Tuesday, June 26, 2007
The "Age Wave" and the Church
As a Baby Boomer I was part of that grand surge of births following WWII, which crested in '63 and redefined its time. With these numbers no longer in play at the elementary or secondary school levels, school systems designed to serve this age surge are now rapidly downsizing and cutting programs. Well, the Baby Boomers are not finished causing change. Like a slow moving glacier this generation is cutting through the soil of society and cutting a new path now that they are entering their "golden" retirement years. Health care, retirement funds, the employment sector, nursing care, and even the church are all beginning a new period of change and adaptation.
Dr. Cliff Pederson calls this demographic "age wave" an "age tsunami." In the Spring issue of Issues in Christian Education he writes that the "challenge of the 21st century is not mere-aging - it is mass-aging. Never before in human history have we experienced so many older adults over the age of 65. The challenges and opportunities associated with mass-aging are unlike any demographic change this country has ever known, unlike any political or social movement in any generation and unlike any government reform ever experienced."
By the year 2010 - only four years hence - our population of 65 and over Americans will reach 39 million. By 2030 (when I am 70) it will surge to 70 million. Pederson notes that "this represents an unprecedented 77 percent growth rate, with one of every five Americans over the age of 65." The increases will only continue reaching a third of all Americans by 2050 (when I will probably be in heaven!).
Pederson comments that the "world has never experienced mass-aging before the 21st century. It is not that we are unacquainted with the effects of aging, but we have never before confronted them in such large numbers." And the church, according to Pederson, "is leading the mass-aging demographic." Lutherans, in particular, have a median age already in the 50's, compared to society at large which is still in the 30's.
So how will this impact the church? I think it already is. The WWII generation is in the process of dying off now, and these dear people were the backbone of the church's volunteer corps and its steady contributors. My church, for example, was built by this generation and the one before it. The Baby Boomers, by contrast, are a different lot. Blessed by more freedom and more time to recreate, along with greater incomes to do so, they appear to be a less settled and more transient people, less committed to the arrangements of their forefathers.
They, for example, are the generation that decided to redefine the worship of the church, catering to the Baby Boomer rebellion of all things formal and ritualistic, in favor of loose, casual and shallow entertainment models. Although they have not sacrificed all that came before, they are far less devoted to the past.
In this generation more have been working outside the home. In the 'old days' many church functions, such as the venerable ladies groups, were run by women who were 'stay-at-home-moms' or one of the many women working on farms. This is no longer true. Organizations founded by pre-Boomer adults are graying and turning white with age, and their models do not fit the Boomer lifestyle.
Boomers, who have more time for travel and vacation, and enjoy other forms of recreation along with their very involved children, are less able to serve in volunteer posts in congregations, even though one would think that ours was a time of unprecedented volunteer opportunties. Talk to any congregational president who has ever tried to recruit candidates for the annual election of officers and hear his deep sigh of frustration at being turned down over and over again. This generation is less willing, it seems, to commit. They have too many irons in the fire to do so.
Thus, the church is going to have to rework how it accomplishes many of its tasks, from funeral dinners, to youth work, to staffing the Sunday School and annual VBS. Already it has been discovered that Boomers prefer "task groups" and brief working committees to multiple year commitments.
Now it's a bit dangerous to lump all of this generation into one monolithic entity, and we should understand that older Boomers and younger Boomers are not all of the same mold. The comments above fit younger Boomers more closely than some of the eldest.
But there are other challenges on the horizon as well. Dr. Pederson notes one in particular that I believe will have far reaching effects. It is the "challenge of postmodernity." He writes that "the faith of older adults is under attack and not as stable as we once thought....To understand that Christian adults, in their 50s and 60s, were nurtured and educated in a modernist world. They learned to value objectivity, scientific knowledge, technology, progress, linear thinking, analytical reasoning and practical experimentation. Through their Christian education (sermons, Sunday School, confirmation, Bible reading and memorization, etc.) they adopted a worldview that included revelation as well as reason as foundations for prepositional truth that could either be confirmed or proven false. They were positive people believing that the mega-problems of the world and the soul could be solved."
However, things have changed. "At the beginning of the 21st century the modern, rational world in which older adults were raised has caved in on itself. Today's older adults are caught in the channel-surfing world of postmodernity that has lost the capacity for linear and analytical reasoning. The rational world of their formative years has been replaced by a subjective, psychological and feel-based worldview that leaves our older adults with a sense that they are bizarre relics of a future that never came."
Obviously the effects of these changes will be long lasting and will impact the church in ways she has not known for a long time. I believe that we will be well served to look back in history to how the church weathered other such changes to avoid their pitfalls, if possible. For example, when Rationalism and the Enlightenment hit the church around the 18th and 19th centuries, many aspects of the faith either gave in to this liberal view or enclosed themselves in their own little worlds. We can afford to do neither. But the temptation is there.
Although the eroding of values and tradition has been occurring during all of the 20 years of my ministry, I am hopeful that the treasures of the church can be kept intact for the generations yet to come. Even as churches fall into the pit of relevancy, jettisoning all that is old and past, others hold on, bucking this passing trend, and wait for the day when the treasures will once again be needed. I see my little rural church as a mission outpost, not unlike the days of the early medieval missionary-monks who settled in the midst of pagan worlds, trying to shed light on one corner of a very dark and troubled world.
So are we ready for this age wave? Yes and no. But it is not too late. We have to shed our preoccupation with the youth culture and focus again on the fundamental challenges of ministering to people as they approach heaven. Nurturing old memories and long forgotten truths is critical to preparing these adults for their final journey. And yes, the church will change. But the essence of her identity will remain intact. We also must redefine how we accomplish many of the traditional auxiliary tasks, finding new ways to staff. The people are there in great numbers. We just have to figure out how to direct them effectively.
And above all we must proclaim the unchanging Truth of Christ. Forget the feel-good sermons and pop culture attractants that we think will win others over to the church. We do not have the luxury of such experimentation when eternity looms much closer.