Friday, December 14, 2012

Younger Evangelicals/The Boomers Strike Back

Ten years ago, Robert Webber's book The Younger Evangelicals really seemed to capture for me the state of evangelicalism.  I would have told you it was in transition.  I would have told you that the twenty somethings who were on a trajectory to become the evangelical leaders of tomorrow were characterized by interest in things like social justice and creation care, that they were interested in less church hierarchy and more "organic," informal ministry, that they couldn't care less about previous evangelical concerns like church growth or inerrancy.

It feels quite different to me today.  For example, are we seeing a culture of metrics rise in church hierarchy (as opposed to larger churches and their followers)?  It seems like there has been a wave of "crack downs" at various conservative colleges with regard to professors.  And given the Christian election dynamics, it sure doesn't feel like the social and environmental concerns of the then twenty somethings are in power.

I wonder if here's what has happened in part.  Boomer Christianity is now in its leadership twilight.  It spent the last few decades largely inwardly-focused, preoccupied pretty much with its own church and local church growth.  But for various reasons Boomers have now taken an interest in the trajectory of the broader church.  Perhaps in part they didn't like the rising values of the now thirty somethings.  9-11 also has to play in here somewhere VERY significantly, I think.

Here are my wonderings.  I don't think the values of the thirty-something evangelicals have gone away. I think they have gone silent over and against the VERY vocal Boomer evangelicals of these last days.  I suspect the election results in part support this hypothesis.  Boomer conservatives were shocked to lose the election because they had been so vocal and convinced the silent were on their side. Instead, to some extent, they had apparently created a climate where differing voices felt it was better to be silent.

I think the same dynamics are in play right now in the evangelical church.  The values of the thirty somethings have not changed but are lying dormant because of the "Boomers Strike Back" dynamic at work right now.  I predict it will be difficult for the Boomers in retirement to see what will happen when the thirty somethings finally come conclusively into power.

But what of the 9-11 generation that follows them?  What of the current twenty somethings?  I'm no sociologist, but I suspect that the climate of the last 10 years has created a much more "conservative" group of leaders that will follow the thirty somethings, at least in some areas.  That is, if they stay Christian.  That is the big concern right now.  They are conservative now, but they may be on some kind of crash course of faith that will eventually make them look much different than they look now.

So will the twenty somethings who remain Christian push a version of Christianity thirty years from now that is much like the Boomer Christianity of the moment?  I think it's quite possible in one scenario.  But we are also potentially facing a sharp rise of the non-religious in the next decade, and I predict Boomer Christianity will have little affect on that trend.

Here's what I wonder, will the thirty somethings facilitate a revival once they get conclusively into power in ten to fifteen years?  And will the now twenty something Christians who rise from that revival bring a shocking but vibrant and dynamic faith then that will both scare and excite those of us who are still living?


John Mark said...

I find this sort of thing fascinating. Some thoughts: Scot McKnight, as I’m sure you know, looks for an ascendancy of the Christian left in the near future. I don’t know enough about any of this to speak with any certainty, but what I wonder about is your own pondering as to whether or not we will keep the twenty-somethings.
I have attended the Catalyst conferences for a couple of years now, and again as you know they are strong on social issues. Some of the leaders seem pretty conservative (Andy Stanley) others seem to me to be liberal (I won’t mention any names). I wonder if they represent the future…..Andy Stanley is fascinating to me, since his father represents the epitome of Boomer Conservatives (even though he is pre-boomer age wise) and I think some tension continues to exist between them, regardless of attempts at reconciliation.
In my personal world I see lots of struggles among younger people in our church. Many of them routinely ignore the ‘no-nos’ of our tradition and don’t seem troubled about it at all. None of my younger people openly complain about Boomer control; they may think in these categories. But they do, in many cases, seem to think that the old rules no longer apply. [Boomers in some cases have set the pattern for this, many, many Boomers have been nominal/cultural Christians I believe.] Among our teens, and this is not reflective of the larger culture necessarily, cutting and other forms of self-abuse and struggles with gender identity issues are all too common. I think the possibility of some sort of real unraveling exists among our young, unless we might experience a real revival.
Would you agree with J D Hunter that Boomer culture really isn't that 'strong' or influential anyway? Older people in my church were sure "we" could win the last election.....I almost said from the pulpit that we wouldn't....
This makes me want to read Christian Smith……

John Mark said...

oops-they may NOT think in these categories....

Joshua Rhone said...


Some great thoughts as usual! As someone who falls into the 'thirty-something evangelical' category, I believe that much of what you suggest reflects the current reality. What I don't think you touched on was that there are many in my age group that have left the church entirely because of the 'Boomers Strike Back' dynamic, or the many that have left for mainline churches, Roman Catholicism, Church of England, or Eastern Orthodoxy. I think that when the boomers retire there may well be a leadership vacuum that is created when the evangelical church looks around and realizes that many of its 'next gen' leaders have flown the coup and are leading elsewhere. Of course, what I'm suggesting is simply conjecture that is based upon the multitude of conversations that I've had with those that I attended college and seminary with and, as such, may be entirely off base.

Anonymous said...

I think this is an interesting topic. John Mark- I think the reason for the younger people being the way they are is due partially to our culture, but I think the church has had its problems as well. There is way too many churches that are either way too much on just bringing in the masses or there are the churches that are not doing enough and just sticking to their old standards. We need more churches and people (that are Christians) to start discipling the new converts. The younger people are ignoring a lot of things because are not being given book, chapter, verse, as kids. If we as Christians start doing that, I believe our whole country would look different.

John Mark said...

Anonymous. Agree, I am part of the problem :)

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