Monday, May 21, 2007

When I was 12 years old

Thanks to Tena I find this NYT article, which includes this very interesting observation:

The evangelical movement, however, is clearly evolving. Members of the baby boomer generation are taking over the reins, said D. G. Hart, a historian of religion. The boomers, he said, are markedly different in style and temperament from their predecessors and much more animated by social justice and humanitarianism. Most of them are pastors, as opposed to the heads of advocacy groups, making them more reluctant to plunge into politics to avoid alienating diverse congregations.
We forget that Jerry Falwell was not a "Baby Boomer." He was already 22 years old when I was born, and I'm in the middle of the "Baby Boom" generation. Falwell was denouncing Brown v. Board of Education before most Boomers knew what that opinion was:

"If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God's word and had desired to do the Lord's will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made," Falwell boomed from above his congregation in Lynchburg. "The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line."
While some Boomers are nearing retirement age, and almost all are middle aged or older, such is the peculiar nature of churches (even more peculiar than government; Clinton was the first Boomer President) that only now are the prevailing voices in the churches beginning to be Baby Boomer voices (one need only look to the Roman Catholic church. Although "Baby Boom" was a U.S. phenomena, Pope Benedict is old enough to have been among the Hitlerjugend, a claim no "Boomer" could make.).

Churches are extremely odd this way; an oddness that really has to be stared at to be appreciated. True enough, young pastors and priests enter the ministry every year. But the median age of their congregations has changed little in several decades: all that has really changed is the people making up that "median." Older people have removed themselves due to attrition, younger people have grown older and moved into replace them. But by and large, the church is still your father's church. The Boomers are a huge demographic, but as they have aged their parents have lived on. I'm not so sure this isn't the first time in human history that so many generations have lived together at one time in such large numbers. And in the Church, that repository of all that is traditional, that place where it is proclaimed that "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever," that phrase has more and more come to mean: "And that means the way he was when I was 12 years old!"

And that timespan between today and "when I was 12 years old!" has been getting longer and longer and longer.

Consider the shock of Falwell's words about the 1954 desegregation decision. Try to imagine uglier words being preached from a pulpit. I grew up among the generations that could formulate those words; but I couldn't do it today, not even to denounce such an attitude. The concepts wouldn't even occur to me. My daughter's generation doesn't see race as I did when I was their age. When will the church speak for them? My father's generation is still alive (which is not to say they are all racists; but their theology and experiences are not mine, nor my daughter's). Who in the church speaks for them?

There are pastoral and ecclesial problems here, but there is also an observation: which is that the mills of God grind slowly, indeed. They may also grind exceeding fine, but they seem to move slower and slower as the generations move faster and faster. Rick Warren, as the NYT article points out, does not speak to the generation Jerry Falwell gave voice to. No doubt Rick Warren will be around as long, if not longer, than Rev. Falwell; and he may be just as, if not more, influential. Who can say? But such is the peculiar nature of the Church today, that those who finally get to speak for their generation are always speaking from experiences already long past and largely unknown or forgotten by those who most need to listen. And they are not speaking to the situation that is so much as to the situation that was.

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