Are Religious Leaders Reaching Boomers?
Some faith groups are finding ways to minister to this generation
Understanding the spiritual needs of boomers and the talents they can offer to faith communities are goals within reach. However, finding faith communities that are ministering specifically to this generation is challenging.
Do boomers have spiritual capacity? Most definitely. Pew Research Center's 2014 Religious Landscape Study found that 69 percent of boomers said they believe in God; 59 percent said that religion is very important in one’s life and 61 percent said they pray daily outside of religious services.
By contrast, 57 percent said they seldom or never attend a prayer group, scripture study or religious education groups. Similarly, a combined 61 percent said they only attend religious services once or twice a month, a few times a year or seldom or never attend. With the gap between religious interests and attendance at services, this points to missed opportunities for denominations to engage with a large captive audience in a major life transition.
Interviews with religious leaders across denominations found commonalities in their responses about boomer ministry. For instance, Catholic, Presbyterian and Episcopal faith leaders explained they take a more “intergenerational” approach to their ministries, rather than offer boomer-targeted ministries. At the same time, the leaders said they focus on youth and Millennials.
So where does this leave boomers, the generation that doesn't like being called old? By default, they often get grouped with older congregants in “senior” or “senior adult” or “older adult” ministries.
“Boomers are aging differently than preceding generations in that they are approaching retirement differently,” said Amy Hanson, boomer ministry expert and author of Baby Boomers and Beyond: Tapping the Ministry Talents and Passions of Adults Over 50. “In terms of church ministry, [boomers] don’t like the word “senior” and they tend to not respond to potluck luncheons and bus trips. This is a huge group that we have an opportunity to engage in meaningful ministry to make a difference in this world. If churches don’t engage them, they will look elsewhere.”
“I think that boomers as a whole have a big mistrust of institutions,” said Rev. Craig Kennet Miller, author of Boomer Spirituality: Seven Values for the Second Half of Life and director of congregational development at the Discipleship Ministries, an agency of The United Methodist Church. “Boomers are really longing for strong relationships with people that they can trust, in places where they can explore their spirituality. So they’re not going to be drawn to the institution of the Church just because it’s a particular denomination. What will draw them is the nature of the relationships within the Church.”
How Faith Leaders Are Advancing Boomer Ministries
Successful change management comes with education, inspiration, and buy-in. A growing number of denominations are initiating this process through national conferences about boomers for their religious leaders. Here are examples:
The Baptist General Convention of Texas (also known as Texas Baptists) hosted this fifth annual conference in September, which drew more than 115 church leaders and volunteers to Dallas.
According to Keith Lowry, adult discipleship specialist with the Texas Baptists, this year’s attendees came from at least 14 states, plus Canada and Australia. Attendees represented mainly Baptist churches, Lowry explained, but also other denominations, non-denominational groups and even some municipalities in search of information about the impact boomers will have.
“Our goal with these national conferences is to get the word out to as many churches, pastors and senior adult ministers as possible that in order for us to have a prayer of reaching these boomers for Christ and ministering effectively to them, we simply must be willing to adapt our methodologies,” said Lowry. “As we get the word out, we want to equip and train leaders to develop new ministries that will appeal to this huge demographic, as well as prepare them for the coming age wave that will not end with the boomers.”
Thinking about 2018, Lowry said: “This will be our sixth conference. We started this five years ago, and we thought it would be just a little state event. Now the wave is coming. It’s already here. It’s just that so few churches have opened their eyes to this reality.”
The Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church launched Boomerstock in September 2016. The Nashville conference drew more than 180 attendees with representatives from 54 annual conferences, which are regional areas presided over by a bishop.
Rev. Will Randolph, director of the office of aging and older adult ministries at the Discipleship Ministries, said “Boomerstock made a dent in what we are really trying to do. We’re trying to demonstrate to the church, and really not just the United Methodist Church but to other denominations, the great potential for discipling and re-discipling boomers [who left the church long ago] and getting them involved in a non-traditional way. The idea is that not only boomers, but their children, will also follow.”
Randolph said: “Ten of the attendees went back and created targeted boomer ministries, including one in Canada. We’re exploring a second Boomerstock and hosting some mini-conferences.”
Vestavia Hills United Methodist Church in Birmingham, Ala., hosted its first Boomer Spirituality Conference in February 2017 for pastors and laity. After he attended Boomerstock, Jim Frazier, the church’s pastor of boomers and older adults, was inspired to create the event.
Union for Reform Judaism’s 2017 Biennial – Launching a Baby Boomers Symposium
“The Jewish world has finally begun to notice us boomers and this new stage of life — healthy older adults roughly between 60 and 80,” said Rabbi Laura Geller, one of Next Avenue’s Top 50 Influencers in Aging for 2017. Geller explained, “For the first time, the Union for Reform Judaism invited congregations to apply to the Engaging Baby Boomers Community of Practice Initiative.” Union for Reform Judaism represents the largest group of American Jews, with over 900 congregations, explained Geller, Rabbi Emerita of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, Calif., and a founder of ChaiVillageLA.
According to Geller, leaders of 12 Reform congregations from around the country have met once in person and virtually many times through webinars to share ideas about best practices and to learn more about the needs of the boomer cohort.
This year’s Biennial in December has now added a Baby Boomers Symposium, Geller said. “The organizers anticipated that maybe 50 people would sign up, and already over 175 people have," she added. Geller and Marc Freeman of Encore.org are among the panelists at this largest Jewish gathering in North America, with an estimated 5,000 attendees.
Hanson believes “leaders haven’t fully grasped what a powerhouse this group can be in serving and making a difference." These are people, she says, who "now can be invited to use their time and experience to make an impact for God in this world."