For The Someday Book

Book Review: The Multigenerational Congregation

Posted on: January 22, 2010

The Multigenerational Congregation: Meeting the Leadership Challenge, by Gil Rendle, Alban Institute, 2002.

I heard most of the material in this book at a one-day workshop led by Gil Rendle, offered by the Center for Congregations a few years back. On the heels of reading Tribal Church, I wanted to review the material here for a different perspective on the same challenge.

Rendle’s key observations are two-fold:

1) Many contemporary congregations are divided not only by age but by tenure of membership.

He describes a “bi-modal” congregation, which is full of members who have been there more than 20 years and less than 10 years, with very few who have joined 10-20 years ago. These congregations have two radically different groups operating within them, with few “bridge people” to navigate between their differences.  They are usually divided by the typical pre-boomer (GI) vs. post-boomer watershed hallmarks (group vs. individual identity, deferred pleasure vs. instant gratification, assumption of sameness vs. difference). Both groups are active within congregations.

One of the most interesting observations of this part was the distinction between the spirituality of place vs. the spirituality of journey. This was new to me, and very insightful. Quoting Robert Wuthnow, Rendle says that, in times of stability, people build dwellings and places that connect to the sacred. In times of instability, the sacred is and must be portable and moving. For members of the WWII generation, life has been stable and settled; therefore, their spirituality is stable and settled–they build places where the sacred dwells, like churches and rituals that contain the sacred. For the Boomers and subsequent generations, we live in an unstable world and celebrate a spirituality of journey. For us, God is in the pilgrimage rather than the place.

I realized that I have been preaching almost exclusively to the spirituality of journey, having really had no conception of a spirituality of place. I have several holy places that mean something to me, and I revisit in search of God–but that’s not the same thing, because they are just oases on the spiritual journey. Rendle’s insights helped me see spirituality rather than just stubbornness and tired tradition in people’s connection to our stained glass windows, liturgical garb and Christmas decorations.

2) In a world that continually segments people into increasingly specialized and individualized markets, the church is unique because it is not a “pure market” environment.

What a blessing! Rendle praises the inherent, unavoidable friction that is present when you have two such different groups trying to work together and live together in a church. Increasingly, television programs, books, methods of communication, clothing, movies, restaurants and other cultural institutions are targeted to a “pure market” of like-minded, similiar-aged and experienced people, “people like me.” Most mainline churches are not pure markets, because they are composed of people with multiple political opinions, incomes, educational levels, neighborhoods and even races. Friction is inevitable, but a sign of health and growth in a congregation.

I must say, this multigenerational experience is one of the things I value most about life in the congregation. I am grateful to Rendle for the clear, concise explanation of the systems and perspectives at work. I will be contemplating the difference between a spirituality of place and a spirituality of journey in my next sermon series.

1 Response to "Book Review: The Multigenerational Congregation"

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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