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After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion

After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion

by Robert Wuthnow


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After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion

Much has been written about the profound impact the post-World War II baby boomers had on American religion. But the lifestyles and beliefs of the generation that has followed—and the influence these younger Americans in their twenties and thirties are having on the face of religion—are not so well understood. It is this next wave of post-boomers that Robert Wuthnow examines in this illuminating book.

What are their churchgoing habits and spiritual interests and needs? How does their faith affect their families, their communities, and their politics? Interpreting new evidence from scores of in-depth interviews and surveys, Wuthnow reveals a generation of younger adults who, unlike the baby boomers that preceded them, are taking their time establishing themselves in careers, getting married, starting families of their own, and settling down—resulting in an estimated six million fewer regular churchgoers. He shows how the recent growth in evangelicalism is tapering off, and traces how biblical literalism, while still popular, is becoming less dogmatic and more preoccupied with practical guidance. At the same time, Wuthnow explains how conflicts between religious liberals and conservatives continue—including among new immigrant groups such as Hispanics and Asians—and how in the absence of institutional support many post-boomers have taken a more individualistic, improvised approach to spirituality. Wuthnow's fascinating analysis also explores the impacts of the Internet and so-called virtual churches, and the appeal of megachurches.

After the Baby Boomers offers us a tantalizing look at the future of American religion for decades to come.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691146140
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/14/2010
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 935,500
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Robert Wuthnow is the Gerhard R. Andlinger '52 Professor of Sociology and director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. His books include American Mythos: Why Our Best Efforts to Be a Better Nation Fall Short and America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity (both Princeton).

Read an Excerpt


By Robert Wuthnow


Copyright © 2007 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-12765-1

Chapter One

American Religion


Observers of American religion have been keenly interested in baby boomers for a long time. Baby boomers were the future of the church. When they were young, they were supposed to have radicalized it with new ideas about race, gender, and social justice. Soon, though, prognosticators started seeing baby boomers as a "drop out" generation. Their dropping out was leaving congregations with fewer members. Then observers decided that baby boomers were coming back-but on their own terms, less interested in helping and more intent on finding themselves.

Many of these predictions were accurate, although some became more evident in retrospect than at the time. For one thing, baby boomers were a large cohort. They influenced American religion in sheer volume. As children in the 1950s, they encouraged their parents to attend church in record numbers and to view congregations as extensions of their families. As teenagers in the 1960s, they did start leaving the churches in droves. They were alienated from the "establishment" and more interested in civilrights demonstrations or campus protests than going to Sunday school. Later on, they became more individualistic and conservative, starting their own families and working hard at their jobs. Some of them flocked to megachurches where they could worship without the stale trappings of their parents' religion. Others became interested in evangelical politics, while still others explored New Age spirituality and new styles of meditation. In many ways, they did leave American religion different from the way they found it. Religious leaders were right in thinking that baby boomers' influence was a significant phenomenon to be understood.

But things have changed. Baby boomers are no longer the future of American religion. As they grow older, they are rapidly becoming its past. The future now rests with younger adults. Baby boomers are now moving past their mid-life crises, becoming empty nesters, and retiring. To be sure, their influence on American religion remains strong. With the graying of America, they will be the most numerous group in the typical congregation. They will have more time to serve on committees and more money to put in the collection plate. They will also be the members who lament that things are no longer as good as they were in the 1960s (or 1980s). They will not be so sure that change is a good thing, especially if it is being advanced by someone considerably younger than they are. Baby boomers will also increasingly be high-maintenance members. Besides populating the pews, they will require sick-visits from the pastor. As they die, or move away to retirement communities and nursing homes, they will leave the leadership of American religion in other hands.

Those hands will necessarily be younger. The future of American religion is in the hands of adults now in their twenties and thirties. As a percentage of the population, this age group is smaller than the baby boomer generation was. It is also less distinctly defined. Some observers call it Generation X or Generation Y (or both). Some refer to its members as "millennials," noting that they differ from baby boomers in having come of age around the turn of the millennium. Still others refer to it simply as the "next wave." Whatever the rubric, one thing is clear: younger adults are not only the future of American religion; they are already a very significant part of it. They are at least a sizable minority of most congregations. They are the young families who look to congregations for guidance in raising their children. They are the low-income families trying to balance tight budgets, hectic work schedules, and parenting. They are the young singles with time and energy to do volunteer work and look for companionship. They are the "unchurched" friends and co-workers struggling with questions about whether to be religiously involved at all. And because they have been overshadowed by the baby boomers, this current generation of younger adults is not very well understood, either by religious leaders or by scholars. Their lifestyles have seldom been scrutinized, and little is known about their church going habits, their spiritual interests and needs, and how their faith affects their families, their politics, and their communities. The need for better information about young adults is thus urgent for the present as well as the future.

