Generation X – How They Fit in the Christian Community

Generation X! Are you familiar with this phrase? It is highly probable that you have heard or read the phrase at least once. What does it bring to your mind? Does it provoke fear, confusion, despair, misunderstandings, or is it just another in a long line of such expressions used to label youth? Generation X has quickly entered our vocabulary as an easily recognizable moniker for the children of another definable generation: the “baby boomers.” Thus this generation of teenagers also has come to be known as the “baby busters.” “Xers” and “busters” normally don’t elicit positive thoughts about our youth. Is this a legitimate response? Or are we maligning a significant portion of our population with such terms?

In 1991 a Canadian named Douglas Coupland published a novel entitled Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. Coupland’s book “is the first major work to take twentysomethings seriously, even if the book is humorous and fictional.”{1} Thus he is the originator of the phrase that presently describes a particular generation. But he is just one of many who have given thought to youth culture, both present and past.

A Brief History of American Youth

It seems that youth have always received the attention of adults. Teenagers, as they have come to be called, have been analyzed, diagnosed, and reprimanded because older generations just don’t know what to make of them. “Juvenile delinquents,” “the beat generation,” “hippies,” “yuppies” and numerous other titles have been used to describe certain generational distinctives. “The contemporary youth crisis is only the latest variation on centuries-old problems.”{2} For example, in the 1730s in New England youth activities such as “night ‘walking’ and ‘company- keeping,’ also known as ‘revels,’ helped produce some of the highest premarital pregnancy rates in American history.”{3} And during the early nineteenth century, student riots became a tradition on many campuses such as Brown, North Carolina, Princeton, Harvard, Yale, and Columbia. These riots included “boycotting classes, barricading college buildings, breaking windows, trashing the commons and/or chapel, setting fires around or to college buildings, beating faculty members, and whipping the president or trustees.”{4} Such behavior–almost two hundred years ago–probably reminds us of what took place on many campuses during the Vietnam War years.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, youth became the focus of the burgeoning social sciences. “An intellectual enterprise struggled to redefine what ‘youth’ was or ought to be. That concept was labeled ‘adolescence’ and has prevailed ever since.”{5} It is especially interesting to note that these early social scientists didn’t discover adolescence, they invented it. “Adolescence was essentially a conception of behavior imposed on youth, rather than an empirical assessment of the way in which young people behaved.”{6} This is important when we understand that the world view premises of the social scientists “came from Darwinian recapitulation theory: the individual life-course replicated the evolutionary progress of the entire race. Adolescence was a distinct ‘stage’ through which each person passed on the way from childhood (the ‘primitive’ stage) to adulthood (the ‘civilized’ stage). Adolescence therefore was transitional but essential, its traits dangerous but its labor vital for attaining maturity. Squelching it was just as bad as giving it free rein.”{7} The fruit of such concepts can be seen in the “lifestyles” that are now so ingrained in our cultural fabric.

The Web of Adolescence

What do the “lifestyles” of adults have to do with adolescents? “Since ‘lifestyle’ has come to define not just doing but their very being, adults have now become dependent on the very psychological experts who wove the web of adolescence in the first place. The classic youth tasks of ‘growth,’ ‘finding oneself,’ and preparing for one’s life-work have become the American life-work, even into the golden years’ of retirement.”{8} Thus the concerns we have for our youth are concerns we have for ourselves. The “web of adolescence” touches all of us. As George Barna has stated, “taking the time to have a positive impact [on our youth] is more than just ‘worth the effort’; it is a vital responsibility of every adult and a contribution to the future of our own existence.”{9} The importance of this cannot be overemphasized as we contemplate the sometimes-puzzling segment of our population called “Generation X.”

Who Are These People?

What is a “Generation Xer” or a “baby buster”? What is the “doofus generation” or “the nowhere generation”? These phrases, and many others, may be used to characterize the present generation of youth. Not very encouraging phrases, are they? More frequently than not, adults always have evaluated youth in pessimistic terms. Even the ancient Greeks were frustrated with their youth.

Today the descriptions are especially derogatory. “Words used to describe them have included: whiny, cynical, angry, perplexed, tuned out, timid, searching, vegged out–the latest lost generation.”{10} Are these terms accurate, or do they reek of hyperbole? As is true with most generalizations of people, there is a measure of truth to them. But we make a grave mistake if we allow them to preclude us from a more complete consideration of this generation. As George Barna has written: “You cannot conduct serious research among teenagers these days without concluding that, contrary to popular assumptions, there is substance to these young people.”{11} Having served among and with youth of this generation for many years, I emphatically concur with Mr. Barna. Generation Xers consist of “41 million Americans born between 1965 and 1976 plus the 3 million more in that age group who have immigrated here.”{12} Most of them are children of the “baby boomers,” who comprise over 77 million of the population. This dramatic decrease in the number of births has left them with the “baby buster” label. Their parents have left a legacy that has produced a “birth dearth” and its accompanying social consequences. There are at least six contributors to this population decline.

