In the last couple of decades, American Christian boomers (myself included) have been given an advance peek at the kind of obituary the church and the world has already begun to write about us.
Countless think pieces, podcasts, and online conversations have issued well-founded concerns and questions about the failures, flaws, and foolishness of evangelical church culture. These critiques are a magnifying mirror for baby boomers, since most of them speak directly to church cultures we helped create and support.
Not all these critiques are made in good faith—whether they’re from political scientists, sociologists, op-ed writers, exvangelicals, or from the generations born before and after us—but a surprising majority of them are.
For example, CT’s Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast details the leadership failure and organizational implosion of the church franchise led by Mark Driscoll. And while Driscoll himself was a Gen X pastor, Mars Hill was nourished in the soil cultivated by boomer megachurch leader culture.
Beyond the cavalcade of prodigal leaders exposed with predictable regularity for their abuses of power, boomer Evangelicalism has often been characterized in the broader culture by who and what we oppose, instead of whom we claim to serve.
As a result, our kids and grandkids are vacating the churches we built and inhabited with the goal of passing on our faith to the next generation. But they’re not the only ones leaving.
In my own writing over the past decade about spiritual formation in midlife and beyond, I’ve heard from hundreds of people my age who have been wounded by the very faith systems our generation created. Some boomers were chased away, while others quietly drifted out the door.
In a CT piece earlier this year, “The Church Is Losing Its Gray Heads,” Adam MacInnis offered a snapshot of many boomers who’ve exited the church building, even though “just under half of Christians over 40 who stop attending church feel they’re still practicing their faith.” Like some members of the younger generations, many boomers still love Jesus, but not the local churches they once attended.
The late Phyllis Tickle famously observed that the church engages in a kind of spiritual rummage sale that every 500 years or so—and in these times of “rearrangement and upheaval,” the “institutionalized church throws off things that are restricting its growth,” which allows a “more vital form of Christianity” to arise in the aftermath.
And so, in a generation characterized by an abundance of hubris, our repentance will require the opposite of us if we are to do the necessary work of reflection and repair. As we ponder the first draft of our generation’s obituary, we should consider what must be tossed—and what is worth investing our final years to pass on to our own spiritual heirs.
Michael Metzger of the Clapham Institute summed it up well: “To date, our legacy as Baby Boomers is indulgence, narcissism, and moralism. If we are to emerge as wise elders, our view of faith, fame and forever ought to migrate from Boomer biases to a more biblical Christianity.”
Part of this reflection means recognizing the legacy-worthy gifts boomers have brought to the church. Sure, those who come after us will continue to assess the value of those gifts—deciding what to put in the rummage-sale pile of history—but it helps to recognize that our bequest contains some things that might be worth holding on to.
For one, Boomers played an outsized role in encouraging greater authenticity in the church.
We learned from our culture in the 1960s to let it all hang out. As that messaging filtered through the church in subsequent decades, it became more acceptable to share our struggles and questions in Christian community.
The church can still be characterized, sometimes cartoonishly, as a performance-oriented place, full of plastic smiles and unwritten rules. But that stereotype is far less true now than when I first found my way into evangelical circles in the 1970s.
The unwritten rule of the churches I attended back then was that it was only acceptable to talk about your struggles if they happened before you were a Christian. SNL star Dana Carvey’s Church Lady character may have exaggerated church life for comic effect during the 1980s, but too many congregations back then seemed to encourage a religious facade.
While such “church ladies” still exist, their voices are not in the majority for what is considered acceptable in many church circles today.
Secondly, boomers have helped lead the movement toward both destigmatization and education of mental health issues in many evangelical streams.
Boomer megachurch pastor Rick Warren and his wife, Kay, lost their son to suicide nearly a decade ago and have used the loss to launch a broader conversation about mental illness in the church. Writers like Amy Simpson and Carlene Hill Byron are challenging congregations toward understanding and meaningful care for those suffering with mental illness. The National Alliance for Mental Illness has a new division focusing on faith communities.
And the voices naming and addressing trauma—including church-related spiritual wounding—have multiplied as well. Authors like Diane Langberg and Peter Scazzero, as well as training programs (like this and this) for church leaders are now available to help church leaders approach ministry with a fuller understanding of trauma.
There’s still much work to be done in how the church embraces mental health issues, but it has certainly come a long way over the past few decades.
Third, many boomers have joined, and in some cases are leading, the effort to create safe communities for those who have experienced church abuse.
Christian social media can be a cesspool of conspiracy theory, bullying, and wacky theological hot takes. But it has also been an essential connection point for survivors of abusive leaders or toxic congregations.
In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis said that “the typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, ‘What? You too? I thought I was the only one.’” Social media has created powerful fellowship as survivors discover they aren’t the only ones—and this has brought them together to drag into the light what has festered in the dark corners of the church.
Some of those whistleblowers, like Christa Brown, have been boomers, calling out the sins of their leaders. And as such individuals courageously share their stories in public to seek justice, they pave the way for other victims to tell their own stories.
Finally, many boomers are exhibiting a growing distaste for evangelical leader culture.
Perhaps the boom bubble in churches built around the pastor-as-CEO or spiritual Ted Talk gurus hasn’t quite burst, but it seems to be deflating—and few seem interested in reviving it.
While mostly anecdotal, I hear regularly from boomers who have been burned or are burned out from their nondenominational megachurches. Many are seeking simpler, more organic forms of gathering with other believers for worship and fellowship—or they’re finding their way into churches with formal liturgy and denominational structures.
In both of those seemingly divergent cases, they’re leaving aside org-chart-driven church busywork that fractured their souls and are in search of greater meaning and wholeness. In fact, these are the spiritual tasks that I feel should characterize the latter years of our lives.
More than a few boomers today are quietly seeking to dismantle the broken religious systems we helped build—as we recognize how fruitless many of them have become. Perhaps this will be our most powerful legacy of all.
And while we boomers of faith won’t be around to see how things unfold in the larger movement, we can spend the time we have left rewriting our own obituary.
This rewriting begins with the kind of unflinching humility prescribed in James 4:7–10—wherein we humbly submit ourselves to God and trust that he will uphold us. Only this heart posture will allow us to own our specific sins while recognizing the impact our generation’s proclivities have had on those who come after us.
For example, I spent a couple of years on staff at a church with an abusive leader. And although I tried to effect change while on the inside of the organization, the truth was that I benefitted in some ways during those years from my access to power. Meanwhile, many members in the congregation were wounded by the church’s toxic culture.
To adopt the kind of repentance James describes in his epistle, I have had some hard but cleansing conversations with those wounded by this leader—and by my apparent complicity. Now, when I hear the countless stories of spiritual abuse, I can listen without feeling the need to justify my earlier choices. Instead of responding defensively, I can grieve and lament with them.
But this grief carries gospel hope. God has been at work in every age, and he is at work here and now. We can’t overwrite the past, but we can amend the present for the sake of those to whom we’re passing the torch of faith. And while we may not be able to change the spiritual heritage of an entire generation, we can try to flip the script on the legacy of our own lives.
Michelle Van Loon is the author of seven books, including Becoming Sage: Cultivating Meaning, Purpose, and Spirituality in Midlife.