In the absence of solid information, speculation about the religious needs and interests of the next wave runs rampant. Self-styled cultural experts have been arguing that young adults will be the leaders of a great spiritual revival. Now that we have attained the material comforts afforded by middle-class incomes, say these experts, people will inevitably turn to spiritual quests. Other forecasters are placing their bets on technology. Persuaded that religion is somehow a function of gadgets and electronics, they predict an Internet revolution in which congregations will be replaced by Web sites and chat rooms. Still others see in their crystal balls that young adults will flock to jeans-and-sweatshirt ministries where everything is warm and supportive-as if that were something new.

The truth is, these futuristic speculations make headlines, but seldom make sense. The reason is that they are the product of someone's imagination, rather than being grounded in any systematic research-or, for that matter, a very good understanding of young adulthood and social change. Pastors and interested lay readers can titillate themselves reading such speculation in religious magazines. But they need to realize how flimsy this sort of information is. If their mechanic knew as little about engines as this, their car would scarcely make it around the block. But then their mechanic probably would not be intent on making headlines, either.

How to Think About Younger Adults

We need to begin by thinking more carefully about the place of younger adults in our society and their role in social change. The emphasis on baby boomers over the past few decades has conditioned us to think in terms of generations and, beyond that, to understand generations in a rather distinct way. Until recently, a generation was defined the same way a genealogy was: by the succession backwards from parents to grandparents to great grandparents, or ahead from parents to children to grandchildren. Each unit in that succession is a generation. Conceived this way, generations help us keep track of our ancestors and descendants. The problem with this way of thinking about generations comes when we want to make broader generalizations about historical events and social change. My father may have been born in 1920, yours in 1925, and someone else's in 1930, making it hard to say anything of a general nature about how we were affected by the Great Depression or World War II.

The baby boomer concept of generations is different. It suggests that people are largely defined by some major event or attribute that they have in common, even though their exact birth dates are different. This definition emphasizes the fact that people a few years apart in chronological age will have the same cultural outlook if they have been exposed at roughly the same formative time in their lives to something as major as a war or a significant technological innovation. For instance, baby boomers are often defined as people born between 1946 and 1964 because there was a noticeable bulge in the annual birth rate during these years. It mattered less, according to this definition, that one person was born in the late 1940s and another in the early 1960s, or that one person's parents might have been born in the early 1920s and another's in the early 1940s than the fact that they were members of a large birth cohort. This, in turn, mattered because a large birth cohort affected many of the experiences these people would have throughout their lives. For example, they might attend over-crowded classrooms in grade school or go to newly built schools as children, they might have the same experience of over-crowding when they went to college, and they might find it harder to get a job when they graduated or find that retailers were pitching products to them because they were such a sizable share of the market. In addition, this way of thinking about generations proved attractive because baby boomers were shaped by distinct developments in the wider society. These included, for instance, the emergence of rock 'n roll in the late 1950s and the Vietnam war in the late 1960s and early 1970s as an event that threatened lives and polarized campuses.

Baby boomers are not the only generation that can be defined in this sociological way. Other generations in American history can also be identified by a conjuncture of when they were born and the historical events they experienced. It makes sense, for example, to speak of baby boomers' parents as the World War II generation or in some cases as the Great Depression generation (or some combination of the two). World War II was the defining event for Americans who were young adults at the time. Although its economic and emotional impact influenced all age groups, it especially affected the lives of younger Americans. They were the soldiers who risked their lives on the battlefield, the wives who stayed at home worrying about their husbands, and the couples who waited to marry or have children until the war was over. In discussions of generations, those who were young adults during World War II or the Great Depression have thus come to be referred to sometimes as "builders." The term not only provides an alliterative reference alongside "boomers," but points to the fact that people in this generation tended to save their money because of having lived during the Great Depression and became involved in their communities and churches because of the patriotism they learned during World War II.

