Defining Faith—How Each Generation Sees It

To help understand how churches can attract visitors, George Barna gives insights into each generation's unique view of faith and how it typically fits into their lifestyle.

What's the significance of generations? First, they tend to think and act in unison on many matters. And those decisions influence the nation and entire culture as a whole. As Christians, what can we learn from these generational distinctions so as to better attract them and serve their needs?

In looking at Elders, Baby Boomers and Baby Busters, we've learned that faith matters. But how that faith is defined, classified and a part of everyday life differs from group to group.

To Elders, faith is the foundation of life. It builds character and provides perspective. It puts them in touch with family, community, friends and God. Elders, therefore, appreciate religious institutions as vehicles for facilitating the value derived from faith.

Boomers appreciate faith because it provides security. The traditions and structures may not work for Boomers, but the content of faith makes some sense. Boomers seek to absorb the "right information" and apply it to their daily battle for progress and supremacy. They'll accept religious institutions as long as they produce more benefit than cost.

Busters see faith as a framework for discovering important insights and developing lasting relationships. The institutions are irrelevant to them since their personal interest is in people, not trappings. For them, faith is a macrovalue, not an entire, independent dimension of life.

The faith of choice is Christianity for Elders, albeit a version of Christianity influenced by their work ethic, their trust in the mass media and its interpretation of reality, their family pursuits and their concerns about continuity, legacy and fragmentation.

Boomers have faith, but it is largely in themselves. As the self-declared masters of their world, they have taken syncretistic approach to faith: a little of this faith system plus a little of that religious system and before you know it, you have a faith that feels good, fits good and fosters good. They call it Christianity, but most Boomers have recast the faith of Jesus, Paul and Peter almost beyond recognition.

Busters have taken it a step further, elevating existentialism as their core faith system. They are less prone to playing religious games, because they resent pretension and mindless routine. They are more likely to find spiritual meaning and growth in a wide-ranging, intense discussion with friends around a candlelit table at a restaurant than they would be to experience God in a megachurch sanctuary that has all the latest technology and topical preaching.

As Christians, our religious faith should influence how we see and respond to generational distinctives. Rather than focus on how to maintain the distinctives of our generations, our challenge is to take the principles found in the Bible and strategically apply them to the tensions and opportunities resident within the generational battles that rage around us.

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Adapted from George Barna's Boiling Point: It Only Takes One Degree (Regal Books, 2001). Barna is founder and president of Barna Research Group, specialists in research for Christian churches and ministry groups. Along with Boiling Point, Barna has also authored Growing True Disciples (Waterbrook) and The Second Coming of the Church.