Midlife Adults: Practicing tolerance, facing conflict
Midlife Adults: Practicing tolerance, facing conflict

Midlife adults are not afraid of conflict

This post by Jim Merhaut is part of a series inspired by the Seasons of Adult Faith Formation book, symposium, and issue of Lifelong Faith Journal. You can read the whole issue here.

Generation X often doesn’t feel at home in churches because these midlife adults espouse tolerance of different cultures and different preferences as highly virtuous in the midst of churches that often appear to be intolerant.

When churches say that God condemns certain sexual orientations or preferences, Gen X claims that God is big enough to welcome everyone. When church communities of a particular race or culture hesitate to reach out and welcome people of other races or cultures, Gen X will proclaim that it is the mission of the church to break down racial barriers and to promote multicultural ministry experiences.

Churches that try to create strong doctrinal boundaries for the sake of identity leave Gen Xers confused, for they believe that openness is the identity of the church. After all, according to Gen X, isn’t God everywhere and actively pursuing everyone?

Generation X has not been as supportive of churches as previous generations were. The dogmatic tendencies of religion are distasteful to Xers. They prefer an open disposition to diverse groups of people and schools of thought.

While older generations valued loyalty to the group, Xers believe there is nothing wrong with identifying with a number of apparently opposed groups. In fact, they think it is a virtue to cross lines that were formally impenetrable walls.

Interracial, intercultural, and interreligious friendships and marriages exploded with this generation and they’ve successfully passed this trait on to their children. So churches should prepare for more tolerance as Millennials come of age.

Effective ministry with Generation X will bear a softer doctrinal tone. Definitions of sin that are illustrated by a list of behaviors are not helpful. Sin in the mind of Xers is epitomized by barriers to relationships.

Whereas parents from previous generations would willingly disown a child who violated a sacred law embraced by the family, Generation X parents will stand by their children who stray from long-held sacred traditions and point to the laws of love, mercy and inclusion as the supreme guides. Generation X expects institutions to bend to human realities.

Rules that define who is “in” and who is “out” need to be reconsidered. Behavior generally is not considered a reason for rejection in a Christian community according to Generation X.

If someone wants to be a member, the institution has an obligation to find a way to accept that someone and journey with them. Institutions should change for the sake of people, not the other way around.

Generation X is interested in learning what is in the person’s heart beneath the person’s behavior. Doing ministry with attention to intention is a key way to reach out to Generation X. Enforcing membership rules based upon a list of do’s and don’ts is a sure way to push them out.

Generation X also believes that every organization needs a prophet, so to speak. In other words, churches need whistle-blowers. Groupthink is not in Gen X’s DNA because their parents openly battled against each other and often encouraged their children to take sides. There was no united parenting front for Gen X.

Challenging the group from the inside is a Gen X way of participating. They are not interested in “playing ball” to keep the peace. They don’t really feel at home unless there is some kind of disturbance.


Ministry with Generation X needs to be open to a prophetic edge. Expect midlife adults in your congregation to be critical of everything.

Effective leaders will be open to feedback. James Kouzes and Barry Posner assert and provide evidence for their assertion that the best leaders are the best learners. A necessary part of learning is being open to feedback, especially negative feedback.

There is no short supply of feedback from Gen X and the effective ministry leader will accept it as oxygen that is necessary for programmatic growth and vitality. Dismissing the feedback as petty whining or complaining is a temptation that leaders need to avoid.

Leaders can work to put a positive spin on any critique and find a way to use it for growth even if it is delivered in a way that is hard to swallow. Once you are a trusted listener, then you can teach and nurture the skill of constructive criticism.

Develop a culture of learning in your organization. Deliberately create conversations in which church members feel very free to speak what is on their minds.

Encourage members to appreciate the value of having issues out in the open. Master the skills of conflict management. Never seek to avoid disagreements. Face them head on and deal with them with honesty, openness, respect, and effective practices for negotiating towards productive solutions based upon solid evidence.

Consider using this process to settle differences or to develop solutions to expressed needs in your congregation. Decision-making and problem-solving processes like the one outlined below meet many of the needs Generation X has.

  1. Create ground rules for discussion:
    • All participants are free to express opinions respectfully.
    • Expressions of anger and frustration are not helpful and are out of bounds.
    • If inappropriate expressions of anger occur, the discussion will take a recess until all parties calm down.
  2. State the problem or issue clearly:
    • Propose the problem or issue.
    • Invite others to propose it in their own words.
    • Adjust the language of the proposal until all agree that the problem or issue has been stated clearly.
  3. Brainstorm solutions without comment or judgment:
    • All participants contribute several potential solutions to the problem or issue.
    • All ideas proposed are open for consideration, even unreasonable and ridiculously expensive ideas because they may spark the creativity that is necessary to come up with the best solution that is both reasonable and affordable.
      • There should be no discussion of any idea that is raised during the brainstorming phase. The purpose is solely to create a list of options, reasonable and unreasonable.
  4. Clarify the options:
    • Invite participants to comment on any of the options.
    • Invite participants to ask questions about any of the options.
  5. Rank the options:
    • Invite each person to rank each option on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being their favorite options.
    • Any option that receives a ranking of less than 5 by most of the group should be removed from the list unless compelling and convincing evidence is presented that sways the group’s opinion.
    • Options that are ranked above 5 by 2/3 of the group or more should be discussed further.
  6. Select an option:
    • Discuss the highest ranked options further.
    • Select the one that emerges as a solution that all parties can endorse.
  7. Work the solution:
    • The process is not complete until the group moves forward and acts on the decision.
    • Make specific and measurable short term and long term plans to bring the decision to life.
  8. Celebrate your success:
    • Thank the group for their contributions with a special thanks to the Gen X prophet who pointed out the problem or solution in the first place.
    • Offer a prayer of thanks to God with the group recognizing the blessings that are associated with your good work.

This post by Jim Merhaut is part of a series inspired by the Seasons of Adult Faith Formation book, symposium, and issue of Lifelong Faith Journal. You can read the whole issue here.

Image credit: “Difficult meeting” by Simon Blackley via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).

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