Baby Boomers: Yesterday, today and tomorrow in the Church

February 27, 2018

The book of Psalms says, “They shall bear fruit even in old age, they will stay fresh and green.” (Ps 92:14) For those who believe that turning 65 means retirement, collecting Social Security and moving over for the younger folks to step in, well it’s time to rethink those beliefs.

The first wave of 76 million U.S. Baby Boomers began turning 65 in 2011. Today there are 10,000 Baby Boomers turning 65 every day. From 2000 to 2016 there was a jump from 35 million to 49.2 million adults age 65 years and older, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By 2030, according to Pew Research projections, about one-in-five Americans will be over age 65.

Perceptions of aging, both by Baby Boomers and younger parishioners, will be crucial in addressing the role Boomers play in the life of the Church. The growth from the sheer numbers of the Baby Boomer generation (1946 to 1964) will have a powerful impact on our society and Church life. Before addressing how to minister to the Boomer, I would like to offer a historical perspective of their formative years as a Catholic to try to gain insight into their values and motivation. 

Baby Boomers: Growing up Catholic

The first wave of Baby Boomers grew up in the Pre-Vatican II Church (prior to 1962) when the Mass was entirely in Latin and “a good Catholic” was one who “prayed, paid and obeyed.” Prayer consisted primarily of various devotions, and one’s moral values were more “caught than taught” from one’s Catholic community. Uniformity in religious practices, insularity within Catholic circles, and security in knowing an established set of religious tenets were valued as Catholic standards that had existed since the Council of Trent in the mid-16th century.

I was part of the second wave of Boomers born in the early 1950s, “the bridge” between the Pre-Vatican and Post-Vatican Church.

In 1962, I was the last group of altar servers who memorized Mass responses in Latin and the first to experience the Liturgy in the vernacular language as the new norm for Mass. The introduction of “folk Masses” with guitars rather than the organ spoke to the youth culture in a way that energized young people’s creativity and active participation in the Liturgy.

Personal retreats and spiritual movements shifted the emphasis from adherence to external religious practices to a Spirit-led, Gospel-grounded personal relationship with Jesus and a living of His saving mission in the world.

The laity began to assume a more active role in Church life beyond traditional Catholic fraternities and sodalities. The council’s document Gaudium Et Spes fostered a profound shift from the practice of passively following moral prescriptions to informing and following one’s conscience guided by authoritative Church teachings.

The last wave of Boomers experienced a Church reborn with a fresh spirit. The backdrop of the formative years for most Boomers were the 1960s — with America’s vision and aspiration for pushing the known limits of space and medicine, profound social change with civil rights, the war in Vietnam, the nuclear arms race, and a new moral relativism where the human person defined and pursued his or her own definition of happiness.

For some Boomers, this generated a longing for the security and stability of the Pre-Vatican II era; other Boomers were invigorated with a newfound active engagement in the Church.

Implications for Ministry with Boomers

Gary McIntosh from “Trends and Challenges for Ministry Among North American’s Largest Generation” (Christian Education Journal, Series 3, Volume 5, No. 2, pp. 300-303) offers a perspective for engaging Boomers in today’s Church:
When it involves making an investment of their time, Boomers often ask questions and want an explanation which reflects their values. They like to be part of the decision making process for an event they are expected to attend and resist coming to a canned program done for them. They like to be viewed as active, independent contributors to projects and despise the status quo: “that’s the way we’ve always done it” mentality. They continue to appreciate the music of their youth as they look for ministry that is youthful, healthy, vibrant and worthy of their time and energy.

Their spirituality often transcends traditional rituals or formulas of prayer in order to deepen their search for spiritual meaning. They are looking to make sense of their second half of life firmly grounded in the Gospels.

For Boomers, meaningful service is grounded in a sense of stewardship — directing their talents creatively to do things that have a mission to give their lives purpose and meaning. Amy Hanson states in Baby Boomers and Beyond that there is no greater mission for Boomers than immersing themselves in Christ’s mission to redeem and heal a broken world.

When it comes to technology, Pew Research (May 17, 2017) indicates that 59 percent of 65 to 69 year olds now own a smart phone and 67 percent of all adults 65 and older access the Internet daily. Today, 34 percent of Americans ages 65 and up say they have used social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter.

These percentages are higher for the younger older adult. All of this suggests that ministry to Boomers must offer them new gateways to remain connected with their families, friends and parish communities.

Part Two: How Boomers are actively engaged in their parish communities will be featured in the April 10 issue.

Mark Ciesielski is an associate director with the Office of Aging Ministry.