Keeping a congregation generationally diverse is not impossible today, but it is becoming more improbable. But too much blame is being placed on generations and generational culture—an analysis that keeps us from seeing the other issues blocking age diversity in religious bodies.

Rather than seeing faith communities successfully negotiating the interaction of multiple age groups, we find today that congregations are being reduced to a few core age groups.

As with everything else in our present society, this shift toward age homogeneity has exceptions. The exceptions are generally congregations in which generational impediments are overridden by the community context or by specific religious interests.

Conflict among generations is not the base cause of age homogeneity. The problems within congregations that are pegged as issues of difference in generational cultures usually stem from other factors—from the complexion of communities, the social networks of congregants, and the spiritual needs of people at varying times in their ever-longer lives.

Despite popular views and media accounts to the contrary, even the existence of generational culture is not a given. We can speak confidently about ethnic cultures. We can talk assuredly, too, about sexual subcultures. But not all age groups have generational cultures.

What is a generation, and what is generational culture? Social scientists define generation in two ways. The first is by grouping people by the years in which they were born. Such a grouping is called a cohort. The second definition is based on identity. People born in an arbitrary range of years have a clear picture of themselves that separates them from other people

Not all Age Cohorts are Distinct
The second definition is basically what many people mean by generational culture. Such a picture or culture is created when a cohort reaches a formative age and experiences the same historic and social events. At that point, according to German scholar Karl Mannheim, the cohort has the potential to bond culturally. But that potential is not always realized. In the process outlined by German sociologist Michael Corsten of the Max Planck Institute, the creation of a generational identity is fragile and chancy. Howard Schuman and Jacqueline Scott, both sociologists at the University of Michigan, have noted that historic and social events do not necessarily determine generational behavior.1

The reality is that not all age cohorts have distinct values, beliefs, and outlooks that separate them culturally. A gap does exist between the age cohort born before and during World War II, and the one born after that war. Members of the latter cohort, the baby boomers, are culturally distinct from pre-boomers. But sociologists see scant evidence that successive generations are clearly distinct from boomers in the way that boomers are from their predecessors. Religion scholar Jackson W. Carroll of Duke University and sociologist Wade Clark Roof of the University of California, Santa Barbara, have found that what primarily separates Gen Xers from boomers are behaviors and attitudes that are due to differences in age and life stage.2

Issues That Impede Diversity
What many are calling “generational cultures” are the natural gaps in social maturity between age cohorts, and the powerful and diverse youth cultures that flourish and dissipate so rapidly. This gap in social maturity and immersion in youth cultures can impede age diversity in congregations. But congregations are usually blocked from age diversity by these three factors:

1. The geography of our metropolitan areas—where most people now live—has changed tellingly over the past three decades. In many metro areas, what now divides one community from another is differences in age and family status. For example, near Stevenson Ranch in north Los Angeles County, over two-thirds of the 46,000 residents are young parents and their children. Most are married couples. Outside Dunellon in Marion County, Florida, about half of the 38,000 residents are age 65 and over. Most are empty nesters. East of midtown Atlanta, Georgia, about half of the 36,000 residents are young adults. Nearly all are single. These residential areas, which happen to be near houses of worship, are not exceptional; they are more and more typical of the locales in which faith communities minister today.

2. Members of faith communities have networks of friends, associates, and colleagues that are increasingly age-segregated. In the past century, contacts across age groups were naturally fostered in tightly knit and age-layered communities. Lacking such community-grounded contacts now, people find their social networks among those of their own age group. These are their close friends, old school classmates, professional colleagues, softball teammates, parents of their children’s friends, and even an occasional neighbor. For several reasons, a faith community generally depends on its current participants’ social networks to gain and keep its participants. If most members are young, then the new participants are usually young.

3. People are not only living longer but also staying agile. Several studies say that as people age, their spiritual framework changes, too. Unlike the immediate, concrete spirituality of the young, some researchers say that older adults have a transcendent spirituality: “a feeling of cosmic communion with the spirit of the universe.”3 More religious participants are agile older people whose spiritual needs may be unlike those of younger generations. The ability of congregations to bridge that spiritual gap may be thoroughly tested in coming years by an aging population. Exceptions to the shift toward age homogeneity are usually congregations that must hold together multiple age groups because of their religious niche, ethnicity, subculture, social concerns, or community context. These latter bodies can still face generational conflicts over power (too many old people on the council!) and different life stages (we need a youth program!) that are not due to culture.

Four Congregations
Mix these factors together, and we see the issue of age playing out in interesting and varied ways in congregations. These four churches in southern California are an example:

  • At a Catholic church outside Los Angeles, parishioners are a mix of new and older Hispanic immigrants who live in a tight-knit ethnic enclave. Youth in this strict community adjust slowly to the outside culture. Because of ethnic solidarity, the gap between youth and their parents is not wide. Except for the young men who linger outside while their girlfriends attend Spanish-language mass, young and old take part in the parish in more or less the same way.


  • But further south in Los Angeles, young Koreans attend a separate English-language service at an ethnic Protestant church. College-educated and immersed in American life, these youth are divided from their parents by ethnic culture. In this church, the old and young fret over the existence of the English service, as well as struggle over issues such as who should be a deacon.


  • In downtown L.A., 20-somethings converge for a Sunday-night service in a nightclub. One evening, the energetic, with-it pastor urges the ethnically mixed attenders to spend time talking seriously with their parents when they go home for Christmas in a couple of weeks. Imbued with youth culture, the musically and visually eclectic service has few attenders older than 30, even though this service has been around for nearly a decade.


  • Meanwhile, in a suburb east of downtown, a church made up of young boomers is undergoing change. Since they joined the church with its contemporary approach to worship and Bible study, many earl
    y members have married and had children. A new issue is the lack of children’s programs. The high-energy rock band has become a concern, too. Some now think it plays too loud!

Instead of fussing over supposed conflicts in generational culture, astute faith communities should tackle basic issues that are endemic to our time—ever-increasing longevity; a growing older population; and the changing age complexion of the residential areas around them. 

1. See Michael Corsten, “The Times of Generations” in Time & Society, Sage Publications, 1999, vol. 8, 2: 249–272; Karl Mannheim, Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge, Paul Kecskemeti, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1952); Howard Schuman and Jacqueline Scott, “Generation and Collective Memories,” American Sociological Review, 1989, vol. 54, June: 359–381.
2. See Jackson W. Carroll and Wade Clark Roof, Bridging Divided Worlds: Generational Cultures in Congregations (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002).
3. “The theory of geotranscendence in brief” (Uppsala, Sweden: Social Gerontology Group, Department of Sociology, Uppsala University).