What Is Your Generational IQ?

Haydn Shaw believes that many of our biggest concerns (fears?!) about the current state of the church in the U.S. can be attributed to generational differences. In his book Generational IQ: Christianity Isn’t Dying, Millennials Aren’t the Problem, and the Future is Bright, Shaw argues for greater “generational intelligence” to understand each generation’s assumptions and how they developed.

“The historical events during a generation’s childhood years shape their values, worldview, and definitions of success,” Shaw writes. These shared experiences not only distinguish them as a generation in the first place, they impact how a generation thinks. Of course, each generation thinks that their assumptions are the correct ones, contributing to misunderstandings and conflict with other generations.

Generational intelligence involves understanding both other generations’ assumptions and our own. According to Shaw, each generation has unique spiritual strengths as well as temptations that hold back their spiritual growth. Therefore, generational understanding is critical not only to our relationships with others, but to our own relationship with God. Noting that this is the first time in history that there are five generations alive at the same time, Shaw points out:

We have an amazing opportunity to learn from each other so that our view of God gets bigger and our faith gets stronger. If we can set aside our complaints about the other generations for a moment, we can learn from their spiritual strengths (yes, they do have them). And then we can help them recognize their spiritual vulnerabilities, which set up their gravest temptations, as they can help us recognize our own.

Shaw describes the five generations, including their formative events, strengths, and temptations:

Traditionalists (Born before 1945)

  • Formative Events: The Great Depression, World War II, the move from farm to city, mass marketing & confidence in experts. “The Traditionalist generation began regionally isolated in 1901 and ended with an unprecedented national unity that had won World War II.”

  • Strengths: They cooperate; they serve with lower expectations (e.g., smaller and less elaborate buildings); they give financially.

  • Temptations: Purposeless retirement; clinging to the past and lecturing.

Baby Boomers (Born 1946-1964)

  • Formative Events: The Baby Boom; affluence; television; shift from sacrifice to self. “Boomers were the first generation to be raised in an era that emphasized that people are special.”

  • Strengths: Hyperindividualism (which brought Christ closer); psychology (understanding and help for mental illness).

  • Temptations: Hyperindividualism (manfesting in focus on self, church hopping); psychology (faith in psychology instead of God). “Psychology, while a helpful handmaiden to faith, is a fourth-rate substitute for it.”

Generation X (Born 1965-1980)

  • Formative Events: Being squished (smaller in number than generations on either side, and raised in an era less interested in children), divorce, downward mobility, parody (generational skepticism). “Gen Xers grew up in a world that was running out of the pixie dust that Tinker Bell spread over the Boomers’ childhoods every Sunday evening on The Wonderful World of Disney.”

  • Strengths: Reclaiming the priority of community; reclaiming the spiritual in all areas of life; reclaiming the value of life and family over work.

  • Temptations: Building their own truth; cynicism.

Millennials (Born 1981-2001)

  • Formative Events: Heavy parental involvement, fear of low self-esteem, the Consumer Age, technology everywhere, emerging/delayed adulthood. “Millennials have always had so many options that they need search engines to sort through them all.”

  • Strengths: Desire for meaning; desire for authenticity; desire for teams.

  • Temptations: Missing the contradictions in their morality; missing the power and importance of the church.

The Next Generation (Born 2002 and later)

The research regarding this generation is still coming in, but they are “always on” (always linked to technology). In addition, “the new generation is the first of what is most likely a growing trend not just of biblical illiteracy but also of biblical unawareness.”

Generational IQ is an important concept for ministry leaders. You can probably cite many examples about how generational differences have caused conflict within your ministry about how to “do” church. It is important to remember that each generation is just different, not “wrong.” Increased congregational IQ can help foster greater understanding and empathy for those with other perspectives.

How can you improve your Generational IQ?

How have you seen generational differences impact your church?

How can you help people in your congregational improve their Generational IQ?


Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Angie Ward