PAULA RINEHARTPaula Rinehart is a former editor with Nav-Press and is currently working on a book on the spiritual disillusionment of the baby boomer generation. She lives with her husband and children in Raleigh, North Carolina.

One muggy Sunday morning last summer as we got our children ready for church, I was struck by a sight so ordinary I almost missed its significance.

There in his driveway next door was my neighbor. Clad in cut-offs and a faded college T-shirt, Jeff was methodically scrubbing the front of his Good Times van, a bucket of soapy water at his feet. Old Stevie Wonder songs blared from a nearby boom box. A likable guy in his early thirties, he seemed barely able to stifle the interjection of a little dance shuffle now and then. Occasionally, he would run over to the screened window to talk with the woman inside—who was not his wife, but someone he had lived with for two years.

Jeff waved as we backed out of the garage, now a little late for church. Though our morals and lifestyles are markedly divergent, I realized that there is an undeniable affinity that binds our two households. We are baby boomers—the churched and the unchurched, the married and the single—part of the 76 million offspring of America’s postwar optimism, a generation whose purchasing patterns, opinions, and mating habits have been variously celebrated or lamented, but rarely ignored.

By its sheer numbers, this herd of humanity has profoundly affected culture at every point of passage in its journey from infancy to middle age. Education, the mass media, health care, and economics have all felt its influence. But what will be this generation’s effect on the church in the nineties? How will the church reach and influence its members as the adults who people our pews—or, as the case may be, who boogie nonchalantly to nostalgic music while they wash cars and watch us leave for church?

As every market researcher knows, boomers have long been the group to watch. And their iconoclastic nature presents no small challenge for the church. In 1986, when Rolling Stone magazine commissioned a wide-ranging survey of Americans aged 18 to 44, 50 percent of the respondents said that “they were less involved in organized religion than they expected they would be when they were younger.” Nearly 60 percent presently attend a religious service less than once a month. As Paul Light, associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, noted in his book Baby Boomers, of all age groups, boomers emerge as the least trusting of almost every institution, whether the military, banks, public schools, Congress, or organized religion.

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The encouraging news is that this generation is also showing signs of renewed spiritual interest. Jack Simms, head of Boomers Consulting in Placentia, California, believes that “the quest for spiritual meaning” will be boomers’ greatest concern in the nineties. “They want to get in touch with the supernatural,” he notes, “and they will get in touch with it—somehow.”

Just how remains to be seen, but more than a few are returning to church. George Barna, president of Barna Research Group, says that “having tasted and tried other New Age and materialistic options, a fair number of boomers are returning to the church in search of something real. It’s another stop on their journey but hopefully, it will also be the last.” He suggests that the postwar generation’s need to belong will make them the “most important source of church growth in the coming decade.”

Those born between the years 1946 and 1964 are by no means a monolithic group. Yet the overall evidence suggests that though they are institutionally wary, they are spiritually sensitive and still searching—hungry, in fact, for a reawakening of the idealism of their youth.

A Dance To The Same Music

One key to reaching this pivotal generation is simply having an adequate understanding of what makes it different. For despite their variations as individuals, boomers share a group identity forged from a history of shared experience and common hopes. Due to the universal immediacy of television, they store similar memories—such as Martin Luther King, Jr., sharing his dream or John John Kennedy saluting his father’s casket. They danced to the same music, protested the same war, and later reshaped their global hopes into a personal search for some share of the rapidly evaporating American Dream. Who they are today is largely a function of who they have been.

Without the hardship of a major war or a depression, boomers grew up in the “good times” of the fifties and sixties when men first walked on the moon and anything seemed possible. But the decade of the sixties, with its social and political unrest, brought to the fore ultimate questions about meaning and purpose in life. Especially for the elder boomers (those between the ages of 34 and 43), the sixties gave birth to their loftiest dreams and forged some of their closest relationships.

