Vic Phillips, 63, wasn’t interested in joining a church. But like many baby boomers, members of the generation born between 1946 and 1964, he was nearing retirement. He and his wife, Helena, 61, joined a program at Siloam United in London, Ont., designed to help people transition into retirement and empty nesting. After making some new friends, they joined a church-run monthly movie group. Before long, they were attending worship services, drawn in by the warm and friendly congregation. At Siloam United, the church where I minister, they had found a community.
Yet many of today’s boomers don’t attend church. In the 1950s and ’60s, when the boomers were children, their parents sent them off to Sunday school. Church attendance spiked, but as boomers became young adults, they left the institution in record-breaking numbers. The proportion of today’s boomers that doesn’t attend church is slowly increasing. According to the 2011 census, 20 percent of Canadian boomers say they have no religious affiliation at all, an extra 400,000 individuals compared to 2001. Many more stay away from worship services. Barna Group, a Christian research organization based in California, found in a 2011 study that the number of American boomers who never attend church has shot up to 41 percent — for the first time, they’re more likely to be “unchurched” than the generation born immediately after.
Now entering their later years, boomers are also poised to dramatically change the demographics of Canada, increasing the number of Canadian seniors to 23 percent of the population by 2031 from 15 percent today. As this generation faces the challenges of their 50s, 60s and early 70s, some churches are thinking about how to bring boomers back to their religious roots.
So why did boomers leave the church in droves back in the 1960s and ’70s? Contrary to popular belief, most boomers brought up in mainline Protestant denominations like The United Church of Canada didn’t leave because they were angry with the establishment. They left because they no longer saw the point.
This is the finding of Linda Mercadante, a boomer born in 1947 who spent many years identifying as Spiritual but not Religious (SBNR) before returning to the church. She’s now a minister and theology professor at the Methodist Theological School in Delaware, Ohio. Mercadante was one of the key presenters at Boomerstock, a conference sponsored by the United Methodist Church and held this past September in Nashville, Tenn., about how churches can engage boomers. Mercadante conducted over 100 in-depth interviews that probed a number of common assumptions about boomers and their lack of involvement in the church. For example, in her five years of research, Mercadante learned that there were things that boomers actually missed about church: the music, the sacredness, the community — and the potluck dinners.
She also discovered that boomers are not against belief per se. In fact, many are interested in mysticism and learning to meditate. Many ask profoundly theological questions and believe in an impersonal divine energy or spiritual force. While a large number does not believe in life after death, many do believe in reincarnation. But the real key has to do with what they don’t believe. They are suspicious of religious dogma and cognitive approaches to faith; many describe themselves as SBNR. They reject religious exclusivism and are interested in world religions and other spiritual paths and practices. After all, this is the generation that grew up with transcendental meditation, made popular by Beatles members George Harrison and John Lennon. They don’t believe in absolute truth. Many also don’t believe in a personal, self-conscious, intentional, involved God. Nor do they believe in sin or that there is a heaven or hell.
Craig Miller, who has spent many years researching and writing a book about boomer spirituality, describes the generation as “self-seeking,” meaning that they look to fulfil their spiritual needs in personal ways, and view the individual as the final authority in all matters of faith. He sums up the generation’s approach to faith with a line from The Wizard of Oz, the 1939 film that had a powerful impact on boomers when they were children: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”
The Sunday school revival that occurred in mainstream churches back in the 1950s wasn’t really about faith, says Doug Owram, a historian who has studied Canadian boomers. “Religion for children was basically not a theological matter, but a strand in the web of socialization,” he says. “Religion taught children how to behave and reinforced family values.” But there was little talk of supernaturalism or making any sort of personal commitment to Christ. Failing to find a sense of transcendence in the church, some turned to marijuana and more serious drugs like LSD, while others turned to eastern mysticism or a variety of New Age practices.
Others just drifted away. They had passed the course in civil religion. As a child, I remember some of my Sunday school classmates being dropped off by parents who went back home to sleep or catch up on chores. A boomer friend recalled that her mother used the two hours she and her brother were at church to clean the house. The underlying message was that once you were confirmed or became an adult, you knew how to behave and didn’t require church anymore. Time to move on and out.
Addressing the participants at Boomerstock, Miller identified several traits that characterize the boomer generation: brokenness, brought on by traumatic events like the assassinations of U.S. President John F. Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., the war in Vietnam, and the 1970 shooting of unarmed students at Ohio’s Kent State University; loneliness, attributed to the boomers’ high divorce rate; and rootlessness, because most boomers feel disconnected from traditional institutions. In combination, these traits lead many boomers to live in fear of the future — or to fear that there will be no future. Miller says the antidote to loneliness and rootlessness, as well as much of the brokenness experienced by many boomers, can be the fellowship of a community of faith.
But some churches are missing the mark by gearing their programming to the nuclear family, not realizing that two parents plus kids represents only about a quarter of Canadian households, according to Environics Canada. Pat Nicholl, a 58-year-old who lives alone and works in the oil industry in Edmonton, says she feels awkward when she attends worship by herself at her United church because the service is primarily focused on the family. “I feel like I don’t belong,” she says. More often, she chooses instead to watch American televangelist Joyce Meyers from home.
There is another way. Broadmoor United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge, La., started a church school class for boomer singles that has blossomed into a whole ministry aimed at the age group. New Spirit members not only study the scriptures, but also discuss issues relating to their age and stage in life, soldering close and caring relationships with one another. It’s perhaps not surprising that for boomers who do find a home in a congregation, many cite “community” or a “sense of belonging” as the number one advantage to joining a church.
Several other boomer characteristics suggest opportunities for churches looking to connect with them. Many boomers find themselves sandwiched between caring for elderly parents and supporting teenagers or young adult children, or even raising grandchildren. A church support group that offers care for the caregivers might be a lifeline for some. Boomers also have major health concerns of their own. As they watch their parents grow frail, and as they themselves age, there is the recognition that they must be proactive about their own physical and mental health. Congregations that offer programming to help people maintain optimal physical and mental health (see sidebar, page TK), along with healing and wellness programs, will be responding to some of the boomers’ top concerns. Rabbi Richard Address, a leader in the study of Jewish boomers, observes that maintaining good physical health is entirely in line with religious teaching. It “allows us to stand in relationship with God” and, as such, is “a powerful tool in our ability to age in a sacred way.”
Boomers have much to offer, and the church would be wise to take them seriously. This means calling upon boomers’ idealism and activism, responding to their needs and including them in the church community. They are hungry for roots, a sense of belonging and an opportunity to serve, but they are even hungrier for spiritual nurture. If the church can tap into this sense of longing for the divine, it will go a long way toward engaging people in meaningful faith dialogue — not just for the first half of life, but for all of life.
This post originally appeared as part of an article published in the December 2016 issue of the United Church Observer.