The Church Search

  • Back in the early 1960s, when cars were big and hair was short and families that prayed together stayed together, the Walceks said grace before meals and went to Mass every single morning. Emil and Kathleen sent their nine children to the local parochial schools in Placentia, California, and on Sunday mornings at St. Joseph's the family took up two pews.

    Then one by one, the children set off on their spiritual travels, and in the process perfectly charted the journey of their generation. Emil Jr., 45, and Edward, 32, dropped out of church, and stayed out. John, 43, was married on a cliff overlooking Laguna Beach, divorced -- and returned to the Catholic Church, saying, "Maybe the traditional way of doing things isn't so bad." Joe, 41, also returned to the fold after marrying a Ukrainian Catholic. Mary, 40, married a lapsed Methodist and worships "God's creation" in her own unstructured fashion. Rosie, 38, drifted into the Hindu-influenced Self- Realization Fellowship. Chris, 34, picked Unitarianism, which offered some of Christianity's morality without its dogma. Theresa, 36, spent five years exploring the "Higher Power" in 12-step self-help programs. Ann, 30, called off her wedding when her nonpracticing Jewish fiance embraced Orthodoxy, a crisis that "sparked a whole new journey for me."

    There was a time in America when a spiritual journey meant a long, stormy crossing of the soul, an exploration mapped by Scripture and led by clergy through the family church. Catholic you were born and Catholic you died, or Methodist, or Jew. Of the generation born after World War II, 95% received a religious upbringing, and had they behaved like their parents before them, the churches and synagogues of their childhood would be thriving.

    Today, a quiet revolution is taking place that is changing not only the religious habits of millions of American but the way churches go about recruiting members to keep their doors open. Increasing numbers of baby boomers who left the fold years ago are turning religious again, but many are traveling from church to church or faith to faith, sampling creeds, shopping for a custom-made God. A growing choir of critics contends that in doing whatever it takes to lure those fickle customers, churches are at risk of losing their heritage -- and their souls.

    According to Wade Clark Roof, a sociologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara who has studied boomers' attitudes toward God, about a third have never strayed from church. Another one-fourth of boomers are defectors who have returned to religious practice -- at least for now. The returnees are usually less tied to tradition and less dependable as church members than the loyalists. They are also more liberal, which deepens rifts over issues like abortion and homosexuality.

    The returnees are still vastly outnumbered by the 42% of baby boomers who remain dropouts from formal religion. Roof's polling, however, found that most said they felt their children should receive religious training -- creating an opportunity that churches are rushing to meet. Two potent events that might draw dropouts back to the fold are having children and facing at mid-life a personal or career crisis that reminds boomers of the need for moorings. "You have to start thinking about God in the face of how to raise children in a society that has lost all connection to God," says Hollywood screenwriter- director Michael Tolkin, 42. He has ended up a more prayerful Jew than his liberal parents after seeking religious training for his children.

    When West Europeans drop out of church, as large majorities do, they typically lose interest in belief too, but America remains unpromising ground for atheism and agnosticism. One of the most intriguing discoveries in Roof's research for A Generation of Seekers (Harper San Francisco) is the growth of what he calls "believers but not belongers." Americans who leave religious institutions do not necessarily abandon religious faith. Even most dropouts say they believe in God; though one-third also believe in reincarnation, ghosts and astrology. The God of their understanding is not necessarily the personal, all-powerful and all-knowing deity of orthodoxy. Nor is the Jesus affirmed by boomers necessarily the Son of God and unique Saviour of humanity.

    On Thanksgiving in 1991, Patricia Newlin, a lapsed Lutheran, met a young co- worker, a born-again Christian, on a business trip to Paris. They walked along the Seine in the shadow of Notre Dame and discussed the idea that we all carry around with us a God-shaped vacuum and try unceasingly to fill it with other things. "That notion just struck an incredibly responsive chord in me," remembers Newlin. She realized that she "had created an idol out of work, had sacrificed my time and effort to it, and it stopped working." She was baptized in January 1992 and began attending Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and working in a homeless shelter. Four years ago, Redeemer was a 15-member Bible-study group on Manhattan's Upper East Side. "I said, let's not build a church for us," recalls Pastor Timothy Keller. "Let's build a church for your friends who don't go to church." It now has 1,200 members, half of whom had not been affiliated with a church.

    In the wrenching realignment of church loyalties, mainline Protestantism and Judaism have felt by far the most pain. For Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, nearly half the children born into the church end up leaving for good. Six major denominations report a combined net membership loss of 6.2 million, to a current 22.2 million, since the mid-1960s. Despite its many problems, Catholicism has held its own. By Roof's survey, 70% of those raised as Jews have dropped out, a disastrous loss that coincides with low birthrates, a steep increase of intermarriage with non-Jews, and the slim odds that children from such marriages will end up practicing the faith.