Josh McDowell, a popular speaker on college campuses then and now, reports that the years 1967–72 were the most intense. “The university was a high news item in the media. Whenever we spoke at a large student gathering,” he recalls, “three news networks would be there. Everyone was focused on the problems of the world; the atmosphere on campus was electric.”

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Thousands of boomers who were students then mark this period and the seventies that followed as the beginning of their spiritual odyssey. The answers to life were no longer just “blowin’ in the wind,” they discovered, but were to be found in Christ. The church began to benefit from the resulting influx of creative leadership and enthusiasm.

This was also the group that set out to change the world in their generation, that chose 1980 as the target date for fulfilling the Great Commission. Unfortunately, the depth of that evangelistic fervor was invisibly tied to the intensity of social and political currents around them. After the defeat in Vietnam and the Watergate trials’ exposure of the nation’s leaders, campuses became at first cynical, then apathetic, just as they had been volatile and spirited before. McDowell notes that the concern among students and young adults “shifted from the problems of the world to the problems of the individual.”

Idealism went underground, and for many baby boomers, disillusionment turned to self-absorption and skepticism. Capitalism wasn’t so bad after all, some reasoned, and the wheels of power were sure to grind steadily onward anyway. The world did not appear so reachable for Christ.

The vision of this generation therefore narrowed considerably after the sixties. James Engel, professor of communications research at Wheaton College, has observed this generation for 20 years—since his involvement as a faculty intermediary at Ohio State University. He argues, in a self-published monograph cowritten with Single Adult Ministries Newsletter editor Jerry Jones, “Once they realized they weren’t going to change the world as they thought, they downscaled to making the world better where they were and where they lived. Boomers’ concerns became and have remained primarily local ones.”

A Generation warms to Religion

In the 1960s, remembers baby boomer and Vanderbilt Divinity School instructor Renita Weems, “we were not intimidated by anything—neither dogma nor traditions nor gods.… [W]e’d succeeded in almost everything we put our minds to—except in finding peace within. And that we thought we could buy from our therapist or chant our way into.… [Eventually,] I had to confess to myself that I craved something more. I needed to be connected to folks who knew there was something more to life than what they could see, feel, buy, or hoard.… [S]omething was missing—inside.”

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Weems’s decision to return to faith was far from a solitary one. There has been a tremendous increase in the number of Americans joining churches, attending services, and taking up public prayer. While Americans’ worship patterns through the decades reveal a remarkable constancy, the statistics on church attendance, when viewed up close, reveal dramatic and distinctive patterns along generational lines. The data show:

• Throughout their lives, Americans born during the Depression have been more faithful than later generations in their church/synagogue attendance.

• “War babies” dropped out of church as they entered their twenties during the turbulent sixties, and stayed away. The twin disillusionments stemming from Vietnam and Watergate made them more suspicious of institutions—the church included. Only recently, as they approach and pass midlife, are they trickling back to church.

• Baby boomers also dropped out of church in their twenties, but now, in their thirties and early forties, they are returning to the ranks of the faithful. The real boom in church attendance is coming from this generation.

David A. Roozen, William McKinney, and Wayne Thompson, a research team at Hartford Seminary, were among the first researchers to detect the postwar generation’s return to church and synagogue. They found that the number of older baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1958) who go to church regularly has risen from 33.5 percent in the early seventies to 42.8 percent in the early eighties—an increase of more than 9 percent. In short, these “prodigal sons and daughters,” as Roozen calls them, have recovered two-thirds of the drop-off of the sixties and seventies. High-income baby boomers (those making more than $30,000 a year) have returned in the greatest numbers.

What accounts for the numbers? In part, Americans are simply reacting to the times. The eighties, after all, have been a relatively stable period, reminiscent in some ways of the fifties. Just as there was a baby boom then, the eighties are seeing a “mini-baby boom” as baby boomers in turn have babies. And children tend to pull their families back to church. Roy Carlisle, West Coast literary agent and father of two, recounts of his San Francisco friends, “The minute they have kids, their relativistic world view collapses. They want to raise children with moral bearings.… [The church or synagogue] is the one place that takes moral values seriously.”

