A Generation Of Prodigals

A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation,by Wade Clark Roof (HarperSanFrancisco, 262 pp.; $20, hardcover). Reviewed by Steve Rabey, religion editor of the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph.

Baby boomers make a firm distinction between spirituality (which conveys life) and religion (which signifies death).

They are young (born between 1946 and 1964). They are numerous (at 76 million strong, they make up nearly a third of the U.S. population). And now the generation we call the baby boomers, who were uniquely shaped by the tumultuous decade of the sixties, is transforming the nineties in its own image—a transformation that includes America’s religious landscape, says Wade Clark Roof, author of this provocative landmark study on the spiritual lives of baby boomers.

Roof, one of the preeminent sociologists of American religion, conducted an extensive study, surveying hundreds of boomers in California, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Ohio. His findings are telling for the church. “Members of this generation are asking questions about the meaning of their lives, about what they want for themselves and their children,” he writes. At the same time, few members of this generation look to churches for answers to their questions. “Boomers still feel some ‘distance’ from almost every institution, whether military, banks, public schools, Congress, or organized religion. For many, having any kind of relationship with a religious institution is problematic.”

Inside the boomer mind

Not all baby boomers “tuned in, turned on, and dropped out” of America’s traditions, institutions, and churches. In fact, Roof says boomers are deeply divided between “traditionalists” (54 percent) and “counterculturalists” (46 percent), which ensures that volatile issues like abortion and homosexuality will continue to be divisive. But a majority of those in the survey—over 60 percent—dropped out of active involvement in organized religion for two years or more. Many never returned.

That does not mean they all gave up on the search for God—however they might define it. And regardless of whether their search led them to a nondenominational charismatic fellowship or a Native American sweat lodge, they make a firm distinction between spirituality (which conveys life, growth, and personal development) and religion (which signifies death, hypocrisy, and institutionalization).

Those who did return to some form of involvement in organized religion, says Roof, found a much broader menu available to them. And in their ongoing journey of “groping for a new language of spirituality,” boomers talk excitedly of a “pastiche-style spirituality,” which includes offerings like “creation spirituality, Eucharist spirituality, Native American spirituality, Eastern spirituality, Twelve-Step spiritualities, feminist spirituality, earth-based spirituality, Goddess spirituality and men’s spirituality, as well as what would be considered traditional Judaeo-Christian spiritualities.”

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Where lie the causes for so vast a change in the foundations of American religiosity? Roof finds them in the boomers’ shared experience of growing up alongside the country’s first unpopular war, some of its dirtiest scandals, and some of its most heart-wrenching assassinations—all of which were pumped into millions of homes via television. “Caught at the epicenter of a cultural earthquake, many were traumatized and transformed by what was happening around them,” he explains.

The missing generation

Nevertheless, Roof reports that there are many whose search for answers is leading them to the church. But these returning boomers present new and troubling challenges for churches and church leaders. Many boomers are plagued with a deeply ingrained self-centeredness. Some believe they have been abused by religion and are recovering from those experiences—which means they may bristle when their church or pastor seeks deeper involvement or makes demands. Female boomers have additional concerns with churches, which they perceive as male-dominated and insensitive to women’s needs.

Eight out of ten boomers say one can be a good Christian without attending services regularly, which leads to a take-it-or-leave-it approach and minimal involvement. Their tolerance and openness on some lifestyle issues may cause division in some congregations. And some boomers may drift back out of church once their children grow up.

“The ‘return’ of the boomers to religion is on different terms than for previous generations,” writes Roof. “Baby boomers approach congregations more as a calculated choice that consciously involves discriminating decisions among various religious alternatives, involving the option of no participation in organized religion at all.” Still, Roof thinks many churches can reach out to the boomers. “Many boomers would like to commit themselves to something they could believe in,” he suggests.

Will evangelical churches rise to the challenge of presenting Christ in a way that is meaningful and inviting to 76 million people who are cruising the aisles in America’s booming supermarket of religion? With A Generation of Seekers, Roof has provided leaders of today’s churches with the raw data and interpretive insight needed to chart a course that would tap into boomers’ deep spiritual hunger.

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The Disillusioned Postboomers

The Invisible Generation: Baby Busters,by George Barna (Barna Research Group, 185 pp.; $18, paper). Reviewed by Marci Whiteman.

From churches to health clubs, the reigning “target market” of the nineties has been the baby boomers—hands down. But while the boomer generation has occupied the American spotlight, its progeny, the baby busters, have gone practically unnoticed—hence the title of George Barna’s intriguing book, The Invisible Generation. Although still tentative in forging their own identity, baby busters, Barna predicts, will become a force to be reckoned with.

The buster generation, born between 1965 and 1983 and comprising 27 percent of America’s population, grew up with more financial freedom, education, and technology than prior generations. Yet, according to Barna, busters are skeptical about institutions and humankind, and they do not expect their future to exceed or match that of their parents. The busters enjoy the material benefits brought by the boomers but feel disillusioned and alienated by the values behind them. Thus, they suffer from an identity crisis, struggling to define themselves apart from prior generations, yet holding fast to the comforts that these values bring.

One finding of Barna’s study is that busters lack commitment to their jobs and think it normal to change jobs regularly. On the other hand, busters value their leisure time. “Quality of life, for them, dictates a high ‘fun’ quotient,” which often focuses on consumption of mass media: 95 percent report watching television during the week, and 78 percent report having gone to a movie in the last 30 days. The media also influence their thinking. Busters, for instance, are nine times more likely than boomers to report television as a helpful source in problem solving.

