Today we are bombarded with visual symbols virtually every minute of the day. Our relationship to technology is far more interactive than it once was, and the ease of access created by modern technology has created a global market culture. The children of baby boomers, the “post-boomers,” have come of age and had their consciousnesses shaped within this cultural context—about their identities, what they believe, what counts as valid knowledge, and who or what has authentic cultural authority.
This has significant implications for religion, especially for those age groups that have “native” digital knowledge. Despite the fact that they live in a symbolically saturated culture, post-boomers, particularly within large segments of Christianity, have had as their primary religious experience a symbolically impoverished environment. Churches look like warehouses with little, if any, religious imagery. “Worship” is organized around passive audiences that might raise their hands in praise to God but rarely interact with each other or the sacred in any form other than a sterile, cognitive recognition of the Other. In contrast, we have found that there are many within the post-boomer generations who are actively seeking religious experience in different ways from their parents’ generation, from reinvigorating ancient symbols and rituals within their own religious traditions to borrowing from other traditions, and even creating their own rituals and symbols in the service of an embodied spiritual experience.
We came to this conclusion after conducting research involving site visits to 10 diverse congregations and interviews with approximately 100 post-boomers from those churches. Our findings suggest that post-boomers represent a new religious type, what we are calling “expressive communalism,” in which spiritual experience and fulfillment are sought in community and through various expressive forms of spirituality, both private and public. We have classified these individuals into two groups: “cultural reappropriators” and “cultural innovators.”
Cultural reappropriators are post-boomers who are discovering the liturgical traditions—such as the Anglican, Orthodox, and Catholic churches—and are reappropriating ancient rituals and symbols in their quest for spiritual experience and expression. Cultural innovators are those post-boomers who are using digital technology, more traditional forms of artistic expression, and other visual media to create a religious experience that uses all of their senses. In the process, these young people are reinventing rituals and symbols within their own context, often outside of established institutional settings. In each of these groups, post-boomers are rediscovering and creating new ways of experiencing the sacred that are rooted in both ancient practice and modern concern and desire.
Our first group, cultural reappropriators, are converts, either from other nonliturgical forms of Christianity or from a nonexistent or lapsed faith commitment. The primary characteristics of this group are an attraction to the visual and ritualistic elements of liturgical churches, a desire for a connection to a larger history of Christianity than what they had previously known, a desire for a small religious community, a commitment to a strict spiritual regimen, and a desire for “religious absolutes” and a set social structure.
– Attraction to Ritual and the Visual
The attraction to the visual and ritualistic elements of the liturgical churches is at least partly self-evident in that these traditions have historically provided visual links to Christian teachings—what one Episcopal priest we interviewed termed “audio-visual aids to understanding the gospel”—from stained glass, icons, and incense, to kneeling, genuflecting, and kissing icons and priests’ garments. All of these elements were identified as being partially responsible for attracting the young people we interviewed to these traditions.
At the Episcopal Church of the Blessed Sacrament in suburban Orange County, California, the rector, Father David Baumann, was curious as to why over two dozen college students from a nearby evangelical Christian college had, over the past few years, descended upon his church, making it their spiritual home. He identifies Blessed Sacrament as an “Anglo-Catholic, high-mass-on-Sunday church,” and seemed genuinely amazed that young people from Baptist, Assemblies of God, Christian and Missionary Alliance, and other similar backgrounds, none with any experience in liturgical churches, would throw themselves so completely into parish life, transforming themselves and the church in the process.
According to Father Baumann, when he asked the students what had attracted them to the church and why they had remained, they gave remarkably similar answers. Overwhelm-ingly, these students—all between the ages of 18 and 23—said what they found at Blessed Sacrament was a combination of a Christian tradition that, through its liturgy, demonstrated a connection to a much larger history than their evangelical churches, and that the liturgy itself allowed them to experience God in ways they had never imagined. David, a college senior, told us that Blessed Sacrament “provides an atmosphere for me to worship God using my whole being—body, soul, and mind. The liturgical style helps me to focus on my soul and mind by also engaging my body. This allows me to focus on God and remember his holiness in a real and meaningful way.”
