Daniel P. Czaplewski, Ed.D., M.Div., is Pastor at Mt. Calvary Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. email@example.com
For every generation sin is sin and grace is grace. The Gospel message applies to the deepest need of humanity in every age. It is equally clear that our presentation of the Gospel can be adequately flexible to adapt to the unique needs of each hearer. St. Paul tailored his message to the unique environment of 1st century Athens (Acts 17:16-34), and he asserted to the Corinthian church: “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). Paul’s rationale for being so adaptable was not to change the Gospel; rather it was to further the Gospel: “I do it all for the sake of the gospel that I may share with them its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:23). Each generation presents new challenges and opportunities for the Gospel.
The Baby Boom generation is so named because a spike in the birth rate immediately following World War II and a significant decline in birth rate in 1965 defines it. When GIs returned from fighting World War II, they came home to wives and sweethearts who then started having babies in record numbers. From 1946 until 1964, approximately 76 million babies were born in the United States (Hicks and Hicks, 1999).
Boomers may have been the children of the “greatest generation,” but they were, by simple arithmetic, the largest generation up to that point in American history. To put this into perspective, there were almost twice as many 30-year-olds in Boomer America as there were when the generation just prior to the Baby Boom (those born 1929-1945) turned 30 (Carlson, 2009). The Boomers were also a significantly larger group than the generation that immediately followed them (those born 1965-1982). Carlson points out that part of what distinguishes generations from one another is their size, and generation size rode a “roller coaster” during the 20th century (p. 3). Marx (2014) describes the ebb and flow of generations in America as a “real life version of As the
World Turns” (p. 22).
To be transparent, this author is a Boomer born in 1956; the median birth year for the Baby Boomers is 1955 (Carlson, 2009). It is easy to present the unique foibles, faults, and follies of the Boomers in an autobiographical fashion. Fortunately, the Boomers have been extensively studied, analyzed, and critiqued through the lenses of sociology, demography, and, perhaps most pervasively, market research. By analyzing the literature on the Boomers, the author intends to outline the unique opportunities for the Gospel, the assets the Boomers provide for communicating the Gospel, and the resistance to the Gospel distinctive to the Baby Boom generation in order to assist churches and Christian schools in bringing the Good News to this generation.
A Generation Goes Shopping—“Get Yours Today!”
One of the characteristics that sets the Boomers apart is they are a generation of consumers. Roof (1993) notes, “Boomers were born in a time of considerable affluence and almost limitless expectations” (p. 42). They did not endure depravations of the Great Depression or rationing of basic commodities during World War II like their parents and grandparents had. The Boomers could have it all; at least they were told they should have it all.
When Boomers watched tv as children and teens (something their parents hadn’t done as children and their grandparents could never have imagined), they were the targets of considerable marketing expertise. Whether Boomers watched commercials for hula-hoops or the latest k-tell record (not cd or mp3, but vinyl record), the message was clear: “don’t wait, get yours today!” The Boomers were conditioned to be a generation of consumers who didn’t need to wait for anything.
The consumer mind-set of Boomers made them customers of everything, and this characteristic has been a source of much anxiety within Christian churches, particularly those affiliated with mainline denominations. Evangelical Christians, often with no discernable denominational ties, took what Douthat (2012) calls “a more entrepreneurial approach,” to ministry that was built on the premise “more money, more ministry” (p. 107). As grown Boomers go shopping for churches, they judge their options based on specific criteria. “Some believers are looking for a day care center, concessions stands, an upbeat sermon and a kick-ass choir—hence the megachurch explosion” (Douthat, p. 198). If Baby Boomers could “get theirs today” when it came to hula-hoops and records, they seemed very willing to shop for a church that would give them what they wanted.
A Generation Goes to Bed—The Sexual Revolution
One can hardly talk about the Baby Boom generation without considering the “sexual revolution” begun in the 1960s. If Boomers weren’t going to wait to get a hula-hoop at age eight, then at age 18 they certainly weren’t going to wait until marriage to engage in
Boomers were the most educated generation up to that point; twice as many of the Boomers went to college as their parents and three times as many as their grandparents (Roof, 1993, p. 51). All those 18-22 year olds in colleges far away from their parents—and the sexual constraints of an older generation—created a perfect storm for what became know as the “New Morality” (Hicks & Hicks, 1999).
