Over the next 20 years, the post-war Baby Boomers will start to come of age, and as they consider their own mortality, many of them will pop into church. What will their experience be when they do?

The year 2006 was a really important milestone in our cultural history, but it passed most of us by. That’s hardly surprising as there were no fanfares to herald its significance and those who were directly affected chose mostly to live in denial. After all, “60 is the new 40!” 2006 was the year that the post-war Baby Boom generation began to turn 60.

A year earlier, Gap Inc, owner of the largest chain of clothing stores in the US, launched a new brand of store, Forth Towne. Gap’s strategy was to target the new stores at Baby Boomer women. They had made the connection that this group was responsible for 39 per cent of women’s clothing purchases and yet were under-represented in the marketplace. By contrast, the traditional focus of marketing and sales towards the young meant that the 11-30 age group had nearly five times the number of retail outlets dedicated to them.

Speaking earlier this year, Yael Davidowitz-neu of the Google Retail team, observed how “… marketers are quickly realizing that they will have to alter their traditional tactics if they hope to tap into this group’s (the Boomers) collective spending power …” According to the Direct Marketing Group, by 2020 this could amount to 85-90 per cent of disposable income in the UK.

Only very slowly has any appreciation begun to dawn of how the cultural phenomenon of the ageing Baby Boomer generation will begin to reshape our lives and experience. Pensions, transport, access to public services and health care... the list of things that will be impacted as they begin to hit retirement age in 2011 is almost endless.

So, who are the Baby Boomers, and what is the significance of this milestone in their lives for the Christian community in contemporary Britain?

Meet the boomers

“The Baby Boom” is the name that was given to the rapid increase in the birth rate on both sides of the Atlantic following the end of World War Two. Stretching over an 18-year period from 1946-64, the Baby Boom gave birth to a generation that has shaped and been shaped by the powerful forces at work in the second half of the 20th century.

While the British Boomer generation is proportionately smaller than its American cousin, it still represents one in four of the population. Indeed, the Office of National Statistics projects that this generation will be responsible for swelling the number of over 65s by a massive 45 per cent between the years 2011 and 2030, as an additional 4.5 million people enter retirement. Ageing Boomers are going to be a fact of life for many years to come.

It is commonly acknowledged that this generation is wealthier, healthier, better-educated and numerically greater than any senior segment of any society in history. The 1950s, 60s and 70s were decades of rapid social change and technological advancement. As the Boomers grew up they witnessed the birth of youth culture, the sexual revolution brought about by the contraceptive pill and the explosion in the divorce rate. Social equality became increasingly important through the work of the women’s movement and those who sought to build a multicultural society following migration to the UK by members of the West Indian and Asian communities.

Increasing affluence, the raising of the school leaving age and much higher levels of access to Higher Education have all had a significant influence too. Probably the single most important contributor to the shaping of the life and experience of Baby Boomers is TV and other forms of electronic media.

Its size alone has made it a very influential group within society. Indeed, society has been forced to adjust to the Baby Boomers’ needs from birth. When the boom began there were shortages of baby food, nappies and toys. Then, as they took their first steps, the footwear, photographic and sticking plaster industries flourished. And so it has continued throughout the years.

Now, as they approach retirement, they still think of themselves as younger than they are. Their attitudes and outlook are vastly different from that of their parents and grandparents. Yet the advertising industry has already identified that roots and nostalgia are increasingly important to them.

It is their roots and view of the world that is the significant and potential connecting point with the Christian community. For example, in the mid-20th century a much larger proportion of children and young people came under the influence of the Christian gospel through their attendance at Sunday School. While only one out of every 25 were connected to a church in 2000, back in 1964 it was one in five who were in Sunday School, and in 1946 it was one in three. Indeed, 10 million of the 13.5 million Baby Boomers born between 1946-64 still identified themselves as Christian in the 2001 UK Census.

However young they continue to convince themselves that they are, at some point they will have to face the reality of their age. Faced by their own mortality and the ultimate questions of meaning, destiny and life after death, their Christian roots will provide the spiritual framework with which to begin to engage with these questions.

On a whim, they will return to church, seeking help in making sense of the questions that are beginning to confront them. A mixture of identity and nostalgia will most likely take them back to the denomination of their childhood or adolescence. Because it is about roots and half-remembered experience, a certain degree of familiarity will be helpful. Yet the visit is only a whim. A bad or disappointing experience will easily extinguish any continuing interest. The most important question will be whether these searching visitors connect or whether the moment evaporates into the ether.