Emily, a college sophomore, said she had considered attending an Episcopal church because she was dissatisfied with the “God-is-my-teddy bear/best-friend mentality of many evangelical churches.” Rebecca, also a sophomore, echoed that sentiment. “I began looking into more liturgical styles of worship [because I] was fed up with the seeker-friendly Willow Creek movement, and remembering a missions trip to Russia, I looked into the Orthodox Church and other liturgical styles.”
– A Foundation in History
Virtually everyone we interviewed, regardless of the liturgical tradition in which they were now active, emphasized the importance of being a part of a church that, as a part of its identity, traced its history to the apostolic era. The most commonly mentioned benefits of being a part of this history were a sense of connection to the saints of the past and a feeling of continuity, belonging, and a connection to a historically rooted tradition in an otherwise transient culture.
– A Close-Knit Community
The desire for a small community—a place within which they are known, are active, and to which they are responsible—is another consistent desire of these young people.
Micah Snell, who attends Blessed Sacrament, said he and his wife were not looking for the sort of large church that could promote and support almost any activity, but one that provided “the sense of family… and a sense of belonging.”
Benny Wisenan expressed in more spiritual terms his appreciation for the small community the church provides: “In the Orthodox Church I have this sense that the whole community is helping me with my salvation. They pray for me. The saints intercede for me. We come to the liturgy all together in communion. It’s not about works, but we’re all interceding for each other, so I feel like I’m not alone.”
– The Call to Commitment
The level of commitment needed to maintain the spiritual regimen recommended by these churches is quite high, but it is the young people themselves who are seeking out this sort of regimen. In fact, among the converts to Orthodoxy that we interviewed, the congregation, which meets for various services three to four times per week, has become the primary focus of their lives. These individuals have also sought out their priests as spiritual mentors, who then impose certain re
gimens, such as prayer, reading of sacred literature, and confession.
– A Structured Faith
The desire for a set social structure and religious “absolutes” within the context of the visual and embodied spiritual elements that these churches provide was also almost universal in our interviews. Father Baumann reported that the young converts in his church are saying, “We want absolute truth. We want the basic gospel. We don’t want to be entertained, we want to be challenged. We want to be called to sanctity. We want to be challenged to the moral life. We want to learn how to pray.” Some of these young people—both clergy and members—are bothered by the postmodern practices they have witnessed in some megachurches.
For Father Josiah, the 30-year-old priest of St. Andrews Orthodox Church in Riverside, California, this was a large part of his decision to convert from the mainline Presbyterian denomination in which he was raised. “Mainline churches have all gone through radical, radical change, redefining what they believe constantly,” he said. “How could you do that? Does Christianity change? Does doctrine change? And if doctrine changes, how do you know that anything you believe is true? The Orthodox faith has produced a culture that’s substantial. It’s not perfect by any means, but what we haven’t done is altered our doctrine. They’re not up for grabs.”
While cultural reappropriators put a high value on tradition, the other group of post-boomer spiritual seekers we identified—the cultural innovators—are expressing their desire for a more embodied faith by creating new traditions. Although these individuals and congregations do not necessarily innovate theologically, they exhibit an ever-evolving approach to religious and spiritual beliefs and practices. They are continually innovating in terms of their responses to the larger culture, and are constantly introducing new and various forms of ritual and symbol into their worship services and religious and community life.
One of the most striking things about the space occupied by these groups is their emphasis on the visual representation and expression of the sacred. This can take traditionally religious forms, such as crosses or icons, but more typical are paintings, computer-generated visual effects, photographs, and 3-D images that, in many cases, are expressions of spiritual seeking or experience created during a worship service, or beforehand to be used in the service.
In contrast to the megachurch model that has been the dominant form in the U.S. for the past 30 years, these churches are intentionally small so as to facilitate a greater sense of community through more intensive face-to-face interaction. Their desire is not to grow for the sake of growing but to limit their size so that they can in some way create the type of religious and spiritual community that promotes a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves. One leader told us that if his congregation grew beyond the 250 mark, the church would split and form two separate congregations.
