I had the privilege to present a paper at the American Academy of Religion Upper Midwest Regional Conference on Saturday. It asks the question: How can the church leader attend to the generational gaps found in suburban congregations, specifically as it relates to spiritual formation in the congregation? I use Robert Kegan’s theory of the Five Orders of Consciousness as a framework to understand the differences and benefits of each generation.

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Tending the Generation Gap in Suburban ELCA Congregations

Presented by Rev. Dr. Steven Thomason, Ph.D.

AAR-UMW Conference, April 2016


Slide1How should the pastoral leader tend to the generational gaps found in suburban ELCA congregations, specifically regarding issues of spiritual formation? This is the question upon which this paper centers. I will address the question in three movements. First, I will describe the context from which the question arises in my own academic research and experience as a suburban pastor. Second, I will reflect upon the three generations currently present and the opportunities and challenges that the gaps between these generations present to spiritual formation in the suburban congregation. Finally, I will briefly describe Robert Kegan’s model of the five orders of consciousness to serve as a heuristic device that will provide a framework for discussing the generation gaps.

It is not my intention to offer a simple how-to solution to this question. The primary goal of this paper is to sketch out the landscape of the three basic generations that are currently present in the suburban congregation and then bring them into conversation with Kegan’s orders of consciousness and Bob’s Big Idea for peace.

The Context of the Question

Slide2The substance of this paper is the byproduct of a larger Participatory Action Research (PAR)  Project that I facilitated in 2014 called Deep in the Burbs (DITB).[1] The project brought together a Research Team (RT) of eighteen people from three suburban ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in the Upper Midwest region of the United States. The focus of DITB was to see how an increased awareness and understanding of the Social Trinity might impact the ideation and praxis of spiritual formation in suburban ELCA congregations. It was a nine-month process that involved Dwelling in the Word, focused conversations around the Social Trinity, action projects, and personal and group reflection.

One thing that surprised me about the DITB Project was the average age of the team. Most of the team members were over fifty. I must confess that I was initially disappointed and discouraged by this, but was ultimately humbled. The disappointment and discouragement stemmed from my initial expectation that I would focus in this project on the stereotypical suburban family that has children in late elementary or secondary school and spends exorbitant amounts of time taxiing children to various extra curricular activities. I was interested to know how an engagement in spiritual and theological conversation might impact their spiritual formation. I reached out to many families within this demographic and was repeatedly and politely denied. “We’d love to participate. Thank you for asking. But, we’re just (you guessed it) too busy.”

What was I thinking? One of the biggest challenges that face the suburban family is the overwhelming amount of opportunities for activity and the social pressure to engage and excel in all of them. What family, given all the opportunities available to them, would choose to dedicate nine months of their lives to talk about social Trinity and spiritual formation to help a pastor in the pursuit of a PhD? The thing that I hoped to explore was the thing that kept them from engaging. This reflects one of the core issues that every suburban church faces. How does the church compete with all the other opportunities that vie for the suburban family’s attention and allegiance?

The people that did have more time to devote to a nine-month project, and an interest in the topic of spiritual formation, were those over the age of fifty. So, I was discouraged and disappointed that the median age of the DITB team was over fifty. There were fifteen household units represented on the team and only four of them represented the family-with-active-children category. The other eleven households were all past that phase and had adult children. Some had grandchildren and some did not. How would we truly get after the issues of suburban living that I felt were at the heart of my questions?

These thoughts of discouragement and disappointment were all present prior to our first meeting. My feelings of disappointment and discouragement were replaced with feelings of humility and gratitude after the first meeting. God had assembled a far better team than the one I had envisioned. We did have four households that were in the thick of the suburban family situation, so that was good. However, the eleven households that were beyond that phase offered two things that those within it could never offer. First, they offered experience. They had raised their children in the suburban context during the 70s, 80s, 90s, and some as recent as the 00s. Granted, society was pre-internet at that time, but the pressure to succeed and the carting to various activities were very much real. They had lived it and could speak to it. However, the second thing they offered was priceless. They offered the wisdom that comes from perspective. They had been there, done that, and have lived to tell about it.

I came to realize that the presence of older team members became vital to the research. The wisdom and perspective of the older members had a mentoring effect on the younger members of the team. This age dynamic also reflected Kegan’s theory of cognitive development and gives credence to Bob’s Big Idea.

