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For Once, Let's Ignore--Not Cater to--Boomers

January 10, 1998|TOM EHRICH | RELIGION NEWS SERVICE, Ehrich is an Episcopal priest in Winston-Salem, N.C., an author and a former Wall Street Journal reporter

A 56-year-old businessman-turned-seminarian scans the religious horizon and sees this: "The huge opportunity and need is with the boomers, who are about to come face to face with the basic existential questions."

On the one hand, he says, forty- and now fiftysomethings have been noticeably absent from organized religion. "They don't want us, they don't like us, they don't trust us," he says.

On the other hand, the market is so huge. As every industry has seen, this bulge passing through the population carries with it enormous opportunity. From his background in marketing, this pastor-in-training is looking for ways to "reach this huge and needy group."

"Any ideas?" he asks.

My immediate response to his question was, sorry to say, sarcastic: Forget it.

"I see no point in churches hanging on until boomers 'get it,' " I wrote him. "I'm not sure we boomers are ever going to get it. We have commercialized everything; we're in the process now of commercializing old age. I suspect we will go to our graves expectingthe next purchase to make our lives better. Yes, we're a huge market. But that may be all we allow Ourselves to be: a market."

Having committed the sin of gross generalization, I want to repent and say three things to this future pastor:

First of all, I'm not convinced boomers have abandoned religion. Seminary classes are largely populated by boomers. The boom in faith-centered private schools reflects our craving for something deeper than post-Cleaver bland. Healthy congregations show a healthy mix of ages. If a congregation or denomination has grown uncomfortably gray, it might reflect its own institutional decay, not a generation's faithlessness.

Second, I'm sure marketing techniques can be found. We're suckers for nostalgia, for example. We're also big on comfort and convenience--padding the pews might work.

But third, and most important to me, I hope the faith-marketing folks will leave my generation alone--for our own good.

I know it has helped me immensely to worship in a young congregation where I am largely ignored. When the preacher didn't preach to my generation's anxieties and yearnings, I had to listen to what he said. When the music was true to itself, rather than trying to please me, I learned a new idiom for praise.

I don't think my generation's "existential questions" will be answered by figuring out how to reach us. For once in our lives, I hope we will be ignored, not analyzed, not catered to.

I doubt we are any more or less wise, needy or anxious than those who have gone before or will come after. Our mark as a generation is sheer size. We tend to swamp whatever we do and turn it inexorably into a reflection of ourselves. If we are indeed facing basic questions of existence, we need to be listening, not dominating.

Denominations and congregations might see us as a way to rescue their beloved institutions. But they will truly serve my generation by not adapting themselves to our whims. We need to see something other than our own shadows reflected on the wall.

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