Both the ministerial staff and lay participants of these groups consistently expressed disinterest in the institutional/organizational demands that larger churches must support. Most of these groups do not own any physical plant. Instead, some rent or lease a building, or rent a room that they can use one or two days per week. These churches pursue these arrangements by design; they are not interested in owning real estate, building large institutional settings for their churches, or having, as Karen Ward, pastor of the recently planted Apostles Church in Seattle, termed it, “a staff of thousands.”
Thus, the Apostles Church meets in “microchurches” in various homes in Seattle throughout the week, and then comes together each Saturday evening for a “mass gathering” of worship, sharing, and a common meal. As with the congregation size, generally the staff is small, typically consisting of a lead person and perhaps one support person. Although the lead person may, from the outside, appear to function as a pastor, this is not necessarily the term by which he or she is known, nor do these individuals necessarily conceive of themselves as “the person in charge.” Rather, these leaders often operate as facilitators of both the congregation’s religious experience for any given meeting and the overall direction of the group.
This makes for a relatively noninstitutionalized and nonhierarchical authority structure for the community. This is not to say that these churches do not have elders, deacons, or other spiritual leaders, but they are organized based on what they conceive of as spiritual gifts rather than the requirements of the organization. For example, Apostles Church describes its leadership this way: “Church of the Apostles is a community led by the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:14). We take seriously our birthing as children of God (by water and the spirit), and our royal priesthood (as disciples of Jesus Christ). Within a body of believers, God always provides those who have the charisms (gifts) of tending, nurturing, teaching and guiding.” Following this explanation is a listing of several persons in the church, all of whom, with the exception of the pastor, are laypersons in the congregation.
The embodiment of the spiritual also characterizes cultural innovator congregations. This takes two primary forms. The first is in the worship service, and the second is in how the members of the congregation conceive of living out their religious commitments within the surrounding community and culture.
During the worship service, there are likely many things taking place simultaneously, each of which emphasizes and requires the interactive and physical, rather than the passive and (primarily) cognitive. These might take the form of music and singing, or opportunities for personal expression of the religious experience, such as painting, prayer stations, or sharing in small groups. While there is an order and structure to the service, the emphasis is on both personal experience and expressing that experience to others within the community.
For most of these groups, however, their conception of living out their religious commitments has not been limited to having religious and spiritual experiences and sharing them with each other. Rather, they have all, in one way or another, conceived of their responsibility to live out their beliefs in the context of the surrounding community.
While cultural innovator congregations share the characteristics described above, their expression can take quite different forms, as can be seen in the examples of two California churches we categorized as innovators—the Bridge Communities in Ventura and Grace Brethren Church in Long Beach.
– The Bridge Communities
When entering the worship service at the Bridge Communities, one is struck by all the various activities that are going on simultaneously, yet all organized around worship and building community. There are digitally produced images projected on multiple walls of the space, the congregation might be singing, and several members might be painting at easels set up around the room. Members are seated at round tables, so people look at each other rather than facing the front of the room all the time. During the service there is an extended sharing time in which the people exchange names, thoughts, concerns, and prayer requests with the others at the table, which inevitably results in a shared prayer. There is also a time of teaching—usually not longer than about 30 minutes—followed by more singing, the sharing of a meal, and an opportunity for socializing.
The Bridge Communities also operate what they call “Bridge-Aid,” which includes several separate components, all oriented toward helping others in the community and demonstrating the Bridge’s commitment to the city. For example, at the be
ginning of each school year, Bridge members are encouraged to donate school supplies, which are later distributed to needy children. Each Thursday evening the Bridge is a presence in the downtown park, where members play music, provide meals, and play with the neighborhood children. On the first Tuesday of each month, several people from the Bridge spend the evening doing laundry with and for the city’s homeless.
All of these programs exist only because members of the church had a desire and commitment to initiate, organize, and maintain them over the long term. “Everything is volunteer collaboration because there’s just so much authenticity,” said Justin, a 30-year-old financial planner and one of the organizers of the homeless laundry ministry. “I’ve never [previously] been part of something that wasn’t so focused on bringing people into the church but bringing the church to the people.”