    The unprecedented membership decline in old-line Protestant churches inspired Roof to delve more deeply into the subject. These affluent, predominantly white, relatively liberal denominations date from colonial times and long controlled America's spiritual and cultural values. Now they are on the defensive, losing members and influence. Meanwhile, churches on either side of the spiritual spectrum are growing fast: the conservative evangelical Protestantism on one hand and an assortment of Eastern, New Age and unconventional religions on the other.

    Analysts say mainliners are suffering because they have failed to transmit a compelling Christian message to their own children or to anybody else. "One thing about the Episcopalians, Methodists and Catholics," says Margaret Poloma, professor of sociology at the University of Akron, "is that people in leadership positions are out of touch with the people in the pews. The evangelical churches have made a real attempt to reach out to younger people." Though strict, doctrinaire religion might seem to drive away the tolerance-minded boomers, liberalism fares even worse. When the faith replaces firm claims to truth with a spongy, homemade folk religion, younger members seem to take it as an invitation to look elsewhere. The thriving evangelical churches, in contrast, have successfully struck a balance between compromise and capitulation. They recognize that boomers want choices, but, Roof argues, "they are also setting some boundaries, morally and religiously."

    The Smiths joke that they are "cashews," an Irish Catholic married to a Jew who drifted away from his faith after his bar mitzvah. Chicago attorney Stephen Smith and his wife Eileen now find themselves searching together. "This isn't about having material goods and being empty. That's a cliche," says Stephen. "It's being in a place you can safely drop your guard. It's wanting to put meaning to a world where kids are shot going to school." The Smiths often attend Mass and also visit liberal Rabbi Allen Secher's monthly gatherings for those who don't fit into mainstream Judaism. Half humorously, some call themselves Secher's Searchers. "There's an enormous hunger," says Secher, but "I'm not seeing a lot of synagogues opening up and being creative enough to deal with that."

    By ancient tradition a church is designed to celebrate the glory of God, the majesty of its vaults and the delicacy of its windows reflecting his exalted nature. Now, however, it must do many other things as well. "People are in the seeking mode. They are looking for places to get their needs met," says Pastor Joe S. Ratliff, whose mainly black Brentwood Baptist Church in Houston has swelled from 500 to 10,000 members over 13 years. "Why can't a church be seeker friendly?" Brentwood provides traditional Sunday school and prayer cells, but also a singles ministry (more than half the adult members are unmarried or divorced), prison ministry, AIDS ministry, food pantry, golf club and numerous after-school programs for youth, including tutoring.

    The churches that are booming -- Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago, for example, or the 429 congregations cloned from Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, California -- do not resemble buttoned-down temples of Wasp propriety. Ministers themselves talk of being "customer oriented" and attend seminars to become "church growth" experts. Jeans are as welcome as suits and ties; theater seats replace pews. Instead of using hymnbooks, congregations sing lively, if saccharine, choruses with words projected on a screen. Worship may include skits, audience participation or applause.

    Some successful boomer churches are shrines to secular movements, particularly the 12-step programs modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous. "We refer to ourselves as wounded healers," says Minister Mike Matoin of Unity in Chicago, himself a former bellhop, bouncer, cabdriver, and child of an alcoholic. "A lot of baby boomers can relate to us. We've been through our / own recovery, and we're not on a pedestal." If a spiritual search is going on, it is for an inner child. In a room remarkably empty of religious paraphernalia, on a riser, behind the pulpit, an enormous teddy bear sits in the background. "The twentysomethings," observes Matoin, "are searching achievers. Working hard. 'I've got a condo, Rollerblades, but something's missing.' They've got prosperity but not peace of mind. The person in his 40s or 50s, it's the life experience. Busted relationships. They're alcoholics, married to alcoholics, bumped around, lost jobs, and they find a safe harbor."

    The eclectic, New Age-ish church has grown from 10 members to more than a thousand since 1977. It offers everything from self-help groups like Debtors Anonymous to a "pet ministry" for adopting stray animals. Songs one Sunday ranged from Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin' to Danny Boy. In between, sneaker- shod Matoin bounded around like a school coach: "Everyone here was born to be a winner: you've got the choice." When he finished, the crowd sang, "Weave, weave us together in unity and love. Weave, weave us together. Let there be peace on earth, let it begin with me." As the meeting climaxed in hugging, Matoin raised his arms high and boomed, "Hey, God, make my day! Go for it!"

    Vicki and Bill Sledge met through a singles group sponsored by a Baptist church where they eventually married. But in January 1990, not long after the birth of their second child, the Sledges decided, after much "heart-wrenching soul searching," that it was time to move on. After long research, the couple landed at Custer Road United Methodist Church in Plano, Texas, which has grown 50% since 1990. "Unlike some of our generation, we could not imagine abandoning church altogether. We just needed something that spoke to us in a different way," says Vicki. The church has adult and youth choirs, classes in everything from Bible study to parenting. Preaching is "conversational," says associate minister Pete Robertson. Sermons last no more than 15 minutes. "The days of the 20-, 30- or 40-minute sermons are gone."