The sexual revolution was also sanctioned by international scientific opinion. It was broadly believed in the 1960s that the “repressive” sexual mores of traditional Christianity posed a threat to humanity. Christian teaching on sexuality was made a “scapegoat … attacked by scientists and statesmen as one of the many fuses lighting the supposed ‘population bomb’” (Douthat, 2012, p. 73). Once unintended procreation was taken out of the equation of human sexuality, a generation was ready to go to bed with just about anyone.
The shift in sexual behavior was emblematic of a significant change in fundamental values that was captured in the somewhat overused phrase of the 1960s and 1970s: “generation gap.” Hicks and Hicks (1999) note “There was, in fact, a gap between the values, attitudes, and actions of Baby Boomers and those of their parents” (p. 248).
The Generation Gap Goes to Church—The High Water Mark for Denominations
Christian churches, particularly denominational churches, reached their high water mark in terms of size and market share during the years of the Baby Boom or shortly thereafter. Douthat points out that the church-going rate in 1940 was around 40 percent while by the late 1950s it was nearly 50 percent (p. 21). At the same time, church membership was growing at a rate nearly twice that of population growth (p. 22). Surveys indicate that 95 percent of the Boomers participated in traditional religious services during their childhood years (Southerland, Poloma, & Pendleton,
2003, p. 319).
The influx of the largest generation ever in American history had an impact on churches. In the case of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, the advent of the professional Director of Christian Education (dce) coincides with the Baby Boom. Despite discussions and experiments with the position of dce going back to the early 20th century, it wasn’t until 1959 that the Synod in convention authorized the position as a category of professional church worker. Another resolution by Synod in 1962 gave the responsibility for training future dces to its two teacher training schools. Between 1969 and 1978, just as hordes of Baby Boomers were entering Sunday school and church youth groups, the number of dces expanded rapidly (Keyne, 1995).
Churches in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s had an unprecedented number of children attending Sunday school, they were confirming record classes of young people, and they had burgeoning youth groups. Professional dces were a way for lcms churches to reach a new generation. Simultaneously, in the broader Christian church, “Organizations like Campus Crusade for Christ and Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship (ivcf) capitalized on the mood of the times, making use of sixties music and art, organizing Bible study and explorer groups, and by casting faith in terms that students could relate to” (Roof, 1993, p. 103).
The statistical decline of Christian churches following the Baby Boom calls into question the long-term effectiveness of these efforts by parishes and para-church ministries.
A Generation Goes out the Back Door
Membership in The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (lcms) peaked in 1970 at 2,788,536 and then declined 478,301 over the next 40 years. This is not unique to the lcms or the United States; van der Merwe, Grobler, Strasheim, and Orton (2012) assert that the decline of involvement in Christian churches is a worldwide phenomenon. Many factors influenced the decline in the lcms, and it was paralleled in other U.S. denominations. Douthat (2012) notes one significant influence on this decline:
A Lutheran might remain a Lutheran when moving from his urban birthplace to a nearby suburb, but would he stick to his confession when he moved again, and yet again, shedding the ties of family and community along the way? The answer, often, was no; our hypothetical Protestant was more likely to find himself drawn to nondenominational churches and do-it-yourself religion (p. 80).
Another factor that eroded denominational loyalties was the increased number of marriages between people of different religious backgrounds. Even when one spouse remained involved in his or her own faith tradition, activity in church life was diminished
That the Boomers left the churches of their youth, if only for a time, is not surprising. Roof (1993) observes “dropping out of organized religion during the young adult years, at least for a transitory period in a person’s life, is a deeply embedded cultural pattern in America” (p. 56). What was unprecedented among the Baby Boomers is that when some of them dropped out in their 20s, they pursued “serious metaphysical quests on their own in the hope of finding a more fulfilling way of believing and living” (p. 79). Roof’s research finds that those who pursued these “do-it-yourself” religious journeys see themselves today as spiritual, but not religious.