First, the U.S. became the site for the world’s highest divorce rate. Second, birth control became increasingly prominent with the introduction of the pill. Women began to experience more freedom in planning their lives. Third, a college education was more accessible for more people, especially for women who began to take more influential positions in the work force. Fourth, social change, including women’s liberation, encouraged more women to consider careers other than being homemakers. Fifth, abortion reached a rate of over 1.5 million per year. Sixth, the economy led many women to work because they had to, or because they were the sole breadwinner.{13}

So we can see that this generation has entered a culture enmeshed in dramatic changes, especially regarding the family. These changes have produced certain characteristics, some positive, others negative, that are generally descriptive of contemporary youth.

How Do You Describe a “Buster”?

How do you describe someone who is labeled as a “baby buster”? We may be tempted to answer this question in a despairing tone, especially if we haven’t taken time to see a clear picture of a “buster.” Consider the following characteristics:

First, they are serious about life. For example, the quality of life issues they have inherited have challenged them to give consideration to critical decisions both for the present and future. Second, they are stressed out. School, family, peer pressure, sexuality, techno-stress, finances, crime, and even political correctness contribute to their stressful lives. Third, they are self-reliant. One indicator of this concerns religious faith; the baby buster believes he alone can make sense of it. Fourth, they are skeptical, which is often a defense against disappointment. Fifth, they are highly spiritual. This doesn’t mean they are focusing on Christianity, but it does mean there is a realization that it is important to take spiritual understanding of some kind into daily life. Sixth, they are survivors. This is not apparent to adults who usually share a different worldview concerning progress and motivation. This generation is not “driven” as much as their predecessors. They are realistic, not idealistic.{14}

Do these characteristics match your perceptions? If not, it may be because this generation has received little public attention. And what attention it has received has leaned in a negative direction because of inaccurate observation. The baby busters’ parents, the baby boomers, have been the focus of businesses, education, churches, and other institutions simply because of their massive numbers and their market potential. It’s time to rectify this if we have the wisdom to see the impact busters will have in the not-too-distant future.

What About the Church and Busters?

Let’s survey a few other attributes of Generation X as we attempt to bring this group into sharper focus. These attributes should be especially important to those of us in the Christian community who desire to understand and relate to our youth.

Because of “the loneliness and alienation of splintered family attachments” this generation’s strongest desires are acceptance and belonging.{15} Our churches need to become accepting places first and expecting places second. That is, our youth need to sense that they are not first expected to conform or perform. Rather, they are to sense that the church is a place where they can first find acceptance. My years of ministry among youth have led me to the conclusion that one of the consistent shortcomings of our churches is the proverbial “generation gap” that stubbornly expects youth to dress a certain way, talk a certain way, socialize in a certain way, etc., without accepting them in Christ’s way.

Another important attribute of this generation is how they learn. “They determine truth in a different way: not rationally, but relationally.”{16} Closely aligned with this is the observation that “interaction is their primary way of learning.”{17} In order for the church to respond, it may be necessary to do a great deal of “retooling” on the way we teach.

Lastly, busters are seeking purpose and meaning in life. Of course this search culminates in a relationship with the risen Jesus. It should be obvious that ultimately this is the most important contribution the church can offer. If we fail to respond to this, the greatest need of this generation or any other, surely we should repent and seek the Lord’s guidance.

Listening to Busters

Let’s eavesdrop on a conversation taking place on a college campus between a Generation X student and a pastor:

Pastor: We have a special gathering of college students at our church each Sunday. It would be great to see you there.

Student: No, thanks. I’ve been to things like that before. What’s offered is too superficial. Besides, I don’t trust institutions like churches.

Pastor: Well, I think you’ll find this to be different.

Student: Who’s in charge?

Pastor: Usually it’s me and a group of others from the church.

Student: No students?

Pastor: Well, uh, no, not at the moment.

Student: How can you have a gathering for students and yet the students have nothing to do with what happens?

Pastor: That’s a good question. I haven’t really thought much about it.

Student: By the way, is there a good ethnic and cultural mix in the group?

Pastor: It’s not as good as it could be.

Student: Why is that?

Pastor: I haven’t really thought about that, either.

Student: Cliques. I’ve noticed that a lot of groups like yours are very “cliquish.” Is that true at your church?

Pastor: We’re trying to rid ourselves of that. But do you spend time with friends?

Student: Of course! But I don’t put on a “show of acceptance.”

Pastor: I appreciate that! We certainly don’t want to do that! We sincerely want to share the truth with anyone.

Student: Truth? I don’t think you can be so bold as to say there is any such thing.

Pastor: That’s a good point. I can’t claim truth, but Jesus can.

Student: I’m sure that’s comforting for you, but it’s too narrow for anyone to claim such a thing. We all choose our own paths.

Pastor: Jesus didn’t have such a broad perspective.

Student: That may be, but he could have been wrong, you know. Look, I’m late for class. Maybe we can talk another time, as long as you’ll listen and not preach to me.

Pastor: That sounds good. I’m here often. I’ll look for you. Have a great day!

This fictitious encounter serves to illustrate how baby busters challenge us to find ways of communicating that transcend what may have been the norm just a few years ago.