This way of thinking about generations has proven attractive, too, for understanding earlier periods in American history. For instance, the so-called Jazz Age or Roaring Twenties can be understood as a period of cultural history that particularly influenced younger people. Doing so emphasizes the fact that young adults at the time were more likely to have been influenced by the music or the changes in fashion and sexual mores than older people were. In American religious history, generational analysis has proven useful in understanding developments during the 1830s and 1840s known as the "Great Revival" or "Second Great Awakening." The revival meetings that became popular in these years included people of all ages, but were especially effective at reaching younger adults on the expanding western frontier. These people had moved away from their parents on the Eastern seaboard or had immigrated from Europe. They were separated in these ways from the influences of family traditions and were interested in forming their own institutions. New denominations, new religious movements, and new political movements were the result.

For all these reasons, it is understandable that current observers of younger adults have tried to describe them as a distinct generation with an identity shaped by the confluence of their coming of age and developments in the wider world. Generation X became a popular rubric for awhile because it described a birth cohort that apparently did not have a clear identity and was searching for one. Those who enjoyed the alliteration of "builders" and "boomers" coined the term "busters" to describe this next generation, taking their cue from the fact that this birth cohort was smaller than the previous one. The term "millennials" pointed to the fact that younger adults were coming of age around the year 2000. It also presumed that the widely anticipated Y2K crisis was actually a life-shaping event, and it emphasized other developments such as the spread of personal computers and the Internet or the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

However, there are two reasons to be skeptical about this way of describing younger adults. One is that there is simply no evidence that younger adults currently have been decisively shaped by a particular historical event in the same way that the baby boomers were by the Vietnam war or by their parents waiting until after World War II to marry and have children. Those events had major effects on family life and personal life which, in turn, shaped how people participated in religious organizations. In fact, it was these effects on family life and personal life that mattered most, not simply having been born during a certain period. Thus, baby boomers were actually quite diverse, differing from one another as much as from their parents. Some married young, settled down and raised children, and made friends in their neighborhoods and churches. Others married later or did not marry at all, had no children or fewer children, and led more transient lives. Their religious practices were deeply influenced by these differing lifestyles. As I will show, the same is true for younger adults today. Most of what shapes their religious behavior is what happens in their families and at work, and these influences vary dramatically even for people who came of age at the same time. The other reason for being skeptical of generational language is that popular usages of it strain to draw contrasts with baby boomers, but in doing so are misleading. For instance, one reads in the popular literature that the millennial generation is supposedly defined by an interest in small fellowship groups that meet for prayer and Bible study during the week at churches or in homes. But precisely the same argument was made about baby boomers and, in fact, research has shown that baby boomers did gravitate to these groups. Thus, it is hard to see why millennials should be identified on these grounds as a distinct generation. Similar claims are sometimes made about the distinctive interest of younger adults in personal experience as opposed to creeds or in novel liturgical styles. The next wave is said to be more interested in firsthand experience than anything else. Yet that was also said about baby boomers. The popular literature also makes arguments about "emerging" congregations that are somehow the wave of the future because they follow a new paradigm or hark back to models from the first century of Christianity. These discussions are tantalizing. They suggest to church leaders that if they only follow some new pattern, their congregation will attract young adults and grow. But we need to be skeptical about these arguments. Usually they are drawn from the personal experience of a few people, rather than from respectable research. Moreover, they seem strained because they seek to define a new generation by identifying something distinctive about it, instead of recognizing both the variability among younger adults and the continuities between the present and the past.

For these reasons, I will use the phrase younger adults (or simply young adults) to characterize the population of interest here. If readers need a sound bite, they are free to use words like busters and millennials. But they need to understand clearly whom I am describing. In subsequent chapters, I will present evidence mostly about younger adults who were between the ages of 21 and 45 in the years from about 1998 to 2002 and sometimes in comparison with younger adults of the same age between 1972 and 1976. This, of course, is an inclusive definition of younger adulthood. It corresponds statistically with the first half of adulthood for most Americans-the half when they are indeed young adults. It also provides the comparisons we need to make among people who are single or married, childless or with children, unsettled in their work or settled, and so on. By the time they are 21, most adults are to some degree "on their own," so to speak, meaning that they are no longer in high school or college and are earning at least part of their own livings. Yet, as we shall see, the maturational tasks of marrying, becoming parents, and becoming established in a career are taking longer now than in the past. By the time they are 45, most Americans have accomplished these tasks, if they are ever going to accomplish them. But for many Americans, these tasks are happening in their thirties, rather than in their twenties.


