Two recent conversations haunt me. An old college friend, a leading-edge baby boomer (age 63) whom I knew to be a person of faith in college, told me he and his wife “had given up on the institutional church.” The other conversation was with an educated professional friend, also a baby boomer, who describes herself as spiritual but not religious.
These friends’ attitudes are consistent with American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS, 2008) findings that more and more of us are claiming no religious affiliation. A similar study by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 16 percent of the population has no religious identity.
Why did my college friends give up on church? Why is my spiritual friend not religious? In light of what we know about both boomers and many churches, it is not hard to speculate.
Baby boomers are as diverse a cohort as we have known. Their religious experiences run the gamut from no affiliation or faith identity to former “Jesus freaks” (from the 1960s) to very involved, regular church attenders. Some who formerly never darkened the doors of a house of worship are now actively engaged. Others who grew up in church have dropped out, many with no intention of returning.
Boomers who have dropped out may have simply tired of the routine, the predictableness, or, in some cases, the resistance to change that is characteristic of too many congregations. Pew’s research documents the trend of mainline denominations that continue to lose adherents, and Catholics do not fair much better. But those who have dropped out of the institutional church have not necessarily abandoned their faith. In fact, in her book “Leaving Church,” Barbara Brown Taylor hints that she had to leave church in order to preserve her faith.
Generally, boomers are eclectic in their sources of spiritual cues and do not fit the required conformity of many congregations. The Pew Forum found that fewer than three in 10 Americans believe their chosen path is the one, true faith. This creates a bind for churches. How does a congregation provide enough orientation to core tenants or to their denomination while leaving open the possibility of alternative expressions and what some might consider fringe beliefs?
At least two characteristics of baby boomers suggest clues for churches that would seek to attract them.
Boomers seek meaning – both for their lives and for their investment of time and energy. Many boomers are open to theological interpretation of life’s purpose as long as it is free of dogmatism and “this is the only way” thinking.
Being the most educated generation thus far, boomers know that there are often multiple solutions to a problem and alternative viewpoints on issues. One boomer friend who describes himself as a seeker for most of his adult years recently found meaning in the liturgies of a faith community, liturgies that left room for interpretation, spiritual reflection and personal application.
And boomers are much less loyal to the faith tradition of their parents. The Pew Forum finds that 44 percent of Americans who claim faith have changed faith traditions since childhood. They care less about the name on the door than the worship and nurture offerings inside. And they want choices.
Mega-churches and non-denominational churches may have a leg up. Their variety of worship styles, small groups for study and relationships, and volunteer mission opportunities may meet the needs of boomers who want to invest themselves in activities that will feed their spiritual longings while making a difference in the world, even if on a small scale. This is not to say that smaller churches have no chance to reach boomers, unless they suffer from small thinking, are overly resistant to change or are unwilling to be permission giving, allowing boomers to pursue out-of-the-box approaches.
In fact, many boomers are attracted to what some characterize as “house churches,” which often are little more than small groups meeting on someone’s back porch, who coalesce around their spiritual quests and desire for involvement in hands-on learning.
George Barna, a popular researcher and himself a boomer, classifies as revolutionaries those who focus more on spirituality than on institutional trappings and who are transforming culture and reframing issues. While not mentioning baby boomers specifically, his descriptions fit this generation. He finds revolutionaries both in and outside churches, noting that many will never feel comfortable in the institutional church (little c) yet they network with others in the Church (big C) universal. Barna identifies himself as a revolutionary.
Another clue: this generation wants engagement, but they require more definition and control than is often provided by local congregations. This is not so much from selfish indulgence as it is stewardship of energy and resources. They are driven.
One researcher noted a shift in time perspective at midlife, from time lived to time left. As people age, they become more introspective and the urge to succeed shifts to an urge to do something significant, to leave the world a better place with the time that remains.
Often the opportunities for engagement offered by churches are poorly defined, offer little or no measurable goals, little supervision and feedback, no term limits, and seem bent on preserving the institution.
Churches need not feel threatened by the unorthodox path to faith that baby boomers may choose. The more open, flexible and permission-giving they are, the more likely they are to attract members of this generation on their spiritual quest toward meaning. Becoming versed on the history, developmental characteristics and needs of baby boomers is the starting point.
Mike Harton is an educational consultant and coach living in Midlothian, Va. He holds an Ed.D. in adult education from Indiana University and is a former Baptist Center for Ethics board member. This column previously appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.