Roof (1993) shows that many Boomers concluded that religious services they attended as children involved an inherent hypocrisy and irrelevance. They felt, in some ways, driven from the Church because it is too abstract and disconnected from the everyday world where they lived (p. 78).
The judgment of some Boomers on Christianity in general and individual Christian congregations in particular may have an autobiographical element. More than 40 years ago Strommen, Brekke, Underwager, and Johnson (1972) produced research indicating “a negative evaluation of one’s congregation is closely linked to an anxiety over one’s faith” (p. 291). It follows that the criticism of Christians “going through the motions” may be rooted in the critic’s own ambivalence about his or her own faith.
This article only scratches the surface of what is known about the Baby Boom generation. The practical question that churches and those who love them need to ask is, “What are we going to do about it?” The good news is there is hope.
Future Hope—Multi-Generational Communities
Douthat (2012) offers a critique of Christianity in America that takes a broad view of history. He concludes that, throughout the history of the Church, “an age of crisis was swiftly followed by an era of renewal, in which forces threatening the faith either receded or were discredited and Christianity itself revived” (p. 278). It is this author’s opinion that the “revival” of Christianity’s ability to positively influence individuals in their daily lives will come from local communities of faith. Douthat observes:
You couldn’t spend your whole life in Campus Crusade for Christ, or raise your daughter to be a Promise Keeper, or count on groups like the Moral Majority or Christian Coalition to sustain your belief system beyond the next election cycle. For that kind of staying power you needed a confessional tradition, a church, an institution capable of outlasting its charismatic founders (p. 140).
One hopeful approach to reaching the Baby Boomer generation is with a multi-generational approach. In discussing how this can look in an educational setting, Marx (2014) proposes “deliberately orchestrating multi-generational teams, planning sessions, cross-generational mentoring, and other activities [which] can build relationships and even add to our
wisdom” (p. 45).
Cross-generational relationships can build vitality in local congregations and Christian schools. These relationships, however, don’t happen spontaneously. They need to be intentionally fostered and facilitated.
Future Hope—Passing the Torch
Starting in 2011 Boomers began reaching the age of 65, and for the next 20 years about 10,000 of them a day will be reaching that milestone (Marx, 2014, p. 29). Though the evidence is somewhat tentative, Boomers, it appears, will not have the same kind of retirement that their parents and grandparents had. This presents a challenge and an opportunity for churches and Christian schools.
Calo (2008) indicates a danger in these coming retirements: “organizations run the risk of losing great stores of knowledge from the impending retirement of large numbers of baby boomers” (p. 405). Calo distinguishes two types of knowledge that are transferred within organizations. Explicit knowledge is what experts in a field have, and new experts are being made every day. Explicit knowledge is easily preserved and transferred within an organization. Tacit knowledge, however, is easily lost. “Tacit knowledge is informal and uncodified, and it exists in the head of employees and in the experiences of the organization” (p. 410).
Another emerging change in retirement patterns is many Boomers continue to work full-time past traditional retirement age and others continue to work part-time in retirement (Carr & Kail, 2012). In addition, there are indicators Boomers are more inclined to volunteer after retirement. The transition of the Boomers into retirement will lead to more volunteers for organizations because “simple demographic changes will greatly increase the total number of elderly volunteers as the boomers grow older” (Einolf, 2009, p. 196).
Part-time workers and volunteers afford churches and Christian schools tremendous assets that can aid in the transfer of the explicit and tacit knowledge Boomers have accumulated. This applies to both lay and professional leaders in churches and Christian schools. Capturing the resources that part-time and volunteer staff can bring to churches and Christian schools will require flexibility and humility from leaders who may not be Boomers. Particularly in the face of decline in many churches, part-time and volunteer staff may be a viable option available to meet staffing needs.
Future Hope—Christians As Outsiders
The Boomers lived through the rise and fall of Christian influence on American culture. As children they went to churches with pews full of families, Sunday school classes frustrated by the lack of space, and youth groups brimming with teenagers sporting the same long hair and garish clothing. They witnessed what Sutherland, Poloma, and Pendelton (2003) call the “massification” of churches. It may be that the Boomers contributed to this “massification” more than they are given credit.
