Today I finished reading Robert Wuthnow’s After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty- Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion. After the Baby Boomers is an important study in the future of the American church. Wuthnow demonstrates that the church is only effectively reaching married young adults, which is significant because young adults are getting married later than they have in previous generations. Wuthnow argues that “unless religious leaders take younger adults more seriously, the future of American religion is in doubt” (17).
Wuthnow explores the role that twenty and thirty year olds will play in American religion from many different angles. Here are some things that particularly grabbed my attention:
- “Religious ideas among young adults probably circulate more by word of mouth than through the books and magazines people read or even the sermons they hear. This means that young adults are probably influencing one another in forming opinions about religion much more than they are being shaped by the formal teachings of religious organizations” (120).
- On facing pages there are charts that show the “Views of Premarital Sex by Religious Tradition” and “Sexual Activity among Unmarried Young Adults.” This probably shouldn’t be surprising, but it is interesting that about 42% of evangelicals said that it was always wrong to have premarital sex, but about 70% reported having sex in the past year (who were not married). And evangelicals reported having premarital sex at the smallest percentage. Mainline Protestants seem to at least be consistent: 17% think it is wrong and 78% have premarital sex. The largest disparity in the results was Black Protestants where about 37% said it was always wrong to have premarital sex and more than 90% reported having sex in the past year. My thought when I looked at these two charts was: 1) Are unmarried people in this age group really having sex at these high of rates? And 2) Because of the discrepancy in many of these groups between what they believe and what they are actually doing, I would think this suggests that there are a lot of young adults out there with feelings of guilt and shame about their sexual history. How can we bring the grace and love of God to bear in these situations in a transforming way?
- Figure 8.10 shows the percent who say the following are extremely or very important, “Promoting democracy abroad,” “Sending troops into countries,” “Fighting global terrorism,” “Controlling biological weapons,” and “Keeping America’s military strong.” The Figure measures the responses of three groups; nonaffiliated, Other Christians, and Evangelicals. In every single category evangelicals responded with the highest percentage, with other Christians second, and nonaffiliated last. The name of this chart is “Hawks and Doves.” I have to admit I was saddened to see that being a Christian seems to make you more likely to be a hawk than a dove. Somewhere along the way Christians have placed security and national interests above their calling to be peacemakers.
These are just a few quick thoughts that I wanted to highlight. Wuthnow provides an incredible amount of material to ponder in this 297 page book. In the final chapter Wuthnow laments that “religious congregations have not done a better job of trying to figure out what young adults want and need” (216). Wuthnow’s conclusion is that “congregations can survive, but only if religious leaders roll up their sleeves and pay considerably more attention to young adults than they have been…. It would be surprising if, say in fifty years, congregations had simply disappeared. But survival and vitality are two different things” (230-231).
One final reflection that I had as I read this book: Wuthnow puts a lot of emphasis in his conclusion on the importance of religious leaders. What, if anything, does Wuthnow’s research suggest about the role that religious leaders who are in the demographic that Wuthnow is describing (i.e. 21-45 year olds) could/should play in helping to address the issues that young adults are facing? Is the church being a good steward of the young pastors that God has entrusted to it? What do you think?