Beware of stumbling blocks

With the prospect of many within this generation seeking to reconnect with the church, what are the potential stumbling block issues? Here are nine that, generally speaking, resonate with Boomers and that it would serve local churches well to consider.

1. The journey to faith

When Boomers discuss spirituality they most frequently talk about it in the context of their whole lives and in terms of a ‘journey’. This embraces the good and bad life experiences they’ve had in making them who they are. It also confirms the importance of their early Christian experiences in defining their own spirituality.

2. A lifetime of choices

In an increasingly consumerist society that has elevated choice as one of the most valued principles of life, Boomers have tested and broken many of the ethical boundaries they received from their parents. Homosexuality, cohabitation, divorce and abortion are perhaps some of the more controversial issues for the Church. Whatever stance is adopted it is important to remember that this is the experience they bring with them. The corresponding value to choice is, of course, tolerance. These values are seen as virtues for Boomers.

3. Loose organisational ties and institutional suspicion

While people are happy to participate in the life of an organisation, they want to do so on their own terms, with the ability to dip in and out as they choose. Alongside this sits an intuitive dislike of more formal organisational structures and a deep mistrust of motives in the use of power. The ability to maximise inclusion, participation and belonging while minimising the impact of institutional elements of church life is vital.

4. Equality, accountability and the practice of leadership

Leaders have to prove themselves through their practice of leadership. If it is seen as manipulative, bullying or self-serving, what trust there is will quickly evaporate. Ministers and church leaders must therefore be very careful not to misuse their role and dress up abusive behaviour in spiritual language. Rather, leadership should be open in style, consultative in process, transparent in practice and accountable.

5. The rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack

With contemporary music epitomising this generation, it would be only natural to expect that a contemporary worship style would be the most fitting. Counter-intuitively, studies seem to indicate a more nuanced approach brings a more positive response when it includes familiar hymns, albeit in a contemporary style, in the regular diet of worship. With personal roots and familiarity being significant some have called this the need for ‘new-fangled old’.

6. Sophisticated media consumers

Boomers were weaned on TV and have developed increasingly sophisticated tastes as they consume electronic media. It has been estimated that they have averaged 30- 40,000 hours each watching TV, viewing somewhere over 250,000 adverts. Any preacher stepping into the pulpit needs to be aware that the staple diet of TV is narrative. The story form heavily influences the viewing experience from soap operas and movie blockbusters to the mini-narratives of news stories and commercials.

7. Experience driven understanding

With Boomer culture being highly experiential, an approach to understanding the faith that is purelydoctrinal or is heavily reliant on systematic theology will not prove easily accessible. A different starting point needs to be found, one that meets them where they are and connects with the reality of life as they live it. Faith, then, should live and take its form from the particular place and time in which it exists, just as it did for Jesus.

8. An inclination to social justice

Growing up in the 1960s the Baby Boom generation lived during a period of great social ferment. Civil rights marches, the advance of feminism and the birth of protest movements like those campaigning for nuclear disarmament or the end of the Vietnam War were typical of this era. It is no coincidence that the Make Poverty History campaign saw many ageing Boomers at its helm.

9. Challenging discipleship

The whole notion of ‘personal growth’ resonates well with the Boomers’ culture of self-fulfilment. They will take discipleship seriously. Yet it may present some of the most profound challenges too. How long does the Church allow for a life to be brought into ‘conformity with Christ’? What issues are ‘deal-breakers’ for the life of faith? Which sets of circumstances can be persevered with over time and which need immediate action? Historically, the Church has been very strict on what have been identified as the ‘sins of the flesh’, particularly sexual ones such as adultery, fornication and homosexuality; but less rigorous on the ‘sins of the spirit’ – pride, greed and selfishness. How does the church walk with returning Boomers as they journey with Christ? The personal lives of those coming to Christ after a lifetime away from the Church may take years to untangle.

It remains to be seen whether this is a prophetic insight or merely wishful thinking. Yet if it does have substance, and all the early indicators are that it does, with churches across the country reporting Boomers reconnecting with their congregations, it is an exciting possibility. Unlike trying to implement a ‘seeker-sensitive’ strategy or experimenting with forms of Emerging Church, adapting a traditional denominational church for returning Boomers is a very different prospect. It is very much within reach.

Writing in her book, Boomer Shock, Ellen Hirsch de Haan writes, “A tidal wave is approaching...and it will break over the country in about 2011. That’s the year Baby Boomers will begin retiring ...” Let’s be ready to ride the wave!

