Being the Last "Buggy Whip Salesman of the Month"

By Derek Penwell

One time Merlin Mann said “Being the last ‘buggy whip salesman of the month’ is great in the short run, but then what?” The point, of course, is that if you haven’t been paying attention all along to the changes taking place in the world and making adjustments, what looks stable and safe today will eventually be only a historical footnote. I get the impression that many congregations are heavily invested in selling buggy whips. At this point I could give the obvious screed against “traditional churches” that haven’t given up hymnals for more “modern” music delivery systems, or who’ve failed to give in and hire a tattooed minister who drinks only micro-brewed beers and shade grown coffee.

I could do that, but as I’ve said before, I think that misses the point in so many ways .

Instead, I prefer to focus on the issue philosophically.

“Oh great. Here comes another completely unreadable bit of ‘musing.’ Why don’t you say something useful?”

Ok. I hear that, but I think this is useful—perhaps not in the sense of telling you whether to sell your church building and rent space at the local Cinemark, but in the sense of telling you why you should constantly revisit the question of why you should or shouldn’t.

“Clarity, sir.”

Let me try this: I’m speaking on a strategic, rather than a tactical level—meaning, I’m talking not about the decisions a congregation makes, which will vary according to context, but about the way a congregation makes those decisions. To put a finer point on it, I’m not even speaking about the process for making decisions. Instead, I’m speaking about the philosophy congregations use when making decisions, the context in which decisions get made.

Now, you may say that most congregations don’t have “a philosophy” about decision making. I would argue that they do, but that it’s rarely explicit, and therefore rarely subject to interrogation and revision. That is to say, most congregations don’t take time to think on a meta-level about decision making.

What do I mean?

Most young people—that elusive demographic that churches constantly seem to be seeking, consisting of Gen-Xers (1965–1980) and Millennials (1980–1999), who appear to have taken a pass on the church—think about decision making in a completely different way from their elders.[1]

“Hmmm …”

People from the Silent Generation (people born 1925–1945) and the Baby Boomer Generation (people born 1946–1964) grew up in a changing world. But much of that change came on a macro level over a sufficiently extended period of time. Technology changed. The work performed by the labor market changed. Political ideologies changed. However, those things all changed at a rate slow and steady enough for people to adjust.

The watchword for these generations (especially as it relates to vocation) is stability.

Though the world was beginning to change more rapidly by the time Baby Boomers showed up, they had a close enough relationship to stability through the world their parents had built, that they had a view of the world that assumed stability as a backdrop.

For the most part, Baby Boomers were free to leave a nest that was culturally and economically anchored. Low divorce and unemployment rates made for a world in which it was safe to explore.

“Yeah, but what about the 1960s? Wasn’t that all about change?”

Of course. But the 1960s were the apotheosis of cultural adolescence. Experiment. Drop out. Fight the system. Question authority.

But what is characteristic of adolescence? Adolescence is a developmental stage in which boundaries are challenged—sometimes fiercely—so that identity can be established. In commenting on the cultural shift underway in the 1960s, we often focus all of our attention on the “challenging” done by Baby Boomers, without devoting sufficient attention to the “boundaries” that made those challenges intelligible qua “challenge.”

Stability is the ether in which challenge and exploration can take place.

I can drop out and backpack across Europe or take a year off to pursue my muse as a sitar player while working in an Alaskan fish cannery, because I know that if it all falls apart, I can go home and get a job in the family business. Or if my family doesn’t have a business, then at just about any of the other tedious endeavors I’ve tried so ceaselessly to escape. Even if I’m just a factotum or a ridiculously over-qualified vacuum cleaner salesperson, I know I have somewhere to land, because the world I’ve inherited is predictable, firm, safe.

The generations that follow behind the Baby Boomers, (Gen-X and the Millennials) don’t have that same luxury. Generationally, they don’t have the same expectations of a stable world. Two indicators that kept the world safe for their parents have shifted dramatically for young people—divorce rates and unemployment rates (especially among minorities) have risen dramatically.

The world, to Gen-Xers and Millennials, doesn’t represent stability. It’s much more uncertain.

Think about technology.

Try this one on for size.

Time elapsed to 1,000,000 users:

AOL—9 years

Facebook—9 months

Draw Something—9 days

When you add into the equation the exponential speed with which technology is reshaping the world, you get generations of younger people who have no other expectation than that what is now, most likely will not be tomorrow—whether that’s socio-religio-political institutions or iPods.

What Does This Have to Do with Congregations?

The difference in generational understanding about something as simple as what kind of world we live in means that appreciating the way people come to decision-making in congregations is crucial. That is to say, dear reader, understanding decision-making philosophy, the meta-level questions around the way decisions get made, can prove remarkably useful.

If you find that young people in your congregation are frustrated when you try to bring them into leadership positions because of what they perceive to be institutional timidity or stodginess, this may be why.

If you find that older people in your congregation are frustrated when you try to bring young people into leadership positions because of what they perceive to be casualness toward the institution or brashness, this may be why.

If you are conditioned to believe that the world is largely a stable place, any change is a potential threat to that stability.

If you are conditioned to believe that the world is constantly changing, then change isn’t threatening; it’s an inevitability.

So, if you want young people to begin to come behind and take up leadership roles in your congregation, you’re going to have to make peace with fact that they care much less (shockingly, scandalously less) than you do about saving the institution. They don’t have any real expectations that the institution (at least as it’s presently constituted) will be around anyway.

All of which is to say, congregations (and denominations) need to quit worrying about saving the buggy whip industry, and start thinking about the need buggy whips satisfy, and how that need can be met in an increasingly fluid world where change isn’t the enemy; it’s the air we breathe. Being the last “buggy whip salesperson of the month” is great in the short run, but that bronze plaque is going to become an anchor much sooner than you realize.

Part two next week: Never let the guy with the broom decide how many elephants should be in the parade.

  1. I realize that speaking in general ways about something as large as generational differences is fraught with peril. I think as a heuristic, however, it can prove enormously helpful.  ↩