Wade Clark Roof, A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993), 294 pp., cloth.
By now, everyone in America has heard of the baby boomers. Many have heard enough to run for cover; others are simply resigned to the cultural hegemony of the boomer generation. Whatever the response, the baby boom generation represents one of the most important cultural patterns of American history — and one the preacher ignores at great peril.
Most of the work on baby boomers has been popularized and psychological in approach. We know that the boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, are the largest generation ever to emerge in America, their numbers driven by the post-war “urge to merge” and growing middle-class prosperity.
Coddled by their doting parents and cared for by mediating institutions such as schools and voluntary associations, the generation is generally self-centered and demanding — at least to hear the standard expectation.
Wade Clark Roof, professor of religion and society at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has conducted what may stand as the comprehensive sociological examination of boomer spirituality in A Generation of Seekers.
Accompanied by an unusual degree of media attention, Roof’s work has caught the attention of virtually anyone seriously interested in understanding boomer ways and patterns. With over 76 million baby boomers filling the shopping malls, tennis courts, co-dependency seminars, and board rooms, the generation demands attention. By sheer weight of its numbers, it is the defining generation of post-war America. Described by one demographer as “the bulge inside the snake,” it can hardly be missed.
Thus, boomers have an inordinate influence on the media, the educational system, consumer marketing, sports and entertainment. Furthermore, with the election of the nation’s first baby boomer president, the generation is now seen to possess real political power as well.
But what about the boomers and faith? Roof’s title is no accident. The generation is best defined, he suggests, by the image of the seeker. Roof expresses one significant qualification at the onset: “Given the size of this population — 76 million — baby boomers defy easy generalization about their beliefs and practices.” As he acknowledges, the boomer generation includes far more than the “yuppies” (young urban professionals) who set so much of the nation’s marketing and entertainment agenda. “Aside from whatever unites them as a generation, they [baby boomers] are divided along lines of age, education, economic class, gender, and lifestyle, making them anything but a monolith.”
Roof presents his research and analysis through the stories of prototypical baby boomers, ranging from conservative evangelicals to New Age devotees and those who consider themselves profoundly irreligious. Other sections of the book are more didactic and less narrative in form and structure.
Those involved in congregational ministry will seldom be surprised by Roof’s analysis, but his research is revealing in both depth and breadth. Put bluntly, boomers look at the church and organized religion in profoundly different ways than their parents and grandparents. Given the tremendous social upheavals experienced by the generation in its most formative years, “Boomers still feel some ‘distance’ from almost every institution, whether the military, banks, public schools, Congress, or organized religion.”
The generation was formed in a culture of affluence, nurtured by the media culture, and tossed to and fro by cultural revolutions — most significantly, Roof argues, by the gender revolution. “Of all the sixties’ revolutions, none had a greater long-term impact than the gender revolution. The changing sexual rules and relationships of the period mushroomed into a major social movement that has radically altered marriage, family, parenting, and career patterns.”
Interestingly, while the generation is less likely than others to see itself as “religious,” it is more likely to speak comfortably about a “spiritual” quest. As Roof points out, this represents a shift in our religious vocabulary — though one most evangelicals of any age could identify. Roof found that most baby boomers tended to use both words, but to indicate an institutional dimension by “religious” and an inner-directed mystical quest by “spirituality.”
We should not be surprised to find such persons adopting more syncretistic religious forms, such as a nominal Roman Catholic who participates in traditional Catholic liturgy, but addresses herself to a New Age “higher power” during worship. Blends of eastern religious forms with more traditional Christian symbolism are becoming more and more common among boomers, who feel absolutely free to alter and transform a faith tradition at will. There again is a generalization — but one which covers millions of baby boomers and, more significantly, affects the thinking of the entire generation to some degree.
The boomers span the spectrum from religious liberals to stalwart evangelicals but Roof argues they have changed the rules of the game. The shift to spirituality and inner-directed issues threatens the very existence of the Church as an institution of the cultural center.
What about the boomers as they age? The much-vaunted return of the baby boomers to churches as their own children reached church-going age is now significantly discounted. It seems that many boomers who re-entered organized church life in the late 1980s and early 1990s have exited through other doors. The missing boomers comprise an enormous reservoir of unreached Americans — and they may be even more difficult to reach in their middle and senior adulthood, a status the older boomers will soon reach.
How do we preach to baby boomers? They are accustomed to television programming with fast-paced camera shifts and packaged entertainment. They consider themselves highly educated and very discriminating in taste. They have been shaped in spirit and substance by some of the most divisive cultural conflicts of modern history, and they mistrust institutions. Yet, they stand in need of the Gospel and the Church faces the very present challenge to preach the Word to this dominant generation.
Preachers will find this volume a “must read” addition to their summer reading lists. The book is both haunting and helpful.
Alan J. Roxburgh, Reaching a New Generation: Strategies for Tomorrow’s Church (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 130 pp., paper.
What does the future hold for Christian ministry? That is the question addressed by Canadian missionologist Alan Roxburgh in Reaching a New Generation. Though also focused somewhat on the baby boomers, Roxburgh’s title does not refer in a specific sense to one generation, but to all those to whom the Church will address itself in the future.
Roxburgh, director of the Center for Mission and Evangelism at Mc-Master Divinity College in Ontario, served for nine years as pastor of an inner-city church in Toronto. That experience, more than anything else, forms the background of this volume.
Citing management guru Peter Drucker, Roxburgh asserts that we have entered a new cultural era marked by “new realities” which have vastly impacted Christian ministry. “We are in a new time of mission in North America. The outlines of what lies ahead are not yet clear. It is important to discern the shape of the road ahead and suggest ways a congregation may engage this changing context with the message of Jesus Christ.”
Roxburgh cites developments ranging from the new spirituality to the transformation of the secular experiment — all under the rubric of modernity. He suggests that modern North Americans, Canadian and American, are discussing issues of value, fact, and faith in the midst of these changes, but that “the overarching legitimating story of Christianity is not the framework shaping these conversations.”
Reaching a New Generation will provide worthy material for the preacher’s consideration.
Book Notes
John MacArthur, Faith Works: The Gospel According to the Apostles (Irving, TX: Word Books, 1993), 258 pp., cloth.
MacArthur, pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, has now written the second volume on the expanding “Lordship” controversy among evangelicals. One of the most well-known preacher in America, MacArthur gives careful consideration to the apostolic tradition on the issues of salvation and discipleship (RAM)

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