My middle son, Art, and I once went to a church in a western state that had a very contemporary worship. At least the service was contemporary by my standards. But when I gave my assessment of the music and style to Art, he responded with a deadpanned look: "Dad, that was not a contemporary service!"
Upon further inquiry of my son, I learned that he thought my comments were absurd since all of the songs had their origins in the early 1990s! Those "oldies" made the services traditional in style to Art.
When we often think of the younger generation in America, we are prone to think that the primary difference between them and the rest of us is age and a proclivity for more contemporary music.
To the contrary, the difference might not be as much music and worship style as other factors. We need to learn more about this generation in order to reach them and minister to them. But first let us find out who they are.
The Bridgers: A Profile
The Bridgers are the second largest generation in America's history. They number over 72 million, compared to the behemoth Boomer generation of 76 million.
These young adults, youth and children were born between the years of 1977 to 1994. This second population boom caught many pundits off guard. When Generation X or the Busters ushered in a small generation, most experts expected the age of high birth rates had ended.
But then came the Bridgers.
The Bridgers go by other names, including Generation Y, the Millennial Generation, the Echoboomers, and Generation Next. I prefer the Bridger nomenclature because it speaks of the eras in which they were born and in which they will lead.
They were born in one millennium and will lead in another millennium. They are truly a bridge in a major epoch of history. What kind of bridge will they be? Let us look at some of their defining characteristics to attempt to answer that question.
The Lost Generation
By almost any measurement, the Bridger Generation represents the largest non-Christian generation in America's history.
In one of my team's research projects, we surveyed over 1,300 Bridgers over the age of 16. We asked them basic evangelistic diagnostic questions. Much to our horror, we found that only four out of 100 Bridgers could articulate anything resembling a salvation experience.
And, ironically, this generation may very well be the most receptive generation to the gospel. The problem is that very few churches are attempting to reach them evangelistically.
The Visual Generation
The Bridgers are growing up in a high tech world that would have seemed impossible just a generation ago. They do not just have television, the big screen theater, the computer, and DVDs. They have visual experiences that would have been described as futuristic just a decade earlier.
While the preached and taught Word should remain central in the church of the 21st century, leaders must realize that this generation learns as much by experiencing and seeing as they do by listening and reading.
The Generation of Absolutes
Postmodernity is a concept that has become the fad in writing and speaking. The idea behind postmodernity is that the modern world has been rejected for an ill-defined society that does not accept absolutes and truth.
While the predecessor generations of the Bridgers may have discarded absolutes, our research finds that this younger generation is actually desiring and looking for truth. They are tired of the moral and spiritual ambiguity that characterized their parents and grandparents.
Our research is already indicating that the Bridger-reaching churches are the churches that teach and preach an uncompromised gospel. They do not spare any of the difficult and deep teachings of God's Word.
The Experience Generation
Do you desire the Bridgers in your church to support missions? Give them the opportunity to go on mission trips around the world.
Do you want the young people to minister to those in need? Send them to minister to the inner city for a week.
Would you like the Bridgers to become an evangelistic force in your church? Teach them the mandate of the Great Commission and watch them become radical witnesses in their schools and places of work.
The Bridger Generation will support the church and her cause as long as they have the opportunity to experience firsthand that which they are asked to support.
The Builder Generation responded to need out of institutional loyalty. The Boomers were loyal to the mission of the church. The Busters responded to both the mission of the church and to some opportunities to experience the mission firsthand.
But the Bridgers will respond best to the experiences to which they have been exposed.
They are the most unevangelized generation in America's history. But, ironically, they are the generation that is most likely to respond positively to the gospel. And once they become followers of Christ, they will become some of the most sold-out Christians in your church.
On the one hand, many pundits, myself included, lament the sheer lostness of the Bridger Generation. On the other hand, it seems like this generation may have the biggest positive impact for the gospel despite their small size.
Reaching the Bridgers seems basic. Millions of these young people are just waiting on someone to share the gospel with them.
Leading the Bridgers can be a joy. Teach and preach truth without compromise. Give them the opportunity to experience firsthand the ministries of the church and beyond. And then watch the incredible miracles that God will bring forth through the second largest generation in America's history.
Thom S. Rainer is dean of the Billy Graham School at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. The author of 14 books, he also serves as president of the Rainer Group and Church Central Associates.