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A Boomer apocalypse?

"Baby boomer" or "Boomers" is a term used to describe a person born between 1946 and 1964, when birth rates worldwide spiked. The baby boomer generation currently makes up a substantial portion of the world’s population, especially in developed nations such as the UK. They are also prevalent in the Church; according to Brierley’s research, the average age of English churchgoing is close to 77 years old. Simon Mattholie looks at what this means for the church of tomorrow.

Boomers are an economically influential generation who have been part of the spread of home and car ownership, television (now colour and multi-channel), foreign travel, and computer and internet technologies. Their living standards have been boosted by supplies and imports of relatively cheap manufactured products from newly industrialised countries. Boomers have been retiring with more wealth than any previous cohorts and with more generous pensions than previous and, most likely, any foreseeable future generations will see. The voluntary and charitable sector (including the Church) has relied heavily on Boomers, who have had more time and money on their hands.

For many, the word apocalypse conjures up images of the final destruction of the known world. As such, the use of it in this article might appear a little alarmist; is this really the beginning of the end? However, apocalypse comes from the Greek apo, which means ‘un’ and kaluptein, which means ‘to cover.’ So, in a very literal sense, apocalypse can also mean ‘to uncover and reveal.’

COVID acted as an accelerometer for many societal changes already beginning to show. For a growing number of Boomers, a reassessment of life and legacy, their declining health and mobility, coupled with an increasing dependency on the help of friends, family and neighbours, means that involvement as a volunteer and/or financial supporter is beginning to decrease in the non-profit sector. I know from personal experience a noticeable decline in those serving as Parish councillors or as part of our Village Hall team where I live. Unfortunately, they are not being replaced by a younger generation of supporters. Holding down more than one job to make ends meet, two parents often both working, and geographically more dispersed families all mean that spare time is very much limited to the emerging generations. So, they don’t necessarily have the capacity to fill the gaps or roles as previously understood.

Having said this, I wonder if more could be done to make volunteering and supporting the rural Church more appealing. Too often, in my view, we have communicated volunteering as simply repeating what we have been doing before. What if we could use it as an opportunity to reimagine and innovate; would this possibly draw a greater spread of ages? Typical baby boomers see the world and the Church in very different ways than both ‘generation X’ and ‘millennials’, let alone ‘generation Z.’ Most of these differences are not moral, biblical, or ethical but instead culturally and biographically shaped. Traditionalism is called ‘the dead faith of the living’, whilst tradition is ‘the living faith of the dead.’ Perhaps we need to understand and reinterpret what tradition looks like when lived authentically today?

The Church’s influence on the broader culture has greatly diminished over the past 65 years. Baby Boomers in their youth saw the Church function as an "insider" within the larger culture. Countless Boomers were baptised in our churches, filled our Sunday schools and youth groups, and supported the centralised institutions. Sadly, many of these programmes are shadows of their former selves. The challenge will be for Boomers to rise above the consumerism and narcissism that Christendom cultivated. A challenge not to call people back to the past but instead to be willing to travel together to the undiscovered future, imagining a different outcome.

Perhaps an example can be taken from the Apostle Paul, whose rationale for being adaptable was not to change the Gospel; instead, it was to further the Gospel: "I do it all for the sake of the gospel that I may share with them its blessings" (1 Corinthians 9:23). Each generation presents new challenges and opportunities for the Gospel. In many ways, a Boomer apocalypse could be a blessing. Adaptability occurs in scarcity; Churches will be forced to re-evaluate the work of ministry. For those fortunate enough to have the luxury of paid staff, priorities must be reconsidered and focused on the essentials of ministry. Invariably funds will need to be freed from personnel costs to ministry opportunities. Stated simply, churches are more likely to grow horizontally through meeting differently, perhaps online, in one another’s homes throughout the week, than they are to grow vertically through attending a single site at a specific time, with increasing numbers. Smaller gatherings, but more prevalent, are still a valid expression of Church. Meeting around a kitchen table might mean we no longer need to have as many rotas as everyone, regardless of age, can muck in.

Could a Boomer apocalypse lead us to reimagine the Church and even help with its renewal? I pray it will.

Simon Mattholie

CEO, Rural Ministries


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