Why does Youth Ministry play the generationalism game?

“Libeau and Chisholm (1993) suggested that “European Youth” (in the same way American, British or Asian) do not exist. Their point being that nationally framed cultures and economies follow their own courses, young people in the different countries and regions that make up Europe negotiate very different circumstances to one another. They are shaped by the material ‘objective’ aspects of the cultures and societies and by the ways in which they interpret these circumstances. ”  Wyn and White (1997)

From this short extract in the opening chapters of ‘Rethinking Youth’ it would and could be inferred that there is something to be said about the uniqueness of every young person, that a generalisation of stating that ‘European Youth’ does not exist, in that same way that ‘British Youth’ or American Youth might not for the same reasons. It would be difficult to suggest that a young person growing up in Peterlee was the same as a young person growing up in Hartlepool, let alone Barnard Castle. Their experiences, their economies, their cultures and the way they interpret them are all vastly different. So it would unfair to try and say that a ‘British young person is like X or Y or even Z’

So why do we do it? or more particularly why does youth ministry in particular make generalisations about young people, and why does it seem that the church is a key adopter of these generalisations?

When I was doing my gap year in Hartlepool with Oasis Trust, one of the sociological constructs that we as a team in the training began to explore was the sociological generalisations broadly married to birth dates such as Baby Boomer and Generation X, it shows how long ago it was because there was only two to talk about, and most of us at that time, fresh faced 18 year olds in 1996 were said to be in the tail-end of Generation X. Along with this there were aspects of identity that would show how we fitted into that ‘generation’ as well as the typical TV programmes that were gen-X – such as ‘Shooting stars’ or ‘The Simpson’s.  Image result for generation x After Generation X (which we were the emerging leaders) there would be Generation Y who would be the young people who we would be youth minister to, and so it would be really insightful sociologically to understand their nature, from these generalisations so we could act in an appropriate way. To our credit we tried to, and even excusing their behaviour at times because they were only acting in accordance subconsciously with the sociological construct with which their age would determine – ie its ok they’re just being gen-Y…

So, back in the early days of academically thought work with young people, these Sociological generational generalisations were coming to be prominent. In 1997 Rick Bartlett wrote a paper for YFC in which he described how the future trends of youth ministry would need to adapt to the changes in young people due to their next generational traits, and how ministries and resources should adopt likewise.

The question is; why has the world of Christian youth ministry/ Christian youth work adopted quite as readily what are essentially sociological generational generalisations?

I have a few thoughts; firstly they give the capacity for large national organisations to plan into what might be predicted on a national scale what might work ie for resourcing or selling ministries

Firstly they give the capacity for large national organisations to plan into what might be predicted on a national scale what might work ie for resourcing or selling ministries

Secondly by wrapping up resources in the traits as described in the sociological construct it gives a perceived validity/strength of the resource

Thirdly, its far easier to provide as resource on a national scale and hope it works for some young people, and sometimes go as far as to suggest that its the young persons fault if they cant comply/participate, than provide the tools to equip contextual work in the regions.

Fourthly – does it appeal to a broader suggestion that its far easier to make judgements of a generalisation of people outside the church – ie common to the pulpit notions of ‘the world’, and so instead of interacting with the world and understandings its reality, far easier to buy into generalised often judgemental notions.

How helpful, or useful, or needed are these generational generalisations?

In reality any youthworker is only going to work with groups of young people in their specific context. Their context, their church, their school, their community. Yet these generational generalisations could do more harm than good if it they stop good working youth work practice, or stop adults from interacting in the reality of young peoples lives, or for seeing young people as unique – something we should be theologically doing anyway. Uniqueness should be something we should focus on, not universalisms and generalisations. Unique needs and gifts, specific adaptions to situation, understanding of identity. But all of this requires effort, specific of approach and time. What significance might the year of someones birth to be in one age category, have more influence over the school they go to , town they live in, family situation and technology.

After all it would be difficult to find a young person who is fully the typical Generation X, or Y, or whatever the latest one is. As a result there will only ever be parts of a whole, no one person is going to be the ideal type. Image result for generation z

These things may be useful sociologically, they might be useful for the consumer, food or entertainment industries in their market research, or predicting trends in habits and behaviours – but are they needed to be adopted in the church? in youth ministry & youthwork? and if not how easy might it be to say so…?

If a young person in any generation requires something different that adults who are genuine, authentic and provide long term support. Im sure thats what Rick Bartlett said in 1997. And has been the kind of thing people have needed since the dawn of time. No amount of sociological research will prove otherwise.

Maybe youth ministry plays the generationalism game because then its easy just to put items on the conveyor belt of practice. Maybe it should be playing the ‘intergeneration/family game instead’.

Subsequent to this post. Generation Z is the thing. A post on that latest research and youth work is here . It does feel like people are labelled in generations before we’ve even tried actually talking to them and building faith communities with them, instead of just trying to analyse the world from a distance.




  1. Great piece, but I should write a response arguing though that the unique young person is an expression at one and the same time of their place within a matrix of power relations – class, gender, race, sexuality, disability and faith – which influence deeply who they are and who they might become. Best as ever.


    • Yes, and that is what Wyn and White go on to say. Im not sure ‘youth work/informal education’ had adopted sociological generalisations of generations as much as or at all like ‘youth ministry in the church’ has. thanks for that Tony.


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