6 Challenges Digital Natives Present for Gen-X Church Leaders

“By age 20, children will have spent 20,000 hours online — the same amount of time a professional piano player would have spent practicing…” – Dr. Urs Gasser (co-author of Born Digital)

Students graduating from high school this year are at the leading edge of the digital native generation. Information technology dominates their lives like no other generation. They may have been given a Nintendo Game Boy to play with in the crib. GPS satellite navigation systems have always been available to them. Ubiquitous broadband internet access has always been available on their computers. They don’t know a world where you can’t ask Google the answer to any question.

There was a time when being a Gen-X church leader was intriguing and maybe even cool but our time is fading. (Remember all those Gen-X ministries in the late ‘90s? They seem funny now.) Our attention must turn to how we pass along the message and community of Jesus to the digital natives coming up around us. Gen-X church leaders are digital immigrants who were born before the existence of pervasive information technology. We adopted it to some extent later in life. To serve the next generation, we need to understand how their relationship to technology has shaped them. Here are some observations:

  • Local? How 20th Century! Digital natives are used to pursuing information and assistance from around the world. They are experts in locating the solution they need — wherever it comes from. Why would digital natives come and listen to a speaker at your church when they can access the best teaching from anywhere in the world?
  • Which “Profile” Is Your True Self? Digital natives have been in and out of virtual worlds since an early age. Crafting and curating various online personas is a survival skill of this generation. How do multiple online personas impact complex pastoral issues?
  • Vulnerability on Steroids. Radical openness is a hallmark of digital natives. “You don’t have it all together … we’ve searched for your name online and found those pics from that college party.” Digital natives expect leaders to be open and honest about who they really are. What seems like oversharing today will be the norm in the future.
  • No Inactive Spectators. Digital natives are creators of content. They reflexively craft digital content and share it through social networks. They don’t want to just sit and receive content from you — they want to engage in the process of shaping what is happening. They are also used to being vocal critics of what others are doing through online reviews and comments. We need to find ways to leverage the participatory nature of content production to drive spiritual development. Inviting them to sit in a class and learn from an “expert” isn’t going to work anymore. [Check out Forrester’s Social Technographics Data to explore this idea further.]
  • Massive Information Processing Skills. Digital natives often “graze” bullet points of articles and don’t read the full article. They surf from one YouTube clip to another and then jump through 10 Wikipedia articles on related topics. Digital natives process information very quickly. What place does the traditional 35-minute message have in a world where people skip to the next online video after 60 seconds because the first one wasn’t moving along fast enough?
  • Flexible Online Collaboration Culture. Digital natives will work in increasingly decentralized environments that focus on results — not command and control hierarchy. To people accustomed to the new environment, the church may seem an antiquated and inefficient way to impact the world. Will our leadership structures reflect the post-corporate reality that digital natives are creating?


  1. Hey Rich, these are qualities I’ve been mulling over for some time. I’m not only working with this generation as they graduate but I AM one of this generation (born in 1984). I think the Church is going to have to wrestle hard not only with their approach within existing structures (how long teaching session are for example) but how effective are current structures are period. Many of my generation and younger are leaving the Church (but not always a connection with Jesus) because the way in which the Church conducts it’s self is either unexciting or incongruent with how they view the world. I think that on a fundamental level my people are more inline with the first-century world would have been like then the church of the past 500 years or so (and especially the church of the past 50 years. The question is – will those who have seen success in the past 50 years let go of the way things have been to embrace the risk of trying new things to pursue a generation that has a lot to offer the Church and the world? Sadly, my experience is teaching me that this isn’t really the case. Too many leaders in the Church see this expression as part-and-parcel with the Gospel.

    What do you think?

    1. First of all … thanks so much for dropping in and leaving a comment. It means a lot to me that you would engage in the conversation. Thank you.

      I agree that the whole thing needs to be [re]thought out. The pervasive nature of information technology is up ending all kinds of traditional structures. The church is clearly a traditional structure.

      I take heart that our wineskin can change and become something new. I’m all for upending the whole thing and starting over. So much of the way we do church isn’t biblical … it’s not necessarily anti-Jesus but it finds very little root in the new testament. So let’s change it.

      Who is actually doing this? Who is reaching the digital native generation at a scale that we need to pay attention to? Where is the Mark Zuckerburg of the kingdom? Who are some of the people that us old Gen-Xers can be learning from?


  2. Great thoughts. I’d like to add one more notion to the mix. There is a responsibility for the Church to not only reinvent itself, but also reexamine how it can tangibly impact culture.

    For example, the Church has given up on Hollywood essentially. The impact of media on our culture and world view is huge. How is the Church or today and tomorrow working to turn things around? Isn’t it critically important to have a representative Christian worldview within the superstructure that determines what our next generation sing, watch, or even how they talk and think about various issues?

    Separately — The one question I have regarding the “massive information processing skills” is if that is a myth like multi-tasking has been found to be? What you assume regarding this factor will have implications on how you approach messaging to this generation.


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Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.