– Grace Brethren Church
At Grace Brethren Church we find a much different institutional context than at the Bridge, but the emphasis on embodiment takes place in a similar manner. Grace is a much older and larger church than the Bridge, with a larger pastoral staff and a much more established congregational base. In addition, it is in a fairly conservative evangelical denomination that has always prized itself on an emphasis on Bible teaching and a literal interpretation of the Bible. Over the past three years, however, a vital and growing post-boomer population has established itself at the church, much of it around the church’s new vision for community and arts development as a vital part of its identity.
Grace has been able to take advantage of some of the elements of its own denominational identity that are appealing to the more visually and experientially oriented post-boomer generations. One example is the church’s celebration of communion. Historically, the denomination has celebrated communion quarterly in a dedicated service in which a re-creation of the last supper takes place. It includes the sharing of food, the washing of feet, and the taking of the bread and cup. Traditionally, the congregation was split by gender for this ritual, and seating was relatively random. In recent years, however, the ceremony has been changed. It now takes place only at Easter, and the congregation is not split into groups of men and women. Instead, families and friends sit together so they can share the experience with their loved ones. Rather than a ritual undertaken out of a sense of duty to church tradition, this new form of the ritual has served to make the communion service more alive for participants. John Tubera, the director of artistic development for the church and the staff member who is largely responsible for reconfiguring the communion service, notes that the young people in the church “resonate with the multiple sensory experience” of the communion, in particular because the three elements of the service—breaking bread together, washing each others’ feet, and taking the bread and cup—tangibly represent the incarnation of Christ and what it means for them to be Christian. Through these embodied acts with each other they are able to demonstrate love toward each other, serve each other, and perhaps reconcile strained relationships.
Within the last two years, Grace has also reconceived itself as a church that pursues its mission to serve the city of Long Beach. This is represented in many different ministry programs, the most important of which are the church’s new social justice ministry, “Hope for Long Beach,” and the development of an extensive arts program. Each of these efforts is intended to “renew the culture” of Long Beach, and both programs are radically innovative within the context of the historic denominational affiliation and identity of the church. They are also “organic” initiatives growing out of the concerns, interests, and desires of the post-boomer community at the church.
Although these programs have been initiated and pursued on a somewhat larger scale than the similar programs at the Bridge, the impetus and intent are the same. Like the Bridge, Grace has made a conscious decision to have as its guiding vision a commitment to being a part of the life and culture of its host city. Thus, the church organizes art shows of the work of contemporary artists who may or may not be Christians, but the theme of whose art in some way resonates with matters of faith. Recently, for example, the church mounted a photographic exhibit of the large Cambodian community in Long Beach. The opening was simultaneously a celebration of the Cambodian community and the photographic exhibit itself. The church’s intent in producing the exhibition was to demonstrate an openness and welcoming attitude to the Cambodian community, while not downplaying the church’s Christian commitments in the process. The event enabled them to interact with a community with whom they otherwise would have had little contact, and allowed them to welcome the Cambodian community to participate in and with the church.
Reaching Out to Post-boomers
What might these findings mean for congregations as they attempt to provide greater involvement opportunities to the post-boomers within their churches? Based on our observations, the congregations that seem to be best serving the religious needs and demands of the post-boomer generations are those that combine the following characteristics as an authentic part of their identity and congregational life:
- An embodiment of the religious experience, both physically—through rituals such as kneeling, genuflecting, or washing feet—and socially through a welcoming and caring religious community.
- An ability and willingness to place the particular congregation within the larger history of Christianity, in turn giving members a sense of where they fit into both the congregation and the larger story of Christianity.
- A culturally committed and adaptive relationship to the surrounding world, centered within the core of the church’s host communities and using the creative skills of its members in its interactions with the larger community.
- A recognition of the importance of artistic expression— whether musical, visual, or through some other medium— to the spiritual journey of post-boomers.
- The development of enabling and facilitating organizational structures that provide a framework of encouragement and direction within which post-boomers can pursue their spiritually driven passions, whether through service to others or via creative expression.
We believe that the particular Christian tradition of a congregation is irrelevant to whether or not these elements can be incorporated within the life of the church. What is important is that the church be true to its history and traditions while understanding the changed cultural landscape out of which these elements have emerged. In the process they will be more successful at incorporating post-boomers into the life of the church, and increase the likelihood of vibrant congregations throughout the next generations.
The research for this article was supported by a grant from the Louisville Institute.