Addressing the Age Gap

Slide3The typical suburban Lutheran church has three generations always present: the grandparents, the parents, and the children. These generations have always been present, but, of course, shift with the passing of time. The current snapshot of these generations, at the time of the DITB project, offers a unique moment in the history of Western society as it relates to both the postmodern shift and the rapid change in technology. The older generation, born in the 1930s and 1940s, was educated during the 1950s when the average American small town or suburban context was (a) racially segregated, (b) dominated by modern rationalist epistemological and pedagogical philosophies, and (c) surrounded by a dominant Judeo-Christian Culture in which Biblical themes were present in public media and local church attendance was considered a civic duty.[2] This is important to note in the context of this study since this generation was part of the urban sprawl that took place during the post-WWII 1950s and 1960s in which young families followed the highways and cheap housing out of the urban centers and sought the garden utopia that the suburban lifestyle offered under the contract of the American Dream.[3] While many Lutherans followed the migration from the city to the suburbs, the typical story of this generation, at least within the congregations represented in the DITB project, is one of people who were raised in the rural mid-west in a context dominated by one particular type of Lutheran church. It was only in their adult lives that they moved into the suburban context and sought churches that preserved their Lutheran heritage. In either case, the older generation is first-generation suburban Lutherans who bring a Christian-cultured perspective to the role of the local congregation.

Slide15The middle generation represents those who are born in the 1960s and 1970s. Many of these people were born in the suburbs and have lived their entire lives in the suburban context, or have moved from the economically struggling small town into the suburban context as young adults. They spent the first half of their lives in pre-computer Reaganomics and their adult lives experiencing the quantum leap into the digital age: from microwave ovens, to cable television, to personal computers, to the internet, to HD television, to smart phones and social media. Some of this generation has been early adopters of digital media, others still function in a paper-based world. This generation, often referred to as Generation X in the 1990s, was the first to experience the mainstream effects of postmodern thought and the disillusionment of the American Dream. This is the first generation of adults to experience a culture in which local church attendance is not the dominant cultural expectation. It is also the first adult generation to experience a globalized world in which career advancement often requires transcontinental and often international relocation. It is the first generation to actualize the radical individual self and the displacement experienced by self-actualization.[4]

The younger generation, born in the 1990s and 2000s, are often called the Millenials. This is the first generation to never know life without the Internet and instant access to various forms of information and entertainment via personal digital devices and social media. This generation lives with a global awareness and connectivity never before imagined by the older generations. This is the first generation to experience a globalized, pluralistic world in which the white, middle-class, Christian culture is not the dominant culture of their experience, but is simply one culture among many cultures that are offered up as a smorgasbord of preference for the informed consumer. It is the first generation to experience globalized equality as the norm rather than the voice of the minority raging against the system.

This simplified, almost caricatured portrait of these three generations articulates an obvious gap between them. Each generation can safely say that the suburb of 2014 is not our parent’s world. The challenge that lies before us in the missional suburban church is one of addressing the gap between the generations and cultivating generative spaces between them. The younger generation needs the wisdom of age, and the older generation needs the skills to navigate the digital world. This brings us to our need to explore Bob’s Big Idea.

Bob’s Big Idea

Kegan’s theory of the five orders of consciousness offers a helpful framework for understanding the dynamics of spiritual formation in general and it becomes helpful specifically in the issue of tending to the generation gaps. Let me briefly review Kegan’s theory. He states that there are five basic phases through which the neuro-typical human being evolves throughout the course of life. The first three phases are fairly automatic and happen as a result of development from childhood to adolescence. Most adults remain in third-order consciousness for the remainder of their lives, and, prior to Kegan’s research in the 1980s, it was believed were unable to move beyond it.

Slide8Third-order consciousness is that in which the individual perceives herself as a part of a larger system, and that the larger system is the sum-total of reality. The individual knows her place in society and has the choice to either accept that place, or rebel against it. In either case, there is basically one reality in which life functions. Kegan uses a historical metaphor to explain these orders. The third-order is the Traditionalist period in which the laws and mores of the tradition are the lived reality of every member of society.

