Post-Boomer spiritualities

On his UU Growth blog, Peter Bowden provides a link to a couple of interesting essays on “Faith Formation in 2020” on the “Lifelong Faith” Web site, with links to one essay on “Thirteen Trends and Forces Influencing the Future of Faith Formation in a Changing Church and World,” and to another essay on “Four Scenarios for the Future of Faith Formation in 2020.” I’ve done a preliminary reading of these two articles, and while I have my doubts about some of the material I also found plenty to think about.

In the “Thirteen Trends” essay, some of the usual trends are mentioned — the drift away from organized religion in the U.S., the increasing diversity in the U.S. population, the growing willingness to identify young adulthood as a separate developmental stage, etc. It’s nice to see all these trends collected together in one place, but mostly I didn’t see anything really new. However, the section on “The Rise of a Distinctive Post-Boomer Faith and Spirituality” was quite good, drawing on research by Robert Wuthnow, and work by Richard Flory and Donald E. Miller. Flory and Miller define “four emerging forms of the post-Boomer spiritual quest”:

Innovators are those who represent a constantly evolving, or innovating, approach to religious and spiritual beliefs and practices. Many of these are newer, less established groups that are affiliated with the “emerging church” movement, while others are established churches and ministries that are innovating within their own traditions. Innovators demonstrate a desire for embracing the emerging postmodern culture, and within that context are engaging in a spiritual quest that by definition is one that must change and adapt — innovate — to meet the changing culture currents.

Appropriators refer to those churches and ministries that seek to provide a compelling and “relevant” experience for participants, both for those in the audience and for those who are performing in the service or event. In this, both churches and independent ministries seek to create these experiences through imitating, or appropriating, trends found in the larger culture and ultimately popularizing these through their networks into a particular form of pop-Christianity primarily oriented toward an individual spiritual experience.

Resisters refer to what are primarily Boomer-initiated efforts intended to appeal to Post-Boomers by focusing on the “recovery of reason” and resisting postmodern culture within Christianity. They hoping to reestablish the place of the written text and rational belief as the dominant source for Post-Boomer spirituality and practice.

Reclaimers are seeking to renew their experiences of Christianity through the history, symbolism and practices of ancient forms of the faith, such as those still found in the liturgical traditions, thus reclaiming the ancient symbols, rituals and practices of these traditions for their own spiritual quest. Reclaimers demonstrate a quest that takes them on a journey to ancient Christian traditions in small, family-oriented congregations through which they pursue their desire for spiritual development.

Obviously, this has been written for a Christian audience. But you can find these four trends within Unitarian Universalism:–

There are a few Innovators within Unitarian Universalism, though they mostly get forced out of the mainstream of our methodologically and liturgically conservative congregations. We have a few Appropriators within Unitarian Universalism, although most of them are trying to appropriate white middle class Boomer culture (e.g., the new hymnal supplement), which means that they really don’t represent post-Boomer spirituality. There are a few Reclaimers, who often meet in smaller groups for worship and service — UU neo-pagan groups meeting for rituals, UU Christian groups meeting for lectio divina or communion, UU Jewish groups, etc. There are also the Resisters — Post-Boomers who are being encouraged by older humanists to adopt an agenda of strong rationalism, with a heavy reliance on written texts (not scriptures, mind you, but rational texts), as opposed to visual arts, music, movement, etc.

The question is whether or not we Unitarian Universalists have really engaged with post-Boomer spirituality at all. What do you think? Outside of the Sunday school and youth group, is your Unitarian Universalist congregation engaging with post-Boomer spiritualities in any significant way?

16 thoughts on “Post-Boomer spiritualities

  1. Peter Bowden

    There are locks all over, but certainly cases of “positve deviance” where these are being overcome. I keep encountering people who want to overcome these barriers. For me the question is how. If there wasn’t clear interest in innovation and change I’d be frustrated. I see it which leaves me not feeling frustrated, but challenged.

  2. Jeremiah

    My experience with UU churches tends to fall into the following categories:

    1.) Old-School: Pre-Boomer format, so more resistor than the resistor definition listed above. (Textbook case is All Souls NYC on Lexington.) Doxology and the whole thing. So retro it’s almost cool again. Maybe.

    2.) The “gay” church: Nary a straight person in the crowd, festooned with rainbow everything, and awesome, awesome music (lots of Mozart), (Arlington Street Church last I knew.)

    3.) Standard: Very Boomer with vague theological references, more second-wave feminist than churchy, music for the NPR set (i.e. can we do a jazz version of every song imaginable?) and a parking lot filled with new “green cars” showing an affluent commitment to the Seventh Principle. (Textbook case is most churches I’ve seen.)

    4.) Emergent: Trying to find a balance between the four categories listed above, little Boomer influence, but definite confusion about direction. (The church I now attend – and I haven’t really seen a similar one anywhere, since it’s a bizarre fluke that we don’t have Boomer-era leadership for the most part.)

    I still see very little true discussion about religious direction from within and without. Our President is goals and growth-oriented, which I applaud, but as I ask time and time and time again, what are we selling?

  3. Bill Baar

    “Our President is goals and growth-oriented, which I applaud, but as I ask time and time and time again, what are we selling?”

    I’d say what are we preaching –but point taken– a bigger problem though is the Prez and others think we’re selling / preaching to a broken / hurt crowd. We’re not. Even in the midst of the great recession. People have plenty of alternatives for their time and money into on Sundays.