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But baby boomers are not returning to the church merely because they are having children. Lee Hennessee, a New York stockbroker, saw his weekly Bible-study group grow from 60 to more than 200 after the October stock market crash in 1987. Hennessee told New York magazine of his colleagues, “When [faith in their careers and Wall Street] was taken away, they had to put their faith in Christ.” Roozen, McKinney, and Thompson found that the return of older boomers to church has been almost “exclusively a matter of renewal” among those who never completely left the faith.

A temporary blip?

The initial signs of what lies immediately ahead are not encouraging for those who would like to see the religious revival continue. Today’s young adults are going to church at an even lesser rate than the baby boomers did at that age. It is not clear whether baby boomers’ children will stick with the church when they reach young adulthood in the next decade or two.

But what difference will the revitalized faith of the baby boomers make in the life of the nation now? Os Guinness, sociologist of religion and director of the Williamsburg Charter Foundation, suggests there are unanswered questions there, too. “Will the churches and synagogues provide the kind of training necessary to keep the faith vital—or will the churches merely mirror the culture?” he asks. “The natural tendency of the baby boomers is to be laissez faire socially. Will their return to faith make any decisive difference in their personal and social ethics, or will their religious commitment be [simply] a variant of their social philosophy?”

It is, of course, too early to know. But answers to questions such as these will determine whether baby boomers’ new-found faith is more than a temporary blip in the statistics.

By Wesley G. Pippert, director of the Washington Graduate Program of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and former senior Middle East correspondent for United Press International.

Great Expectations

More than 40 million of the postwar generation are now facing the midlife challenges of juggling careers and families, of growing older but not necessarily any richer. Victims of their own great expectations, twice as many boomers (as compared to their parents) are disappointed with what they have thus far achieved in life. The gap between their perceived potential and realized achievements is often dishearteningly large.

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Rarely an easy passage for anyone, midlife promises to be even more challenging for this generation. Jack Sheen, a licensed psychologist in Baltimore, whose practice consists almost totally of baby boomers, explains why. “While survival issues dominated the lives of their parents,” he says, “this generation has asked for much more from life: fulfillment, intimacy, pleasure—goals that are elusive to define or realize and thus fertile ground for disillusionment.” Studies show that fully three out of four are expected to seek professional counseling at some point in their lives; the rate of depression among this generation is already ten times that of the previous one.

This internal uncertainty helps to explain the enormous popularity of the award-winning television show “thirtysomething.” More than ten million boomers watch this program each week, seeing their own lives reflected in the ambivalent struggles of the characters on the screen. Will Nancy and Elliott reconcile their marriage? Will Hope remain happy to be less than a full-time professional in order to care for her daughter at home? And how about Gary? Will he ever cut that leftover sixties hair, get married to his pregnant girl friend, and grow up?

As this show characterizes them, many of these young adults appear more “together” at first glance than they really are. Just beneath the surface lies considerable personal angst. Their struggles take many forms, but two are especially pressing and common.

First, the problem of tighter purses. The image of the baby boomer as a yuppie in a business suit sprinting up the courthouse steps, briefcase in hand, is largely a creation of the entertainment media. Many barely pay their bills. The Credit Union National Association reports that the majority of boomers earn less at every age than did those preceding them, making them less prone to save or give, and in greater need of help in money matters.

The younger boomer (aged 25–34) has found the economic realities of the eighties particularly harsh. His house payment can be twice the size of his elder boomer brother, his discretionary funds considerably less, and the best jobs gone before he arrives on the scene. He is not surprised by the fact that the average taxi driver in New York City now has at least two years of college to his credit. As a result, the younger boomer tends to be more serious about money and less serious about everything else.

