I am a 54 year-old baby boomer. My generational tribe is at the peak of its ministry influence, making up around 60 percent of American senior pastors. But we all know what comes after the peak. In fact, one of us turns 60 every 7.7 seconds. Outside of vocational ministry, we are also at the peak of our influence in the economy. Seventy-eight million of us comprise an enormous pool of employees, managers and consumers. With retirement beckoning, we are also just about to come into some discretionary time, some of which we will spend managing the largest transfer of wealth in human history—the handling our parents’ estates.
No matter what anyone thinks of boomers (and there are things not to like), a lot of future ministry is going to depend on convincing us to pay for it. To be blunt, we have the money—for now. In my frequent (two yesterday) conversations with younger leaders, the issue of how to fund everything from church plants to community centers comes up a lot. Ironically, having the vision for such projects seems somehow to involve a vow of poverty. Some leaders turn to sources of funding like grants, or travel from coast to coast to raise budgets. They sometimes can do pretty well in getting their projects going, but many of them will have no choice but to turn to the same source—boomers.
My young friends sometimes resent this dependence on a generation they find to be a paradox: disturbingly controlling on one hand, yet strangely distant on a personal level. This clash has been depicted for decades in films like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Office Space and In Good Company. Strangely, being Christians can seem to make things worse, as those on both sides of the generational divide baptize their preferences to achieve the comfort level that comes with feeling that we are on the side of the angels. Both sides of this divide deserve better than this sort of tension.
In fact, I want to suggest that the boomer sector can be the best source of ministry resources for young leaders who can speak our “love language.” In other words, if you know how to talk to us, we will write you checks. Here are some suggestions for speaking the “love language” of boomers. They will involve a lot of generalization, and some of them could apply to other cohorts, but they will point you in the right direction.
Tap the leftover idealism of our past.
We set out to change the world, believing that a combination of “power to the people” and rock ’n’ roll would create a new world. We were going to fix everything, stopping wars, saving the environment, reforming the economy and creating a more sane society. Even though most of our efforts didn’t have the results we hoped for, that idealism is still in us. So with boomers you want to talk the language of transformation, because our longing for it is still there. Don’t just tell us about a church start, or about a “relevant” ministry; tell us how that ministry will change its community in specific ways. We might call it something like “vision,” but our hearts resonate with things that make a difference, things that are a revolution. When we touch them, we feel young again, and we’re all about being “Forever Young.”
Point us to the potential of our future.
Our tribe tends to believe that it is special in some way, especially when it comes to issues of power and control. Yet a Pew Research Center study finds that we have turned out to be very conventional people. This discrepancy is creating a crisis of integrity in our latter years. The ordinariness of our lives is like a sharp pain in our collective side. And the fading of our youth is just as painful. We comfort ourselves with big-screen hi-def TVs, an occasional Botox injection and Viagra commercials, but none of it can recapture the past we have already spent. So with boomers, talk the language of the future, because we want to hope there still is one for us. Don’t just ask us to cover operating expenses; help us to understand how the things we are doing leave a legacy in the next generation. This sort of talk takes our minds off of our impending mortality. As a person who recently had to admit to a friend that I am no longer middle-aged, I can assure that using this love language will prove very appealing to us when you need money.
Ask for a lot in the present.
Boomers have always liked to think they were involved in groundbreaking initiatives, so most of us are a lot less interested in small-scale ideas. In other words, we will do things to save a rainforest, but are less likely to plant one tree. We will build a counseling center, but won’t make peace with our youth pastor. Talk the language of scale with boomers because involvement in big things makes us feel important. Don’t bring us little ideas; help us to feel we are involved in something huge. As a friend of mine once put it, “Don’t be afraid to add zeros.” In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that if you ask us for small things, we will wonder what’s wrong with you. Keep in mind that when we talk about you among ourselves (which we do more than you know), some of us question your work ethic, your commitment to excellence and your willingness to sacrifice (I don’t). By bringing us audacious requests, you gain our respect. We see ourselves, or so we would like to believe, reflected in your proposal, and so we hear our love language between the lines.
Help us feel cool.
We remember the world before computers, and thus we feel the pressure of our rapidly declining grasp of what’s going on. My first desktop computer had an external five-megabyte hard drive housed in a 25-pound steel box the size of a small suitcase. Right now I have more computing power in my cell phone than existed on earth at my birth. Natives to the computer/Internet era are able to do things by instinct that boomers require expensive seminar instruction to accomplish. This sense that we are losing control (which we love) makes us afraid, and frightened people tend to clamp down harder. Putting this issue in our face is a mistake if you want things from us. With boomers, then, you will want to talk the love language of resourcing because we will help those who help us keep up with things. Specifically, that means passing along books, factoids, websites and tech advice in private that we can mention the next time we are with our boomer peers. This does not make us actually cool, but it makes us feel cool in front of our friends, and we just love that. Never put us in situations where our declining relevance comes into higher relief; never embarrass us by highlighting how out of it we really are. Just supply us with resources that might help us stay connected to the world, and we reach for the checkbook.
Network with other boomers.
We tend to think that other people like ourselves have things figured out. Younger people make us suspicious unless they have learned to imitate our style. That’s because it’s hard for us to believe that anyone could be as good at what we do as we are. Also, since we are sitting on top of lots of resources, we are asked a lot for help, so we can become reluctant to hear appeals that are cold calls. So talk the language of our tribe by asking other boomers to champion your cause. Don’t bring us ideas that our peers don’t find appealing; help us to see the idea through boomer eyes by hearing a boomer speak to it. In other words, you’ll want to appeal to me for resources by first winning over one of my peers and then asking him or her to connect with me about the idea. Previewing your appeal with one boomer before presenting it to another can also help you dial in your pitch so it translates well into our love language.
Recently, I left my role as a seminary administrator and professor. My wife, Janet, and I are leading a church planting project in Berkeley, Calif., with the Assemblies of God. We have sold our house, moved into an apartment and are beginning the process of raising the budget that will make our start-up financially feasible. After many years of pastoring and teaching, we are now dependent on raising money from our own tribe. Fortunately, we are native speakers of the boomer love language
About the Author: EARL CREPS is the author of Off Road Disciplines (Jossey-Bass).