    So why shouldn’t I stay home and watch football pre-games instead of going to Church? That’s the sales job needed, and it really calls for preaching, not salesmenship.

  4. Amy

    Bill @5: “the Prez and others think we’re selling / preaching to a broken / hurt crowd. We’re not.” Judging from what I hear from people in our newcomers’ welcome circle, we actually are. A good half of them, maybe more, come to church because they are dealing with an acute injury: divorce, widowhood, loss of a job. This is in Silicon Valley, where wealth is still very high and the recession has not hit as hard as many places. How many come in search of healing for more subtle pains is hard to say; I think loneliness is one, since many people identify their reason for coming as “I just needed a community” or the like.

    Looking at those four types, I’m trying to see if there is any place there for religion that challenges our culture. Innovators and Appropriators, by this summary, are both essentially creatures of culture. I haven’t read Christ and Culture since my first semester of seminary (it’s top of my reading pile for sabbatical) but something that keeps humming in my head is Niebuhr’s concept of a church whose job is to transform culture. That’s what I want from (and for) my church: for it to neither stand off from nor absorb its cultural milieu, but engage with it, challenge it, and change it for the better.

    I need some help with what’s meant by post-modern religion. In my studies it seemed like a couple of simple, profound ideas mired in a lot of language games and deliberate obfuscation and very distant from the actual practice of religion. Clearly you mean something else.

  5. Victor

    The future of “faith” is not the same – to my way of thinking – as the future of “church.” They do not necessarily evolve in lockstep. I think the UU faith has evolved from what it was in the 60’s, but most churches just haven’t caught up with the evolution of our faith. Many of our older members seem uncomfortable even discussing the word “faith.” Growth for my church means we’ll just do more of the same. Evolution implies fundamental changes. Reconciling our different perspectives on faith is what is most urgent to UUism because we won’t grow unless that happens.

  6. Jeremiah

    @Victor: From what I’ve seen at most UU churches, “more of the same” has not resulted in growth. Perhaps some new members at the expense of old ones. But being in Northern New England, half the challenge is just to keep churches from closing completely, which hasn’t been working out.

    @Amy: Awesome point about church and culture. The big growth churches I see are largely the NuXtian type, which favor bland pop music, lights, and production values in an auditorium setting, often featuring feel-good messages requiring little intellectual engagement on the part of the congregant.

    Despite their rapid growth (and often, at the expense of older established houses of worship), I wonder if by jumping on the mode du jour, they won’t simply wind up like the social movement Christians of the past. The old school Universalists are long gone, the Society of Friends in the U.S. is withering and in-fighting, etc., etc.

    The post-modern religion, if it’s in the mega church, is less a religion than a style, while what we have in the UUA is less a religion than social action directives. If there is a true PoMoRel, I’d love to know what it is. Maybe something along the Great Story lines (can you make that spiritually engaging)? I am just grasping at straws.

  7. Dan

    Hey, all. The most hopeful movement towards post-Boomer spirituality has been here in Palo Alto, where we’re going to be doing a proof-of-concept for a chant-based worship service this winter. This would fit somewhere between Reclaiming and Innovating — Reclaiming old Western Christian chant traditions, as well as the small-but-there chant tradition within UUism — Innovation by drawing on non-Christian and non-Western chant traditions such as Hindu/yoga, neo-pagan, etc. — and postmodern post-Boomer by emphasizing experiential, tribal, trans-rational worship experiences. If you live in the Bay area, keep your eyes on this blog for our introductory workshops — and hey, maybe we could start an underground UU liturgical movement for experiential trans-rational worship….

  8. Jeremiah

    Hi Dan – I don’t suppose your church would ever consider recording the service and posting the video on-line? I realize that may be raising copyright issues, but so many congregations are struggling a bit with a direction. It would be wonderful to see something clear and confident. Plus, I just don’t often get over to Palo Alto from Maine for some reason. :-)

  9. Dan

    Jeremiah @ 11 — If we get to the point where we do an actual service, it’s more likely that we would do an audio recording. We’re just not set up to do video recordings.

    Whatever we do, I’ll do my best to document it here on this blog.

  10. Amy

    Bill @7, this is a really thoughtful comment that’s making me think more about the unconscious ways we choose whom to target. However, I was thinking of “broken/hurt” in a broader context. To my Buddhist mind, brokenness and hurt are universal–not only does everyone suffer, but suffering is a daily challenge–and one of the central tasks of religion is to help us to respond fruitfully to this fact of life. But I think in your comment @5 you must be thinking of something more specific.

  11. kim

    Jeremiah said: @Amy: Awesome point about church and culture. The big growth churches I see are largely the NuXtian type, which favor bland pop music, lights, and production values in an auditorium setting, often featuring feel-good messages requiring little intellectual engagement on the part of the congregant.

    If the new generation is the ADD generation, and they only respond to “pop music, lights, and production values in an auditorium setting, often featuring feel-good messages requiring little intellectual engagement on the part of the congregant,” then that is what we need to have to attract them. I, for one, would sorely miss the intellectual content, but if we go for intellectual content as a big part of what we offer, we will always be a small minority, and especially right now in our culture’s history. Can we do both?
    Can we do both?

  12. Dan

    Kim @ 15 — You write: “If the new generation is the ADD generation…”

    Actually, the “Nu-Xtian” churches are a phenomenon of Boomer spirituality — the Boomers were the ones who introduced bland pop music, lights and production values into evangelical churches — this was back in the early 80s, before many of the rising generation were even born.

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