Responding to the Baby Boomers

Preparing a church to be ‘Boomer friendly’ begs the key question: how might you go about doing that? It is not simply about the adoption of a strategy or making important decisions about policy and practice. It is about a whole congregation understanding biblically and theologically what path they are taking and why.

I have found that a group reflection based on a reallife situation can be a really effective means of helping a congregation understand issues from the inside and the practical implications of how they respond. One particular approach has proven especially fruitful. It is a four step exploration based around asking the question “WHAT?” where the word is an acronym for

W – What happened? H – Highlight the issues A – Articles of faith T – Taking action

WHAT HAPPENED – the reflection begins with a real-life situation. Take, for example, the person who asks to join the church but is living in a cohabiting relationship. Her partner is sympathetic, but has not come to faith and sees no need for marriage in their long-standing, 10-year partnership. They have two children. It is helpful to allow time for people to become familiar with the story and ask any questions to clarify what has been shared.

HIGHLIGHT THE ISSUES – splitting down into small groups, everyone participates in a brainstorming exercise that seeks to identify the issues that the story raises. In this case, for instance, the issues might include what constitutes Christian marriage and family life, the impact of how the church responds to the non-Christian partner and the children and the relationship between belonging to the church and membership of the Body of Christ.

ARTICLES OF FAITH – this step involves identifying what the Bible might have to contribute to understanding the identified issues and what there might be in the Christian tradition that helps us understand how Christians have responded to similar issues through history. In this instance Matthew 19:5 and John 4 alongside the institution of Christian marriage might be included.

TAKING ACTION – on the basis of the presenting situation, the identified issues and the resources provided by our Christian faith, how might the church respond? Following each of the small group discussions, it can be helpful to include a feedback session as this allows everyone to benefit from everything that has been shared.

This article uses material from Re-emerging Church (BRF) by Roger Standing, which is out now.

Angela ’s story

Angela was born in north Manchester. Her father was active in the Co-operative Movement and managed their local shop. As a family they went to a chapel in the next street. They attended three times on a Sunday with morning and evening services and afternoon Sunday School. Angela stopped attending when she went to university. It wasn’t that she stopped believing; it was just that the practice of Christianity slipped away. She became the personnel director of a large retail chain alongside being an activist in the local Labour Party.

It was early one Sunday evening that she accidentally began watching Songs of Praise. ‘To God Be The Glory’ triggered a buried memory. She decided there and then to find a church for the following Sunday. The service started well with ‘Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven’ and she felt at home as she sung with gusto. It was not so easy with the songs she didn’t know, but it was a good experience.

Unfortunately the return visit was not such a happy one. On this occasion Angela struggled to participate as all the songs were unfamiliar and a time of greeting fellow worshippers left her sitting alone, ungreeted. But it was the preaching that proved most challenging. The minister outlined the qualities of a leader following 1 Timothy 3. It was a while before Angela realised he was constantly using the masculine pronoun. Certain she must have got it wrong, her question following the service brought the response, “Of course we don’t have women in leadership here, the Bible teaches that leadership is only for men!” Angela went home and decided not to go to church again, clearly the church did not inhabit the world in which she lived and worked.

Peter ’s story

Peter grew up in a family that attended a Pentecostal church, cutting his teeth on lively worship, emotional preaching, speaking in tongues and endless singing. He made a personal commitment to Christ when he was nine following an appeal from a visiting evangelist.

In his late teens he had begun to drift away from church. The ban on church members going to the cinema or dance hall was probably the turning point. Life had been good to Peter. In his early 20s he had begun working as a salesman. His larger than life character and natural ease with people made him good at what he did. It wasn’t long before he was convinced that it would be better to work for himself than make money for others and a chain of eleven retail outlets resulted. He was no longer living with his wife, but they were good friends and felt no pressing need to get divorced.

It was one Sunday evening as he was walking past the open door of a small Pentecostal church that the sounds from inside tugged at him in that warm and familiar way memories do. On an impulse he slipped inside. It was packed, but felt like a homecoming. He recommitted his life to Christ three months later.

Following an evangelism group meeting it all started to go wrong. He was outside, drawing on a cigar, when an earnest brother said, “Don’t you know your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit?” The following Sunday a visiting preacher spoke strongly against homosexuality, declaring that Christians should have nothing to do with homosexuals if they didn’t repent. Peter’s best friend and business partner was a gay man in a long-term relationship. The crunch came when the pastor suggested that it was Peter’s responsibility to attempt to rescue his marriage and restore it to all that the Lord wanted it to be.

The accumulated weight of each of these issues took its toll. Peter didn’t stop attending the church overnight, but gradually he slipped away.