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Second, the problem of looser relationships. The gap this generation experiences most keenly is among one another. Jim Dethmer, pastor of Grace Community Church in Baltimore, a church that has experienced 75 percent of its growth from baby boomers, notes that the perennial question of this age group is “How can I build friendships?” He adds, “They are a relationally vacuous generation struggling in their ability to form lasting relationships.” Their lonely statistics speak for themselves. They are 500 times more likely to be single than their parents were, and even half of those who marry will probably divorce.

Michael Morris, curate of Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church in Geneva, Illinois, believes this generation’s relational struggles can be traced to the anonymity of the lives they lead. “Most live in their own isolated boxes in the suburbs, a thousand miles away from family, in communities in which they feel no roots,” he says. “They are plagued by loneliness—yet driven by demanding jobs and competing family needs. Underneath all that activity is a deep longing for a connection with God that seems real and intimate.”

For these reasons, small-group study and support networks flourish in churches ministering to this age group. Morris reports an innovative approach for men at Saint Mark’s. Called the Men’s Fellow Stragglers’ Group, it emphasizes honesty and disclosure. “The idea,” Morris says, “is that we meet to share not so much our triumphs as our trials, and to gain help from each other.”

Julie Gorman, assistant professor of Christian formation and discipleship at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, notes that from her national research on small groups, this generation’s need to belong and build relationships is a major factor pushing small-group activity into the limelight.

But the greatest longing is for meaningful connections at home. James Engel states that for Christian and non-Christian alike, “our data scream with the desire for a satisfactory family life.” Even though the fifties were touted as an era of family togetherness, Engel suggests that was “an image without much substance. Consequently, home and family life have become crucial to this generation.” Aware of this desire, some churches, such as North Coast Presbyterian in Encinitas, California, carefully tailor community-outreach programs to children. “In the fall and spring,” executive director Ken Priddy says, “we sponsor a Sports Fest and a Fun Fest that draw the community’s unchurched families and give us a starting point to follow up on.”

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Hula Hoops And Love Beads

But what happens when the Pepsi generation bumps into the Harry Truman generation in the pew? This is one of the hidden challenges facing the church that ministers to this generation, which for good or ill will guide the church beyond the year 2000. In terms of values and orientation to life, rarely has so much diversity existed in the same century.

Almost from the time they traded their hula hoops and coonskin caps for love beads and peace pipes, this generation has been aware of its distinctiveness. Says Walt Harrison, 41, the president of the public-relations company Gehrung Associates, “We consciously think of ourselves as different from those people who came before.”

Some of that dissimilarity is shown in what motivates the baby boomers. Suggesting a course of action because tradition or a sense of duty or a church board advises it usually rouses little enthusiasm among them. Their loyalty to organizations and denominations is markedly weaker than that of their parents, and they do not necessarily choose their place of worship according to the denominational preference of their parental families.

Leith Anderson, pastor of Wooddale Church in suburban Eden Prairie, Minnesota, observes, “Neither Grandpa nor Grandma can comprehend the lack of institutional loyalty they see in their 34-year-old son and daughter-in-law. Their daughter-in-law started the family attending a big Assemblies of God church just because of a high-powered children’s program.… Grandpa and Grandma have stuck with the Lutheran church through good times and bad. Changing churches or denominations is unthinkable, even if attendance is down and the minister is too liberal.”

What, then, does motivate this generation as it squeezes out of the passage of youth and into maturity? One characteristic this age group instinctively gravitates toward is the opportunity for personal challenge. Having been herded together from their childhood on, boomers are forever searching for the contribution they can make as individuals. This strong sense of personal stewardship is the positive side of their much-lamented emphasis on self. Engel emphasizes, “This isn’t a generation that you can any longer call into a rally to win the world. They’ll say, ‘What do you mean? How do I use my unique gifting for the glory of God?’ ”

Largely responsible for the 600 percent increase in the number of private business ventures begun in the last 30 years, this age group favors a hands-on, entrepreneurial aproach to meeting needs. They want a stake in the action, preferring to do something about a problem rather than to wade through theological debate and endless speculation. Todd Hunter, pastor of Vineyard Fellowship in Anaheim, California, says, “Projects and causes motivate boomer participation more if it’s their idea and if they have some input and control over it. I think those who are going to inspire this group in the nineties are going to be solid leaders—not managers—who can lead people into goal ownership, allow them freedom, and take advantage of this entrepreneurial spirit among them.”