    Ministers are often the first to see the dangers of supply-side spirituality. "Patterning the church after a mega-supermarket can only lead us to failure," warns Methodist D. Stephen Long of Duke University's Divinity School. "I'm not opposed to the churches using some marketing techniques, but I fear what is happening is that marketing techniques are beginning to use the church. We can't target groups we want for the church simply by locating points of desire. Somewhere there's got to be some judgment about whether these desires are appropriate." He rejects the notion that the job of ministers is to keep people happy and the pews filled. "A pastor has to shake things up," he says. "The point isn't to accommodate self-centeredness but to attack it. If you don't, then the Gospel becomes just one more commodity we seek to package."

    Catholic theologian Avery Dulles grumbles that just about everything in America, religion included, "succeeds to the extent that it can arouse interest and provide entertainment." Even voices within the prospering conservative Protestant camp are beginning to ponder the wages of success. A stinging indictment of Evangelicalism's theological corruption will appear in the forthcoming book No Place for Truth (Eerdmans) by theologian David F. Wells of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. Even among conservatives, warns Wells, biblical truth "is being edged out by the small and tawdry interest of the self in itself." The Christian Gospel, he says, is becoming "indistinguishable from any of a host of alternative self-help doctrines."

    Some of today's most influential religious figures are no longer theologians but therapists. For Evangelicals, the guru is Colorado's James Dobson, a child psychologist whose daily radio show, Focus on the Family, dispenses advice over 1,200 stations. Among mainline dropouts and seekers the star is Connecticut psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, who fused the psychological with the spiritual in The Road Less Traveled, a New York Times paperback best seller for a record 490 weeks. Peck was baptized a Christian in 1980 but sees no reason to join a church; his latest book, A World Waiting to Be Born, claims that businesses could become the true spiritual citadels of tomorrow.

    The battle over church strategies heated up this winter with the publication of a lively book, The Churching of America 1776-1990 (Rutgers), in which sociologists Roger Finke and Rodney Stark interpret 214 years of U.S. religion as a series of marketing coups. Historian Martin E. Marty summarized their interpretation: "No God or religion or spirituality, no issue of truth or beauty or goodness, no faith or hope or love, no justice or mercy; only winning and losing in the churching game matters." Marty, a Lutheran, remarks that it is "lethal" to reshape churches around the claims of returnees who are ignorant of the heritage, or to capitulate to a "random selection of cravings, nurtured by non-Christian and anti-Christian forces."

    Other, younger ministers, schooled in a different set of assumptions and traditions, disagree. "Who says targeting a group is unbiblical?" asks North Carolina Pastor Doug Humphrey. "After all, Paul preached primarily to the Gentiles, while Peter focused on the Jews." Humphrey and his Dallas Theological Seminary classmate Buddy Walters have marketing on their minds. They are in the process of planting a new church, set to open its doors for the first time next week on Easter morning. They have completed their demographic studies, chosen their advertising strategy, sent out the direct mail and targeted their ideal audience: the 5,000 or so potential congregants found in just one corner of North Carolina's Research Triangle. Their Triangle Community Church will be nondenominational. "Most churches haven't done a good job of responding to a culture that's changed," says Humphrey. "We don't need to change the message, but we can change the way we package it." He has his Easter morning sermon all planned: "Is the Resurrection a Fact or Fantasy?"

    "People seem to be very concerned with the fact that the so-called baby boomers feel free -- feel the compulsion, really -- to question, that we shop around and don't have 'brand loyalty,' " says Joe B. Brown, 44, senior pastor at Hickory Grove Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. "Well, I don't find in the Bible where Jesus condemned people for asking too many questions. I do find where Jesus condemned people for thinking they had all the answers." When he arrived at Hickory Grove eight years ago, Brown could expect, at most, 500 people at a Sunday service. Today Sunday morning worship draws 5,000; Sunday evening, 2,000; and the Wednesday night service 2,000 again.

    Though Hickory Grove is a member of the Southern Baptist Convention, only 30% of its members, whose average age is about 30, have been Baptists from birth. These variegated members are drawn together through close-knit support groups for substance abusers, adult children of alcoholics, and people with eating disorders, as well as through small Bible-study groups that also provide advice and comfort in the event of divorce, economic trouble or illness.

    There is genuine creativity in the reconfigured faiths being fostered by the new seekers. Much is gained when houses of worship address real needs of people rather than purveying old abstractions, expectations and mannerisms. Many of those who have rediscovered churchgoing may ultimately be shortchanged, however, if the focus of their faith seems subtly to shift from the glorification of God to the gratification of man.


    CREDIT: Source: The Bama Report Based on a telephone poll of 1,013 adult Americans in January 1992 by the Bama Research Group Ltd. Sampling error is plus or minus 3%. TIME Chart by Nigel Holmes


    Rate of loss and gain in church membership between 1965 and 1989.