Excerpted from AFTER THE BABY BOOMERS by Robert Wuthnow Copyright © 2007 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures and Tables ix

Preface xiii

An Uncertain Future 1

How to Think about Younger Adults 3

The Population of Young Adults 7

Coming of Age at Forty 9

The Religious Significance of Young Adults 12

A Generation of Tinkerers 13

An Uncertain Future 17

Seven Key Trends 20

Delayed Marriage 21

Children— Fewer and Later 24

Uncertainties of Work and Money 28

Higher Education (for Some) 36

Loosening Relationships 37

Globalization 42

Culture—An Information Explosion 44

Summing Up 49

Who Participates in Congregations? 51

Attendance in Two Time Periods 52

The Reasons for Declining Participation 54

A Closer Look at Marriage and Children 62

Communities 65

Is the United States Becoming Like Europe? 66

The Profile of Regular Church Goers 68

Religious Attendance in Perspective 69

Thinking Beyond Winners and Losers 71

The Significance of Young Adults 72

The Major Faith Traditions 75

Evangelicals and Mainline Protestants 77

Black Protestants, Catholics, and Jews 84

Other Faiths and the Nonaffiliated 86

Beyond Winners and Losers 87

Recent Trends in Religious Beliefs 89

Some Possible Scenarios 90

Decline in Orthodox Beliefs 96

Orthodoxy, with Rising Secularity 98

Countervailing Effects of Diversity 101

Orthodoxy Mixed with Heterodoxy 103

Different Trends among Educational Categories 107

Changing Relationships with Education 108

Different Trends among Faith Communities 110

The Role of Faith in Personal Life 112

Church Shopping and Hopping 114

Social Networks 117

Civility 120

Are Converts Different? 123

Seeking Answers 124

Spiritual Practices 127

Music and Art 129

Spiritual but Not Religious? 131

The Nature of Spiritual Tinkering 134

Facing the Difficult Choices 136

Considering Marriage 136

Having Sex 138

Weddings 139

Marital Happiness 141

Parenting 142

Right and Wrong 145

Empathy 148

Threats to Today's Families 149

Seeking Support 151

Religious and Ethnic Diversity 152

Faith Matters 155

Religion and Public Life 157

The Split between Conservatives and Liberals 160

Civil Religion 163

Voting in Presidential Elections 167

Mixing Religion and Politics 171

Hot-Button Issues: Abortion 173

Hot-Button Issues: Homosexuality 174

The Religious Right 177

War and Peace 179

Why It Matters 180

Immigration and Ethnic Diversity 183

Hispanic Catholics 183

A Note on Hispanic Protestants 187

Asian Americans 188

Hospitality or Hostility 193

A Closer Look at Church Involvement 197

Religious Uses of the Internet 201

Religion Websites 201

Social Issues 203

The Internet and Religious Music 206

Staying in Touch by E-mail 207

The Internet and Spiritual Seeking 209

Congregations and the Internet 212

Youthful and Diverse 214

The Profile of Youthful Congregations 219

Minichurch or Megachurch 221

Alternative Styles of Worship 223

Meeting the Changing Needs of Families 225

Interreligious Programs 226

Opportunities for International Ministry 227

Opportunities for Service 228

A Future for Congregations 230


The National Young Adults and Religion Study 233

Methodology 234

The Surveys and Other Data 238

Qualitative Interviews 247

Supplementary Tables 251

Notes 255

Selected Bibliography 279

Index 293

What People are Saying About This

Christian Smith

Interesting and illuminating. There is a great deal of anxiety about the future of the church and its relation to young adults. This book speaks to those concerns, provides some sound empirical data for people to chew on, and will be often referenced.
Christian Smith, coauthor of "Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers"

Wade Clark Roof

This book is a contribution for church leaders and others concerned about young adults and their involvements in organized religion. The data are new and valuable and shed new insights into the intricacies of religious commitment in our society. There is no other book I am aware of quite like this one.
Wade Clark Roof, author of "Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion"


Every generation is different, and in the post-boomers we have one that is as different as it gets. For those of us who care deeply about addressing the spiritual needs of this 'next wave,' Robert Wuthnow has given us an indispensable guide in this important book.
Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary

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