First of two parts.
The author gratefully acknowledges the input of other participants in Northern Virginia's Mesh Community for ideas she developed in this essay. It doesn't necessarily reflect any individual's opinion other than her own, however.
By Helen Thompson
I was talking to a friend about the challenges we face by virtue of being born after 1970--well, of being gen-xers in general, and being caught between the "Boomers" and the "Millennials," and how this affects us in faith communities. It came up last week on an email group, and I passed it along to several of my friends who are doing their part, in my humble opinion, to attract people like me to the broader church. On Sept. 20, that group met over margaritas to discuss, as my friend put it, "the theological / ecclesiological / missiological / tequiliological implications" of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; indeed, the Harry Potter series as a whole. Where on earth can you find something like this? In our homespun small group, called MESH, which is an acronym for mix, entangle, share, harmonize. What it is, for me, is church. Three friends had the idea to read some books and invite their friends over for munchies and chat. And they're telling their friends. And they're telling their friends. We're not part of any one church, but part of the church.
The more I see things with top-down architectures being applied to us youngish people, the more I realize it doesn't work. I've seen great ideas committee-ed to death all because people older and wiser than me must control every outcome of every plan of every initiative. And the more input I got from friends of mine, the more I realized:
Your invitation to me to participate doesn't mean much if you don't let my input—and leadership—count. And that's what I'm hearing from frustrated 30-something laity who want to take on leadership positions but still get flak for being slackers, which we really are not anymore and we'd like some credit. It's not just the Episcopal Church. I worked at a financial services magazine that refused every pitch I made about Gen-X prospects because we're not buyers. I work for an association that's trying to figure out how to attract people under 40 because we're not joiners. One friend of mine added to the conversation that she'd like to see "'young adult' stricken from the Episcopal vocabulary"--for reasons that resonate with me: mortgage, career, family. Heck, my son is almost 15, and pretty soon I'll be the young adult parent of a young adult.
So, if we're not young adults anymore, and nowhere near middle aged (if 50 is new the 30, we're actually teenagers), what are we? How do you address the wide demographic of a narrow slice of the population that's holding an awful lot of cards and generating absolutely no buzz? Sure, skip us. Move on to the millennials.
Here's my take on things, though. Generation X is the bridge between the Boomers and the Millenials. We were raised with enough technology that we're conversant in the ways that today's teenagers interact on social networks. But we also know how to dial a phone. We're all wired in varying ways, but each succeeding generation is increasingly plugged in. Let me put it another way. Historically, many immigrants have come to America speaking only their native language. Their children, however, speak both languages fluently. But I know many cases where the grandchildren don't speak anything but English, and the middle generation must help the bookending generations understand one another--literally. So what happens if you skip the middle generation?
Here's an example I ran across recently. Blogs are a publishing platform that were adopted quickly by compulsive writers with varying degrees of web-savvy. I've had so many that it's a wonder I can populate them all with random Helen/Gallycat brain noise on a regular basis, so I wax and wane with all of them. They're a great way to distribute content, to self-publish (no, really, I'm more prolific than Stephen King!), to bypass censorious editors, to think aloud, to take the podium, to brainstorm in community. So of course, many organizations, seeing the value of being able to share content with one another, decided to barrel full speed ahead with a blog. Occasionally, some would enlist me to help get the blog off the ground, since I know the technology. One, in particular, was a church that was looking forward to getting some ideas out there.
But they didn't listen to my input on certain key issues that ultimately doomed the blog. Granted, this is a church that has huge outreach on many fronts and I don't fault them at all for determining that this wasn't the vehicle for them, especially since I was constantly moving from place to place and too peripatetic to fully participate in the community. (This is a major reason why "online" was my permanent residence, up til recently.) But the problem was that every post had to be approved by a committee. I felt like Cassandra, trying to explain to them why it would inhibit participation on the blog. It died a few months later. I was sad, but Episcopal Cafe emerged right around then, so I had another place to focus my energies.
So how is this an example of why we, Gen X, are the translators? We are well equipped to understand social media, which is going to be the communications medium of choice for today's young people. How is this changing the face of communications? My connections in the news media say it's as revolutionary as Gutenberg and the moveable type printing press. Ignore this opinion at your peril, unless you think Luther's revolution had nothing to do with Gutenberg's (again, a hat tip to my friend for saying this; I hope he outs himself in the comments). Blogs are just a part of what that next generation is coming online with. We can speak their language. We can speak the Boomers', too, though. Did I mention my teenage son? Yes? What about my aging parents? How's your retirement portfolio?
So anyway, back to the matter at hand. Don't skip Generation X. We've seen it more than once. We've heard you ask how to reach us, and seen you form committees hoping to find the magic pill that will get us back in the pews. To be honest, you might not. My fiancé has stalwartly avoided church services pretty much since he was old enough to say "no" to them. But cookouts, labyrinth walks, drum circles, soup kitchens, river clean-ups? He's so there. How is he going to hear about those activities if he doesn't come to church each Sunday? Through our blogs, our Facebook accounts, our Livejournals, our Myspace pages. I'm on each of these platforms, and on every single one it's plain to see that I'm a Christian, an Episcopalian, a Harry Potter fan and a Diet Pepsi addict. And I have slowly been building my own net community, little pockets of which occasionally gather for margaritas, that is my church.
You don't need a committee to study us and come up with a strategic plan that you'll implement just in time for my grandchildren's confirmation, by which time said strategic plan will be as obsolete and full of cheesy music as 8-track tapes. Try flying by the seat of your pants. Take a hint from my Tequila-loving pals and get a group together over dinner and a movie and see what happens. Take some popular music—U2 is just the beginning—and see what happens when you treat the lyrics as songs to God. Look at how subcultures like emo and goth have spiritual subtexts that tie in beautifully with the poetry of psalms. Take church outside the church, and take advantage of social networking technology to bring more people into the fold. Not the pews, THE FOLD. For we are his flock in the world. In the world! Such is the call to the diaconate, and the call of the deacon at the end of the service. But it's important to everyone; otherwise, such would not be the call of the deacon to us: Go forth into the world to love and serve the lord.
It's not enough to study us. Listen to us, yes, but more importantly—
Helen Thompson directs social media initiatives for an international association in Northern Virginia and is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in the northern Shenandoah Valley, where she is in her second year of studies in Education for Ministry and plugging away at her first novel. Catch her on the web at http://www.gallycat.com, among others.