Slide9Fourth-order consciousness, Kegan argues, is that phase in which the individual is faced with contradictory and competing cultural systems and realizes that the world is bigger than his own system of origin. This is the modern problem in which most of us feel “in over our heads.”[5] The individual that moves into fourth-order consciousness perceives himself as a radical, atomistic, individual who is a free-agent in the universe and able to negotiate his way through transactional-relational spaces. Kegan uses the historical metaphor of the Modern Era to describe the fourth-order and claims that it still dominates Western society.

Slide12I would like to add a geographical metaphor to Kegan’s historical metaphor. We might compare the third order to a small town and the fourth-order to the suburbs. Third-order consciousness is akin to the small town/rural mid-west context of the 1940s and 1950s, in which the older generation began. Several team members described their small town upbringing as one in which one particular religious tradition (typically a Lutheran church) dominated the town. This churched-culture provided a centralizing, unifying, and homogenizing effect on the society. The homogeneity and ubiquitous nature of the churched-culture created a third-order reality in which the typical young adult believed that the ways of this small town were the ways of the entire world.

Slide13Fourth-order consciousness is akin to the suburban context. The suburban ideal is one of radical individualism in which the self-sufficient free-agent marks off his own property with fences and garage doors, moves himself through space in his automobile, and chooses his own use of private time to achieve the maximum benefit for his own perceived objectives. Any relationships he has are transactional, conditional, and utilitarian. This includes work, marriage, friendship, civic, and religious affiliations, in that order of priority. This is the modern suburbanite.

Before we discuss the fifth-order consciousness and Bob’s Big Idea, it is important to note the danger of my geographical metaphor. It would be dangerous to suggest that all small town people are third-order thinkers and that all suburbanites are fourth-order thinkers. This is simply false. The point of my metaphor is to imagine the simplicity, homogeneity, and centrality of the church in the small town in contrast to the urban sprawl, disconnectedness, and propensity for independence fostered by the suburban city planning and architecture.

The truth is that the suburbs are full of a mixture of third and fourth-order consciousness. In fact, according to Kegan, the majority of adults, regardless of location, function in third-order thinking. The challenging aspect of the suburbs is that, due to the transient, mobile nature of the globalized world, the typical suburb is a potpourri of various systems-of-origin. Very few suburban residents are from the suburbs, thus they come from somewhere else and bring with them their own cultural system. If they are functioning in third-order consciousness, then they believe that their own cultural system is the same system within which everyone else functions. When this individual has the inevitable encounter with a person from another cultural system, she will usually either respond by withdrawing and seeking a like-minded enclave, or reacting and seeking to eliminate the “wrong” point of view. The survival tactic of the modern era, Kegan argues, is to evolve into fourth-order thinking in which one acknowledges the potpourri nature of the suburban context and learns to utilize the differences for personal advantage. This is the enlightened, modern suburbanite who feels she has adapted.

Let us bring this conversation into the context of the suburban congregation and spiritual formation. There are two basic categories of suburbanites with respect to faith. There are those who fully embrace the secular age and have completely removed themselves from the cultural expectations of religious involvement and seek to live fully in the public sector. Then, there are those who choose to engage in various levels of faith, realizing that this has been relegated to the private sector of life. Within this segment of the faith-engaged population there is a wide assortment of people-groups represented in the suburbs. The diversity of this population is increasing each year as the demographics of the suburbs shift. The faith-engaged suburbanite is faced with an overwhelming amount of churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples from which to choose. Now, with the increasing population of “nones” there is also the increasing choice of self-actuated spirituality in which the discerning suburbanite can engage.

Slide15The member of the suburban ELCA congregation is left with a dizzying array of choices and pressures from many angles. Typically, the older generation has been part of the same church which transplanted the Lutheran tradition into the suburban context and they consider themselves cradle-to-grave Lutherans and, thus, feel no pressure to leave the church. The middle generation, however, especially those whose parents come from the third-order, small-town Lutheran system, feel pressure to get their kids involved in Sunday School and Confirmation. Yet, the traditional Lutheran liturgy leaves many of the middle-generation, and even more of the Millenials, wanting. The younger generations are faced with multiple church options. There are many denominations, and supposedly non-denominational, suburban churches that seek, and market themselves, to meet the felt needs of the overwhelmed, middle-aged suburbanite who is disillusioned with the traditional church, but feels a need for spirituality. This marketing strategy often pulls the middle-generation Lutheran away from the familial allegiance of their parent’s church. The Millenials sense the inconsistency of their parents and the disconnect between their grandparent’s faith and the pluralistic, globalized landscape of their lived experience. How do these generations navigate this space?

