Now that I have summarized each chapter of Robert Wuthnow’s After the Baby Boomers, I would like to post some reflections and applications that we can take from Wuthnow’s study. What course of action should the Church of the 21st century take? How should the Church take bold steps in engaging this elusive generation? If Wuthnow’s statistics are right, I suggest we do the following:
1. Raise expectations regarding post-boomer religious participation while simultaneously providing support for this generation.
Young adults between the ages of 18-20 are disappearing from our congregations, and many evangelicals have implicitly approved of this phenomenon by excusing it. They’re in school right now and are very busy. They’re working very hard in their first career position. They’ll be back once they’re married. Younger adults have disappeared from our gatherings along with our churches’ expectations. We no longer expect to see a large number of young, single adults in church. Therefore, we do not.
Part of the problem is laziness. Wuthnow rightly points out the skewed nature of church ministries that focus on the elderly, the children, or the teenagers and make no effort to help along the twenty-somethings who are without any social support from outside the church. There is a void here, and the church has done little to fill it. Furthermore, we act as if church drop-out is expected. Why else do we not focus on younger-adult ministry?
The solution to this problem is for churches to come up with innovative ways of ministering to this segment of our culture while also raising the level of our expectations.
2. Buck the trend of late marriages.
Wuthnow observes that adults are getting married and having children at a later age. “Settling down” is happening later than ever, and since “settling down” is key for the younger generation’s return to church, we are seeing less and less twenty-somethings in church.
The solution to this problem is complex. Wuthnow suggests the Church move along with the culture and create social support systems for the twenty-somethings who have not yet “settled down.” I agree, so far as it goes.
But the Church must do more than simply ride the cultural wave of extended adolescence. One of the reasons why marriage is getting pushed back later and later is because more and more evangelicals are engaging in premarital sex. Many are cohabitating. Even more startling is the number of evangelical Boomer parents who quietly approve of this practice. Other evangelical parents who would never countenance fornication virtually lead their children into immorality by unwisely and unmercifully advising their children to postpone marriage until they are out of college or until they have a strong financial foundation. Deliberately postponing marriage and childbirth is often (not always) a capitulation to a culture that sees marriage as a contract and childbearing as a commodity.
The Church must buck this trend. We need to be emphasizing sexual chastity. Our youth need to be brought up with the mindset that marrying at a young age is not only not necessarily irresponsible, but ideal. In order to promote marriage a younger age, we must also be emphasizing maturity at a younger age. The solution is not to push young couples to make rash wedding vows. Instead, we must foster an atmosphere of maturity so that young twenty-somethings will be ready for marriage.
Younger families with younger children will bring back the 20-somethings, because the prolonged adolescence will no longer dominate our churches. Of course, parents will need to grasp this vision as much as teenagers. We have a long way to go if we are to stand against the cultural tide here.
3. Reach out to new movers.
66% of converts to evangelicalism did so after a recent move. Evangelical churches must continue their outreach to people in a time of transition. Moving is one of the most stressful times in a person’s life. The Church must be willing to welcome people into the community, plug them into Bible study, offer them fellowship and ministry opportunities. We are most likely to reach people when they are in a time of transition. Churches can obtain databases with new movers, and actively evangelize or recruit those who are new to the community.
4. Emphasize doctrine again.
Right now, Wuthnow’s research shows many younger adults attending church primarily for the sense of settledness and community that church attendance provides. The doctrinal positions of young adults reveal a lack of basic theological understanding. If we are to reach the post-boomer generation, we must again restate what we believe and why we believe it. Practical tidbits for daily life may reach some post-boomers, but most young adults can find such help online or on Oprah. The Church must offer something different, something substantive. Perhaps this is why there is a resurgence of Calvinism taking place across denominational lines in evangelicalism. After years of cotton-candy teaching, many young adults are starved for the biblical meat they find in the Puritans.
5. Stop expending so much time and energy debating stylistic issues.
I am glad that Wuthnow’s research backs up what I found to be true in my own congregation. The younger adults are not heavily invested in the so-called “worship wars” between contemporary and traditional music. Younger adults want church to “feel like church” and are more likely than the most elderly segment of the congregation to prefer liturgy and tradition. So much ink is spilled on the newest music style, when the younger generation is often more concerned about the preaching of the Word.
6. We need to deepen our understanding of other religious faiths.
Wuthnow would have us study the beliefs of other religious traditions in order to foster tolerance and civility. I hope that tolerance and civility will be fostered, certainly. But that is not the reason why I believe we need to learn more about other religions.
One of the major indictments of evangelicals in Wuthnow’s book is that we are actively evangelizing nominal Christians, a.k.a. “the unchurched.” We are not pursuing people who belong to other religious faiths. Evangelism in many evangelical churches is equal to inviting someone to church. We are scared to death to be put in the position of persuading a Muslim of the truth claims of Christianity. We shudder at the thought of discussing the implications of monotheism with a Hindu.
To give our church people some credit, we leaders have not been equipping them to deal with the growing array of religious options. We must address this issue quickly if we are to reach lost people in the 21st century.