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The Evidence Of Authenticity

The ears of this postwar generation are particularly attuned to the ring of authenticity. Part of the legacy of Vietnam is a tendency to be repulsed by false appearances, inflated body counts, or simplistic solutions to complex problems. Boomers are suspicious of claims based solely on statistics, responding instead to the quieter, but more tangible evidence of changed individual lives. Less impressed with the external trappings of job titles and hierarchy or serving a church structure, they are more motivated by an emphasis on the kingdom of God and how God’s purposes affect them. George Barna notes, “If the church is going to have a lasting impact upon this generation, it can’t be through mirrors and smoke screens and unfounded assumptions. They respond to the message that resonates with truth and credibility.”

The question of relevancy has likewise long been of critical importance to the Now generation. They are drawn to issues that touch the daily concerns of their lives. Says Jim Dethmer, “I find that topics that center on family concerns, relational needs, stress, marketplace issues, and childhood causes are particularly attractive to this generation.” Some churches, such as Willow Creek in South Barrington, Illinois (see “A Church for Bored Boomers,” p. 25), design a weekly service where the upbeat message, music, and drama expose the unchurched visitor to practical Christianity in a nonthreatening manner. Such services have been especially popular among the 25–45-year-old group.

Local churches stand in a particularly favorable position to benefit from the parochial nature of boomer concerns. “In general,” Engel states, boomers “want to see the action take place in and through their local church, in the communities where they live and work. There is a vestige of idealism and a residue of social concern that can be tapped.”

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This means that while the majority of baby boomers prefer causes that combine evangelism with social need, the breadth of their concern is limited. Engel has found that there is a strong tendency to care more about domestic problems rather than, for example, overseas missions. Abortion, the needs of community children, and addictive behaviors are the concerns that rally their support.

A Church for Bored Boomers

Fourteen years ago, when 23-year-old Bill Hybels started Willow Creek Community Church in an affluent suburb of Chicago, he surveyed the neighborhood’s many young professionals. “If you are not involved in a church, what keeps you away?” he asked. Many said the churches they had attended were boring, predictable, and always asked for money. Hybels determined to create a church experience that would offer them something different.

Today, Willow Creek packs more than 12,000 people every week into its 4,650-seat auditorium situated on 120 acres in South Barrington, Illinois. The success has won Willow Creek a reputation as a church that reaches baby boomers and yuppies. While Hybels and staff avoid those labels, they do use marketing terms such as target audience, felt needs, and packaging.

This “packaging” is especially evident during the congregation’s three weekend worship services, which are designed to attract what the church’s leaders call “unchurched Harrys”: 25 to 50-year-old male professionals who have become disgruntled with traditional churches. (Men are targeted, according to associate pastor Don Cousins, only because they are harder to reach. And if a married man decides to come to church, he will bring his family with him. A woman, however, is less likely to convince her unchurched husband to attend.)

Choreographed drama, contemporary music, and multimedia presentations—all supported by professional-quality sound and lighting systems—attempt to break down the barriers that keep the “Harrys” from hearing the gospel. Attendees sit in comfortable, theater-style seats rather than pews.

Willow Creek also tries to encourage newly attracted attendees to become committed followers of Christ. “We’re not just about making converts,” Cousins explains, “we want to make disciples.” That means, among other things, getting people to the Wednesday night service, a less showy presentation aimed at believers and church members. Attendees are also urged to use their gifts and talents in the many ministries of the church, which include programs for children, teenagers, singles, and married couples.

