Book Review: After the Baby Boomers, Robert Wuthnow

Review
03.02.2010

Sociologist Robert Wuthnow thinks the future of American religion could be in doubt “unless religious leaders take younger adults more seriously” (p. 17). And he teaches at Princeton, so obviously you should listen to him, right?

WHY THE FUTURE LOOKS BLEAK

Before discussing how and why his argument matters, let me first tell you a bit about why he believes the future looks so bleak.

To ground his analysis Wuthnow looks at a collection of major surveys, isolating the data on adults between the ages of twenty one and forty five. And I should begin with a friendly word of warning: trying to follow the argument here can be really frustrating. For one thing, Wuthnow’s a sociologist, and reading a sociologist means slogging through an almost unbearable sequence of numbers, percentages, and graphs.

And, like a good social scientist, he follows the evidence where it leads him, which means that not everything fits into a nice clear picture. Some areas of religious involvement he tests don’t reveal anything unique about young adults, and other conclusions can be just plain obvious. (Readers of chapter 7 will hardly be shocked to find that young adults use the internet a lot to get information, and email helps people stay connected!)

But this book rewards perseverance with some significant insights. Here I want to focus on the two that Wuthnow believes have the most overarching impact on the shape of American religion: changing family dynamics, and what he calls spiritual “tinkering.”

Changing Family Dynamics

Perhaps this book’s most important contribution is its attempt to explain why surveys show that young adults today are less likely to attend church than young adults of the previous generation (chapters 2-3). Without boring you (and me!) with the specifics of Wuthnow’s argument in all its mathematical glory, his point is that young adults aren’t attending church as much because they’re waiting longer than their parents did to get married and have children. His numbers show that in both periods under comparison, 1972-76 and 1998-2002, married young adults were far more likely to attend church than their unmarried counterparts. And the percentage of married couples who participated in a local church remained constant over both periods. This means that the decline in attendance numbers has come almost entirely from the ranks of the unmarried. This correlation between being married and going to church spells trouble for Wuthnow given that, in the early 1970s, 74 percent of adults age 21 to 45 were married, while in the latter period it was only 45 percent (p. 55).

He also found that other measures of stability correspond to church attendance. Those who have children, and presumably become more interested in passing their values along to their children, go to church more than those who don’t have kids. And having a steady, long-term job, which presumably comes with a deeper investment in one’s community, also means one is more likely to participate in church.

But like marriage these are things young adults are waiting longer to achieve, if at all. In short, “the influences that reinforce religious participation are weaker than they were a generation ago,” so fewer young adults are contributing to and receiving from the influences of local congregations (70; emphasis original).

Spiritual Tinkering

If these changing family and work dynamics are what most distinguish the religious world of young adults, that world is also largely defined by a characteristic inherited from the previous generation: spiritual “tinkering.”

What Wuthnow means by “tinkering” is simply building a life, a practice, a worldview using whatever resources may be available. Classic television fans among you, think MacGyver here. If all the guy had handy was a roll of duct tape, a paper clip, a 9-volt battery, and a old can of root beer, he could still make a bomb. According to Wuthnow, each generation, really each individual, takes the ideas and practices handed down to them as well as the values and opportunities of their unique culture and uses them to build a distinctive religiosity.

As Wuthnow himself admits, to some extent every generation does tinkering of its own. Even Jonathan Edwards, for example, defended the Great Awakening and the traditional doctrines of Calvinism using philosophical language he picked up from the best minds of his era, men like Isaac Newton and John Locke.

What makes today’s young adults a “generation of tinkerers” is the unprecedented number of options they have to work with and the scale of the tinkering they do with these options. Edwards had Newton and Locke; this generation has television and the internet and self-help bestsellers in paperback. What’s more, globalization and immigration have brought the world’s religions to American doorsteps. This list of environmental factors could go on and on, and I would refer you to the second half of the book for some important examples of tinkering in action.

Overall, and most importantly, Wuthnow argues that the declining commitment to local churches does not mean young adults are any less interested in spiritual issues. The numbers make that very clear. What it does mean is that outside the context and accountability of traditional religious institutions, the quest for spiritual fulfillment becomes much more fluid and unpredictable. Any religious resource, at least in theory, becomes an acceptable resource. But no resource is permanent.

WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?

Of course, the main question about Wuthnow’s findings has to be, quite simply, why should I care? What difference does it make what young adults are interested in, or how their religious choices are different from their parents’? Or, more broadly, how can the sociological study of American religion help my ministry?

Wuthnow’s answer is a good one, so far as it goes. In short, theology (or ministry) “manifests itself in the concrete realities of human life” (xiii). Our social context shapes how we think and act whether we realize it or not. Better, then, to be self-aware by learning as much as we can about our environment than to minister in ignorance of our surroundings.

WHAT SHOULD A PASTOR DO WITH THIS INFORMATION?

The minister must also ask the question: once we know our environment, what should we do with the information? At the risk of reductionism, I see a couple options. You can either shape your ministry to address the needs and desires of young adults, or you can shape your prophetic challenge to the specific weaknesses of your context.

For example, let’s take Wuthnow’s two overarching characteristics of today’s young adults. Young adults are waiting longer to settle down in marriage, parenthood, and work, and perhaps as a result they’re coming to church less and less. Wuthnow suggests a reason for this decline is that churches typically offer strong programs for youth and young families, but offer no institutional support for young singles. And of course, who wouldn’t want the church to teach godly singleness and offer guidance through some of life’s most important decisions? But knowing that young adults are willingly delaying key responsibilities of adulthood also helps shape your biblical challenge to that group. As a pastor you should urge them to take responsibility sooner rather than later as God gives opportunity.

Or take spiritual tinkering. Wuthnow suggests appealing to these seekers with strong community, certainly a biblical component of healthy church life, rather than firm answers that might be repulsive (e.g., pp. 231-32). But knowing this tinkering tendency, the minister’s responsibility under God is to call individuals to recognize an authority beyond themselves and their shifting desires, an authority rooted in Scripture and communicated through the local church.

CONCLUSION

So why do studies like this one matter? Because, though the biblical truth at center of your ministry remains the same, you must unpack the implications of that truth as they relate to each generation. That’s application. And that’s why this book is worth your time.

By:
Matt McCullough

Matt McCullough is the pastor of Trinity Church in Nashville, Tennessee.