New Rules

George Barna has gleaned a set of “rules” that define and direct youth of the mid- and late-90s:

Rule #1: Personal relationships count. Institutions don’t.

Rule #2: The process is more important than the product.

Rule #3: Aggressively pursue diversity among people.

Rule #4: Enjoying people and life opportunities is more important than productivity, profitability, or achievement.

Rule #5: Change is good.

Rule #6: The development of character is more crucial than achievement.

Rule #7: You can’t always count on your family to be there for you, but it is your best hope for emotional support.

Rule #8: Each individual must assume responsibility for his or her own world.

Rule #9: Whenever necessary, gain control and use it wisely.

Rule #10: Don’t waste time searching for absolutes. There are none.

Rule #11: One person can make a difference in the world but not much.

Rule #12: Life is hard and then we die; but because it’s the only life we’ve got, we may as well endure it, enhance it, and enjoy it as best we can.

Rule #13: Spiritual truth may take many forms.

Rule #14: Express your rage.

Rule #15: Technology is our natural ally.{18}

Now let’s consider how parents and other adults might best respond to these rules.

What Do They Hear From Us?

Try to put yourself into the mind and body of a contemporary teenager for a moment. Imagine that you’ve been asked to share the kinds of things you hear most often from your parents or adult leaders. Your list may sound something like this:

• “Do as I say, not as I do.”
• “I’m the adult. I’m right.”
• “Because I said so, that’s why.”
• “You want to be what?”
• “This room’s a pig sty.”
• “Can’t you do anything right?”
• “Where did you find him?”
• “You did what?”
• “Do you mind if we talk about something else?”
• “I’m kind of busy right now. Could you come back later?”

These statements sound rather overwhelming when taken together, don’t they? And yet too many of our youth hear similar phrases too frequently. As we conclude our series pertaining to the youth of Generation X, let’s focus on how we might better communicate and minister to them. In his book Ten Mistakes Parents Make With Teenagers, Jay Kesler has shared wise advice we should take to heart and consistently apply to our lives among youth.{19}

Advice to Parents and Other Adults

• Be a consistent model. We can’t just preach to them and expect them to follow our advice if we don’t live what we say. Consistency is crucial in the eyes of a buster.
• Admit when you are wrong. Just because you are the adult and the one with authority doesn’t mean you can use your position as a “cop out” for mistakes. Youth will understand sincere repentance and will be encouraged to respond in kind.
• Give honest answers to honest questions. Youth like to ask questions. We need to see this as a positive sign and respond honestly.
• Let teenagers develop a personal identity. Too often youth bare the brunt of their parents’ expectations. In particular, parents will sometimes make the mistake of living through their children. Encourage them in their own legitimate endeavors.
• Major on the majors and minor on the minors. In my experience, adults will concentrate on things like appearance to the detriment of character. Our youth need to know that we know what is truly important.
• Communicate approval and acceptance. As we stated earlier in this essay, this generation is under too much stress. Let’s make encouragement our goal, not discouragement.
• When possible, approve their friends. This one can be especially difficult for many of us. Be sure to take time to go beyond the surface and really know their friends.
• Give teens the right to fail. We can’t protect them all their lives. Remind them that they can learn from mistakes.
• Discuss the uncomfortable. If they don’t sense they can talk with you, they will seek someone else who may not share your convictions.
• Spend time with your teens. Do the kinds of things they like to do. Give them your concentration. They’ll never forget it.

This generation of youth, and all those to come, need parents and adults who demonstrate these qualities. When youth receive this kind of attention, our churches will benefit, our schools will benefit, our families will benefit, and our country will benefit. And, most importantly, I believe the Lord will be pleased.


1. William Dunn, The Baby Bust: A Generation Comes of Age (Ithaca, N.Y.: American Demographics Books, 1993), 112.
2. Quentin J. Schultze, ed., Dancing in the Dark: Youth, Popular Culture, and the Electronic Media (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1991), 14.
3. Ibid., 19.
4. Steven J. Novak, The Rights of Youth: American Colleges and Student Revolt, 1798-1815(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1977), 17-25. Quoted in Schultze, Dancing in the Dark, 23.
5. Schultze, 33.
6. Joseph F. Kett, Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America, 1790 to the Present (New York:Basic Books, 1977), 243. Quoted in Schultze, Dancing in the Dark, 35.
7. Schultze, 35.
8. Ibid., 45.
9. George Barna, Generation Next: What You Need to Know About Today’s Youth (Ventura,Calif.: Regal, 1995), 11.
10. Dunn, x.
11. Barna, 18.
12. Dunn, x.
13. Ibid., 16.
14. Barna, 18-21.
15. Jan Johnson, “Getting the Gospel to the Baby Busters,” Moody Monthly (May 1995): 50.
16. Ibid.
17. Ibid., 51.
18. Barna, 108-15.
19. Jay Kesler, Ten Mistakes Parents Make With Teenagers (And How to Avoid Them) (Brentwood, Tenn.: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1988).

© 1997 Probe Ministries International