of skill, and so the Bible doesn't talk a whole, mentioned some skill, preach the word, and do it effectively and creatively but so that's a third, three very, three strikes, so to speak, and you're out.

Thank you, guys. Appreciate you being here today. Yeah guys, love you being here. Want to do this again. We love your heart for this generation, and I believe God will do great things. Thank you, guys.

Key Questions from the Podcast

  • Why are so many of the younger generations leaving the church and Christian faith?
  • Are church leaders in this generation more hurtful that they used to be, or are people more easily offended today?
  • How can we help people who have been hurt or offended in church find healing?

Resources Mentioned in the Podcast 

About Gary Wilkerson

Gary Wilkerson is the President of World Challenge, an international mission organization that was founded by his father, David Wilkerson. He is also the Founding Pastor of The Springs Church, which he launched in 2009 with a handful of people. He has traveled nationally and internationally at conferences and conducted mission ventures such as church planting, starting orphanages, clinics, feeding programs among the poorest of the poor and the most unreached people of the earth. Gary and his wife Kelly have four children and live in Colorado Springs, CO. 

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