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Turning up the thermostat

As the second-largest Protestant congregation in the U.S., Willow Creek has earned accolades from church leaders across the country. But Hybels and his staff have also drawn criticism for what some call their Madison Avenue methodology.

Martin Marty, professor of the history of modern Christianity at the University of Chicago, cautions that the emphasis on “what can help me” can blur a church’s calling to preach the transcendence and holiness of God.

Leaders at Willow Creek appear to be aware of the dangers. Hybels recently has been “turning up the thermostat on what it really means to be a follower of Christ,” Cousins says. And attendance at the Wednesday night service has increased in the last few months by over 30 percent.

Willow Creek’s nontraditional methods have clearly succeeded in attracting thousands of young, unchurched professionals. But, critics ask, “Will those methods keep them there?” And will they convey the gospel in all its fullness—the sacrifice, commitment, and costly grace?

“We definitely cater to a target audience in our method of communication,” Cousins admits. “But do we cater to them in regard to truth? No. We teach the truth, and people have to deal with the truth as it is. I think that is an important distinction. What we don’t want is to create barriers in our programming and our manner of presentation that cause people to never hear the message.”

By Verne Becker, a free-lance writer and former editor of U magazine.

Rediscovering The Dream

But even though this generation’s vision may be narrowed and the scope of its concern appears limited, that is only part of the story. Media-worn images of boomers as navel-gazing couch potatoes overlook a critically important factor: their capacity to dream. This is still a generation whose members’ consciousness has been moved by the search for a compelling moral vision. Their dreams have been dormant—not dead—waiting for the church to be able again to tap into their latent hunger for a sense of meaning and purpose and influence.

In a recent interview with Esquire magazine, veteran political analyst Patrick Caddell told the story of Sen. Joe Biden’s 1984 speech before a group of boomer voters in New Jersey. “Like many of you,” Biden said, “I’m 40 years old … and I was drawn to politics by a black man who had a dream on a mall on a steamy August night in Washington.” Biden continued to reflect on the generation’s earlier ideals and closed by challenging the group to a reawakening of moral courage and values that went beyond personal gain. Caddell then observed, “I’ve been in politics for a long time, but I never saw a reaction like that. These … New Jersey [voters] … stood up and applauded—and then they started crying.” He added that while boomer value systems may be complicated, their original instincts are still very much intact.

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Florence Skelly, president of the research firm Yankelovich, Skelly, and White, agrees. “I think that if we turn ideological, or religious or moralistic in the next five to ten years,” she says, “it will be this group that leads us.”

The question is not so much if this generation’s latent idealism can be tapped, but who will first and how. Dan Hays, whose Atlanta-based prayer-renewal ministry has allowed him to influence college students and young professionals for 20 years, says, “I rarely meet someone in my generation who, when you say in some form, ‘Wouldn’t you like to give your life to something that’s bigger than you are?’ hasn’t responded, ‘Absolutely; help me figure out how to do that.’ There are 18–20 years of pent-up desire for impact in this age group.”

Jack Simms agrees: “Underneath those coats and ties, my generation is as radical and idealistic as it ever was. They’re just waiting to rediscover the sense of mission they once had—one that’s never completely gone away.”

The challenge before this generation is to reconcile two conflicting desires: on one hand, the hunger for self-fulfillment, and on the other, the longing for community and a wider impact upon the world around them.

The message of the gospel presents the only real hope for the fulfillment of both desires. It does this by enabling the individual to find meaning and community as he or she participates in the larger purposes of God.

If this generation is able to disconnect its expectations of the American Dream from the promises of God, it may yet redeem the commitments of its youth. What boomers want, deep down, is to leave behind them more than a marble grave marker with two dates. They want to look back on a life that has made a difference. That is exactly what the Christian community can offer them: another chance to change their world for Christ—not in their generation, perhaps, but surely in God’s good time.

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