The Boomers were “insiders” in their churches, and the size of this generation may explain why so many mainline congregations reached their high points as the last of the Baby Boom generation came of age. Baby Boomers were baptized in our churches, filled our Sunday school classes to overflowing, were confirmed in record numbers, and swelled our youth groups. As this generation approaches retirement, they no longer participate in the churches of their youth. To put it bluntly, we lost them. If we want them back, we cannot change the message of the Gospel, but we must adapt its presentation.
When adult (dare we say older adult) Boomers return to the churches of their youth, they typically have no trouble finding a place to sit and they see programs for children and youth that are shadows of their former magnitude. In many cases, the return to the congregations of their youth is not even possible because they have ceased operation.
The sexual revolution begun in the 1960s has continued to vistas that could never have been anticipated. The new morality has yet to settle into a new normal 50 years after it emerged. Traditional Christian views on human sexuality are no longer seen as igniting a “population bomb.” They have been pushed so far to the margins that they have little or no influence on the larger society. The Church’s influence on the broader culture has greatly diminished over the past 65 years. Baby Boomers in their youth saw the Church function as an “insider” within the larger culture and now see it as an “outsider,” apart from the mainstream.
Christian schools remain a bright spot in terms of how the Gospel touches the broader culture. They connect with new generations in ways that churches often struggle to attain. Christian schools may experience some hostility directed toward their values, but parents who enroll their children in Christian schools are free to leave these voluntary associations if they find the environment too restrictive. Meanwhile, as the Boomers leave full-time work and leadership, they have much to offer these ministries. Douthat (2012) observes:
There may come a moment when the loss of Christianity’s cultural preeminence enables believers to recapture some of [its] original radicalism. Maybe it is already here, if only Christians could find a way to shed the baggage of a vanished Christendom and speak the language of this age (p. 279).
If any generation is prepared to function well as radicals, it is the Baby Boomers. They created youth culture, fired the opening salvos of the sexual revolution, and broke with almost every convention of their parents. The Boomers are natural radicals, and they bring enormous amounts of tacit knowledge to current positions of Christianity as counter-cultural.
The challenge for Boomers is to rise above the consumerism and narcissism cultivated in their psyches to embrace the radical, counter-cultural, “outsider” Christianity of 21st Century America. This is no time for nostalgic pining for the Church of another era. The revolutionary claims of the Gospel drive Christians forward to engage the broader culture with the claims of the Gospel.
Baby Boomers may very well be the last generation with broad, firsthand knowledge of Church. Many have left the faith, but they know what it involved, so the Gospel is not as foreign to their experience. At the same time, the Boomers still active in Church are familiar with radical devotion to counter-cultural causes. Churches of the 21st Century will find the radicalism of the Boomers in step with the times.
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2. Carlson, E. (2009). 20th century U.S. generations. Population Bulletin, 64(1).
3. Carr, D. C., & Kail, B. L. (2012). The influence of unpaid work on the transition out of full-time paid work. The Gerontologist (53)1, pp. 92-101.
4. Douthat, R. (2012). Bad religion; How we became a nation of heretics. New York: Free Press.
5. Einolf, C. J. (2009). Will the boomers volunteer during retirement? Comparing the baby boom, silent generation, and long civic cohorts. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly (38), pp. 181-199.
6. Hicks, R. & Hicks, K. (1999). Boomers, Xers, and other strangers; Understanding the generational differences that divide us. Wheaton: Tyndale.
7. Keyne, L. K. (1995) Who do you say that I am? The professional identity of the Director of Christian Education in The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. (Doctoral dissertation). University of Southern California, Los Angeles.
8. Marx, G. (2014). 21 trends for the 21st century: Out of the trenches and into the future. Bethesda, MD: Education Week Press.
9.Vander Merwe, M. C., Grobler, A. F., Starsheim, A. & Orton, L. (2012).
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11. Strommen, M. P., Brekke, M. L., Underwager, R. C., & Johnson, A. L. (1972). A study of generations; Report of a two-year study of 5,000 Lutherans between the ages of 15-65: Their beliefs, values, attitudes, behavior. Minneapolis: Augsburg.
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