After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty- Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religon

Editor’s note: In the book Making Kingdom Disciples: a New Framework, I included a chapter in part two on the importance of understanding the different generations. I was recently asked again why that is an important thing to know and do. I want to answer that good question by reviewing a new book which highlights why I believe that to be important.

Here is another book that pastors and other church leaders should read, especially in light of the above question. I know you feel you already have more than enough to read, which no doubt is true. However, because leaders are readers, I do not apologize for encouraging you to read. While pleasure reading is important, it is also crucial that we read strategically as well. This is a strategic read.

Over the years we have reviewed a number of Robert Wuthnow’s books. He is professor of sociology at Princeton University, as well as the director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton. I value his books, research, and challenging ideas.

This book will become a sequel to Christian Smith’s book, Soul Searching, on the American teenager that we have used, recommended, and sold from CE&P. After the Baby Boomer’s deals with young adults ages 21-45. While we have been placing much emphasis on rising generations and senior citizens, two very critical segments of our population, we have now realized that unless we understand the place of “buster and older millennial” generations, we may be missing the ones who will indeed shape religion in America. The church will run the risk of missing the young adult generation if it fails to understand it. In some situations, this is already the case.

Understanding the different generations is a part of understanding our world. You cannot read a book like Soul Searching (Christian Smith) or After the Baby Boomers (Wuthnow) and conclude that we can ignore what they are saying. Wuthnow explains what is happening as we experience in America an estimated six million less churchgoers today than in the past. We have also been aware of how the younger generations of adults are often taking a different route in dealing with spirituality and religion than previous generations. Wuthnow explains why and how that is the case, and he challenges us as to what it means for organized religion. His research in this book will make clear the impact of the internet, as well as how young adults can talk about “virtual” church.

After the Baby Boomers contains 11 chapters on various aspects of understanding the 21- 45 year olds. The appendix goes to great lengths to explain to the reader how the research was done, which is an education in itself. Wuthnow says in the preface that for our churches and synagogues, mosques and temples to exist, resources and people are needed. “These places of worship exist only to the extent that they are able to adapt to their environments. They are products of opportunity structures within those environments.” His challenge: “The fact that baby boomers are rapidly moving into the ranks of the elderly means that it is essential to understand how the next wave of Americans are thinking and behaving. The current generation of young adults cannot be understood historically through connections to the civil rights movement or the Vietnam War the way baby boomers are.”

This young adult generation numbers over 100 million and makes up one third of the American population. Wuthnow describes this age category as young adults who are taking longer to reach adulthood and fraught with uncertainties such as job security and national security. Add to those concerns information technology, immigration, and globalization and you easily see how important it is to understand these young adults. This not only refers to areas such as mentioned above, but also to their struggles with how to relate or not relate to things such as spirituality and religion. At one time these were one and the same but not for this generation. How they describe or define those things have direct implications on their thoughts and views of the church. You will be both fascinated and challenged by what you read in this book; and believe me, it must be read and understood.

There is no doubt that the future rests with these young adults. But as Wuthnow points out, you cannot conclude that they are always alike. Things such as marriage, children, and background make a big difference in their outlook, as does independency, no marriage, no children, no roots. Wuthnow says, “The future of American religion is in the hands of the adults now in their twenties and thirties…They are not as easily defined as other generations.”

We definitely need to spend more time studying and thinking about the role of these young adults in our society in general. One of many examples will highlight this. “The popular literature also makes arguments about ’emerging’ congregations that are somehow the wave of the future because they follow a new paradigm or hark back to models from the first century of Christianity.” They are much more oriented to “experience as opposed to creeds or novel liturgical styles.” Wuthnow says in another example, “a growing number of young adults do not marry, marry later, or do not stay married. Those are the realities of life that pose worries during young adulthood, affect one’s self-identity, and cause people to seek emotional support.” They are taking longer to establish themselves and settle into their communities, and they are tending to be dependent on their parents for a longer period of time.

The younger adults are characterized as tinkerers. “A tinkerer puts together a life from whatever skills, ideas, and resources that are readily at hand.” Within the tinkering process, the married young adults are given to church shopping. The unmarrieds are given to church hopping-some of this and some of that.

This study was funded both by the Lilly and Pew Foundations. Basically it concluded that unless those of us in church leadership roles understand these young adults, we are going to wake-up one morning and say, where is our church? Where are our ministries? Where are our missionaries?

Chapter 1 gives an overall synopsis of the book, but you have to read the other ten chapters to see the data which supports these conclusions. This is a must read and source of study for the church. We cannot bury our heads in the sand or fail to grapple with the issues impacting this young adult population. My challenge to you as you read this book is to ask yourself, “How can we not take time to understand them?”

Charles Dunahoo pastored churches in Georgia and Alabama before being called to his present position as Coordinator for the PCA of Christian Education and Publications (CEP).

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