Time off from work is also important for developing relationships, a factor busters accuse their “workaholic” parents of neglecting. “Busters have outright rejected the impersonal, short-term, fluid relational character of their parents,” writes Barna. “They have veered toward more traditional, longer-term relationships.” However, their definitions of family relationships do not necessarily fit “traditional” molds. Busters are very open to alternative family forms. Many define family as “people with whom you have close relationships or deep personal/emotional bonds,” rather than blood relatives.

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This desire for more personal relationships also carries over into their politics. Busters, reports Barna, tend to see a political issue as important only if it affects them personally.

Most important for the church is Barna’s assessment of the busters’ religious attitudes. His study reveals that busters feel alientated by baby-boomer religion and are less likely than older adults to describe themselves as religious. Barna observes that busters desire “a tangible means of becoming a more completely whole individual” within the church. They want a faith that will show them how to grow personally and how to enhance relationships, rather than a faith that focuses on rules and traditions. The buster brand of religion must be tangible, useful, and intelligent. As one young woman profiled in the study puts it, “All I want is reality. Show me God.… Help me to understand why life is the way it is, and how I can experience it more fully.”

Although busters, at present, seem to be less religious than older generations, Barna is optimistic that they will return to religion, “but it also seems likely that … they will come back to different faiths than their parents associated with, and that they will assert their uniqueness by participating in a significant restructuring of the forms and formats of organized religion.”

While Barna stops short of providing advice on how the church should reach out to this generation, his research provides valuable insight into the mind of this “invisible generation.”

The Cross And The Swastika

For the Soul of the People: Protestant Protest Against Hitler, by Victoria Barnett (Oxford, 358 pp.; $30, hardcover). Reviewed by Tim Stafford.

Why did Germans follow Hitler? How could the children of Bach and Beethoven let a monster lead them? Or—even more haunting for Christians—where was the church?

Victoria Barnett tells the story of German Protestants’ resistance to Hitler in the best possible way. First, she neatly explains the complexities of German church institutions without burying us in detail. Second, she gives us a sense of all points of view. While not afraid to condemn cowardice or honor courage, she resists the temptation to tell a story inhabited only by heroes and villains. Third, Barnett uses the words of resistance survivors to help us feel the crippling fear of Hitler’s Germany. Moving as well as thoughtful, the book makes you wonder what you would have done.

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German Protestants of the 1930s and ’40s are a study in vision and blindness, faith and cowardice. While the majority of the church went along (often enthusiastically) with Hitler, more than a third of the pastors put up some resistance. There were deeds of great courage, undergirded by faith. For all its shortcomings, the church proved more independent than any other German institution.

It was independent to a degree; Barnett shows that the church in Germany—even the Confessing Church—never said a clear no to Hitler. Protestants had inherited traditions that made it difficult for them to react to Hitler. Pastors were part of the traditional power structure. Their salaries and pensions were paid from a state-collected “church tax.” They had no tradition of dissent and, in fact, a long-standing commitment to avoiding politics. Like loyal civil servants, they stood for order, and few of them saw that Hitler was not just the latest government with some foolish excesses, but an antigovernment devoted to destruction.

When Hitler began to persecute Jews, when he began to exterminate the disabled (many in church-run institutions), and when he began to invade other countries, only a scattered few church leaders took a visible stand against him. That would have been “political” as well as dangerous. Most preferred to work behind the scenes, clinging to the illusion that they were making progress in taming nazism. Anyone who spoke out found his church colleagues edging away, fearful of the “politicization” of the church.

Resistance did come whenever Hitler tried to tamper directly with the church. “Let the church be the church,” was the ringing cry of the church resistance. When Hitler tried to swing the “German Christians”—a semipagan collection of Nazi enthusiasts—into power in the church, there was vigorous and public opposition. The famous Barmen Declaration was one result, and it led to the Confessing Church, an independent organization that resisted Nazi control. Their Bible studies, their prayer lists read every Sunday, their illegal seminaries operating under cover, their sheltering of Jews were all done under the conviction that these were the normal work of the church, which no government could outlaw. Though they did not directly challenge Hitler, the Gestapo treated them as a serious menace, for they were the only organization in Germany that recognized a Lord other than Hitler.

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The less noble side of “let the church be the church” was its unstated assumption: the church’s job is to preach and administer the sacraments, not to comment on “political matters.” Cautious, apolitical church leaders would not even take a stand on the government’s mistreatment of pastors with a Jewish background. When the war began, pastors thought they could avoid making a political judgment; many joined the military under the naïve conviction they were fighting for the Fatherland, not for Hitler. As Martin Niemöller pointed out (to the fury of other church leaders), many more pastors died fighting for Hitler than died fighting against him.

There are no simple ABCs here. Barnett traces the German church into the present, and one interesting observation is that some leaders—particularly the most radical of the Confessing Church—overlearned their lesson. Having grasped that the church cannot avoid politics, they virtually identified the church with politics. They made some egregious misjudgments, especially in embracing socialism. Christian leaders do not have an outstanding record for political judgment. We want the church to say no to the likes of Hitler but to reserve judgment on a great many other issues—and it is not easy to tell which is which.

The most frightening aspect of the church’s record in Germany is how few of its leaders really tried to know which was which. To the claim of “but we didn’t know,” a Confessing Church leader says, we should ask, “How much did you want to know?” The vast majority, burdened with their own concerns, trying to save the church as a viable institution, fearful for their lives and the lives of their family members, chose to know very little. They found it far easier and safer to stay in their traditional role, even while the society in which they played that role was being torn to ribbons.

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