Boom or Bust?
By Ray Waddle
The list of Jesus moments of the last five decades the baby boomers’ era–is impressive. Think of … "Jesus Christ Superstar," guitar Masses, Jesus people, female ministers, Campus Crusade, megachurches, Left Behind, peace-and-justice churches, church basement AA meetings, Promise Keepers, "Godspell," cults, rapture tracts, Taize, "700 Club," Christian comedians, priest sex scandals, televangelist swindles, Moral Majority, gay ministers, Christian Coalition, WWJD, Jesus Seminar, prosperity gospel, apparitions of Mary, purpose-driven bestsellers, Bible translations, Bible illiteracy.
Yes, the boomer spiritual legacy is monumental. But for better or for worse? With the first boomers finally hitting retirement age this year, assessments are now sorting themselves out.
On the boomers’ watch, church got more personal and emotional, sermons became more practical, worship became more dynamic. Yet attendance in many a denomination declined. Loyalty to organized religion suffered.
This was fallout from the boomers' upbringing.
We were raised on public conflict–Vietnam, civil rights and the women’s movement, abortion, the divorce rate, gay rights, too much TV–and we brought it into the church. As a result, congregations have struggled with culture wars for 50 years, eroding good will, mutual trust and mission focus.
Conflict entered the Jesus' discussion. Based on flashy scholarship and therapeutic need, we tried to rescue Jesus from traditional religion and turn him into a vagabond hippie, a CEO, a political revolutionary, or a regular guy. The point, of course, was to make Jesus relevant to daily life. Yet in today’s climate of embittered political deadlock and ravenous financial debt, Jesus’ teachings seem ignored as never before as a standard of personal discipline or community spirit.
So what did boomers do for our times? Three contributions come to mind:
- Skepticism about wars in a nuclear age
- Rejection of old ethnic and gender prejudices that had stood for centuries.
- Discovery of the liberating power of dance music
Two large lapses seem obvious
- The "me-generation" glorification of self; and
- the moronic glorification of drug use.
As the shadows of the boomer sunset start to lengthen, the time is now to renew some of the era’s better spiritual energies.
Remember the “counterculture?" That spirit could be reclaimed for church.
A countercultural Jesus today would challenge the false gods that pose a 24/7 distraction and ordeal–the adoration of technology, the worship of Wall Street, the reverence for ideologies, the hosannas to hyper-individualism.
The script for a new "Jesus Christ Superstar" is already in place: “Seek first the kingdom of God” and “Let any who is without sin cast the first stone” and “Feed my lambs.”
It’s not too late for us boomers to get our mojo back, stir a new gospel movement of defiance and joy, and change the world one more time, starting with ourselves.
—Columnist Ray Waddle is a religion columnist based in Bethel, Conn., and editor of Reflections, the theological journal of Yale Divinity School. He is also the author of two books published by Upper Room Books.