A further complication in this scenario comes with Kegan’s argument that the human being is not able to evolve past the third and fourth order of consciousness until after middle age. In other words, the Millenials live in a pluralistic world but function cognitively within a third-order consciousness. Therefore, they can only recognize the cognitive dissonance between the generational and denominational worlds, but do not have the cognitive ability to process it constructively. This is an anxiety-producing predicament. Similarly, the middle-generation is able to evolve into fourth-order, but, for those who do so, this leaves them in a self-focused, utilitarian space of transactional relationships. Perhaps it is the combination of these things which is increasingly motivating the middle-generation and the Millenials to either opt-out of faith altogether or to self-identity in the “none” zone as spiritual but not religious. This, too, leaves the older generation—many of whom are also in third- or fourth-order thinking—wringing their hands as they watch their children and grandchildren walk out the church doors and wonder, “What did we do wrong?”

Slide10Kegan suggests that a solution to these problems comes with the evolution to fifth-order consciousness. He labels this with the metaphor of the postmodern era. Fifth-order consciousness recognizes that the individual is not actually an independent agent in the universe. Rather, the individual exists in an interdependent relationship with her system of origin and, further, her system of origin exists in an interdependent relationship with all other world-systems. Fifth-order thinking situates the individual in a place of humility that acknowledges one’s own limitations and need for the other. This humility opens space for communicative action to take place and, Kegan argues, is the only hope for true peace on earth.

Slide17Bob’s Big Idea, as Kegan calls it, states that humanity is evolving toward fifth-order consciousness.[6] He notes that advancements in medical technology over the past century have extended the average life expectancy from forty-five years to seventy years. This development means that there will be a larger number of people over the age of fifty than has ever been alive at the same time in human history. Since fifth-order consciousness cannot be reached until after the age of fifty, there will be a higher chance of more people who will be functioning in fifth-order thinking. This, Kegan suggests, is an evolutionary adaptation in which the human species is trying to get enough people to reach the ability to figure out world peace before we, through our majority third-order thinkers, annihilate ourselves.


Slide18The central question of this paper remains. How should the pastoral leader tend to these gaps? It is beyond the scope of this paper to propose a simplistic how-to solution. My intention was to simply sketch out the landscape of the generations and demonstrate the unique contributions that each generation has to offer to the collective whole of the congregation. However, I can offer the reflections from the DITB project. The RT discovered that the practice of Dwelling in the Word[7] and theological reflection created generative spaces for change in their ideation and praxis. It was an intentional action to precipitate the move into fifth-order consciousness.[8]

I became grateful that the RT represented the older generation more than the middle generation. It became apparent to me that the older generation brought with it the capacity to move into fifth-order thinking and bring larger perspective to the conversation. It is my hope that, through reflecting on the generations within this framework, pastoral leaders will be inspired to cultivate spaces within the congregation for cross-generational conversation and theological reflection.


[1] This was my Ph.D. Dissertation for Luther Seminary in the field of Congregational Mission and Leadership. The digital expression of the dissertation can be found at http://www.deepintheburbs.com

[2] Robert Wuthnow, After Heaven: Spirituality in America since the 1950s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

[3]  Robert Fishman, Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia (New York: Basic Books, 1987); Dolores Hayden, Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000, 1st ed. (New York: Pantheon Books, 2003); Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985); Jon C. Teaford, The American Suburb: The Basics (New York: Routledge, 2008).

[4] Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010). Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007).

[5]  Robert Kegan, In over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994).

[6] RSA Blog. “Searching for a Way Out of Hell: Mental Complexity, Wellbeing, and Bob’s Big Idea.” https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/rsa-blogs/2013/05/searching-for-a-way-out-of-hell-mental-complexity-wellbeing-and-bobs-big-idea–/ (accessed March 31, 2016).

[7] Pat Taylor Ellison and Patrick Keifert, Dwelling in the Word: A Pocket Handbook. (St. Paul, MN: Church Innovations Institute, Inc. 2011).

[8] Deep In the Burbs, “Implications for Leadership in the Missional Church.” http://www.deepintheburbs.com/implications-for-leadership-in-the-missional-church/ (accessed March 31,2016).

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