And You Thought You Just Worked with Kids: Youth Ministry in a Multigenerational World

Tony Toth
October 4th, 2009

When I started in youth ministry, I dreamed of pouring myself into the lives of young people. But these days I find myself, along with most youth workers, working not only with students but with people of all ages.

We can’t avoid having to interact with parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and guardians. After working with them for a few years, I usually have a good idea how a student will behave. But dealing with families of all different ages and generations can be confusing and unpredictable. Often it seems that they just don’t understand how youth ministry works. So to avoid the seemingly unavoidable conflict between teens and the rest of the church, we’ve carved out a ministry niche for kids that’s separate from the rest of the church in everything but name. We have our own rooms or buildings, meeting times, staff, music, and even calendars. Rather than deal with the conflict of mixing generations, we’ve created a stratified approach to ministry that does little to reduce the misconceptions that inflame the conflicts we try to avoid. A little effort to climb into the brain of someone from a different generation may help bring us together and reduce some of the misunderstandings.

People from different generations see the world in fundamentally different ways. If it seems like we speak different languages, it’s because we do. And there are more generations interacting today than ever before. If you look at the ages of your students’ parents you’ll likely find a huge range, maybe 25 or even 30 years (according to the National Center for Health Statistics). You may have a 35-year-old father, a 55-year-old mother, and a 62-year-old court appointed guardian all with kids in your group. These people see the world in which their teens are living very differently. Blended families and court appointed guardians, along with young volunteer staff, create an environment where up to four different generations are ministering to our students. So we aren’t just speaking two different languages; we’re approaching the Tower of Babel.

What is a generation and what makes them different? If we’re just talking about a family, this is simple. It’s the difference between the age of the parents and the age of the first child (average ages if applied to an extended family). When we try to understand generations in a social context, it gets much more complicated. Some people who study generations go strictly by dates. Every 20-40 years, or even every decade, constitute new generations. Neat, but it doesn’t tell us much.

Other theorists go by demographic shifts. That means big bulges (Baby Boom) or dips (Gen X, Baby Bust) in population numbers. Social events and technology are used by some to help understand the differences in generations as well. Each of these approaches gives important information about the generations. However to really understand a generation, imagine what it was like for a person of that generation in her formative years (8- to 16-years old). What was the world like for a student in the 1930s verses the 1990s? What did his parents and teachers talk about concerning national and world events? How did she get her information? Ask these questions to a group with representatives from different generations, and you’ll see that they really did grow up on different planets.

So what are the different generations, and how are they different? Each generation has different names depending on whom you ask and who is doing the naming.


A popular name for those who were born before 1940 is “Traditionals.” Also known as the “Greatest,” “Builders,” and “Silent,” this generation could be divided even further with those born before 1920 making up a different generation. The “Traditionals” came of age in a world where the stock market crashed, the economy depressed, and the world went to war. Radios were hi-tech and just entering the average household. Resources were scarce and work was a privilege not everyone experienced.

Baby Boomers

The return of the GIs at the end of World War II brought with it the largest population spike in U.S. history. The Baby Boom had arrived. This radical increase in births lasted from 1946 to 1963. This generation will always be tied to the technology that accompanied it: the television. At the start of the 1950s, less than 5 million households had a TV. By the end of the ’50s, more than 50 million families were glued to their sets. The boomers watched the world from their living rooms. “The Red Scare” of the late ’50s, Sputnik and the space race, and even Vietnam—this generation watched it all. They witnessed the rise and assassination of several charismatic leaders (JFK, MLK, and Robert Kennedy), and they watched the first man walk on the moon. They also held the power of numbers. This massive populous generation gained the attention of business and politics. The boomers controlled dollars and votes. They’re used to being heard and used to getting their way. With these numbers, they also realize they must compete with each other for jobs, advancement, and resources. The Boomers’ drive for success is unrivaled.

Generation X

This is the first generation in U.S. history that wasn’t expected to do better than their parents. Of course, this is the perspective of their parents. Also called “Slackers” and “Baby Busters,” Gen X is considered those born between 1964 and 1980. One theorist defines Xers as those born between the introduction of the birth control pill (1963) and the placement of the first “Baby On Board” sticker in a car window (1980). This is the first generation that could be intentionally avoided. No wonder they’re accused of being cynical. Watergate, the resignation of Nixon, gas lines, and the hostage crisis influences their view of the world. This generation experienced a divorce rate that more than doubled between 1960 and 1990. The term “latchkey kid” was coined for Xers. Imagine what this does to their perspectives of family. They may be cynical, but after fending for themselves for so long, they’re also resourceful.


The children born after 1980 make up this generation that has no meaningful memory of vinyl records or life without a remote control, computers, and the Internet. For these kids, cloning is a real option as is the possibility of a shooting at their school. The events of the last few years will shape this generation. The 9-11 tragedy, the 2000 election, and the sharp increase in school violence will shape their view of our country and the world. One thing is certain; this generation has an expectation of immediacy. Information and options are available via the Internet in an instant. They live in a multitasking world and expect their attention and energy to be divided into several different directions. Theirs is an educational world held in the paradox of high speed, immediate technology, and passionate environmentalism. It’s yet to be seen how the Millenials will respond to these influences, but they seem to be grasping for a new confidence and new heroes. These are the kids in our groups right now. This is the culture we need to understand and shape.


There is one other group that’s important to mention. The “Cuspers” are those who are born in the transition between generations. If you couldn’t neatly place yourself in any of the above categories, then you’re probably a Cusper. 1943-1947, 1962-1967 and 1978-1982 are each considered transition times. Many people born during these cusp periods identify with the generations on either side. Often, Cuspers feel like they belong to neither and belong to both. This population caught in the middle can play an important role in ministry. They are generationally bilingual. They can act as translators and ambassadors between the generations.

We all live on Earth, but after looking at how each generation grew up we can see that we all grew up on a different planet. No wonder so much frustration and miscommunication occurs when dealing with students, staff, parents, and board members. We speak different languages and wonder why no one understands. We speak louder or slower and it still doesn’t work. Understanding that generations are different is a start, but it isn’t enough. Appreciating that each generation has strengths that we can learn from and tap into can inject new insight and energy into your ministry. Acknowledging your generational blind spots can help you see the benefits of being surrounded by all the different ages. Become generationally multi-lingual by understanding what motivates and encourages each generation.

I thought that working in youth ministry meant that I’d work solely with teens. I now understand that’s impossible. Students exist in the context of families and communities that consist of all ages. In fact, the Bible (1 John 1:12-14) points to the importance of the generations interacting. Children, youth, and parents all play vital roles in the Christian community. The more we separate the generations programmatically the greater the gap in understanding and communication grows. Tension will exist as the generations collide, but that tension is overshadowed by the richness that occurs as they begin to communicate.

Tony Toth

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.