Baby boomers make great evangelists
Baby-boomer evangelism might seem an oxymoron. It is not surprising since the boomer generation as a group deserted religion in large numbers or never became a part of the church. Expecting boomers to become believers now may seem an exercise in futility. To expect them to become evangelists might appear even more outrageous.
However, this is the paradox. Boomers can make great evangelists. Sometimes, the best faith guides come from the unlikeliest of people. Think of Saul and his ministry as the transformed apostle Paul.
So, how can boomers become a great source of evangelism when they currently aren't in the church in large numbers? Every process starts somewhere; evangelism among unchurched baby boomers begins with the few boomers who continued in the church or have recently come back.
Boomers who grew up in the church and never left it are not typical of those whom the church has failed to reach or to retain. Marketing firms refer to them as conventional boomers. They did not so readily absorb their peers' culture and did not abandon the church when they were young adults. If your church has "conventionals," you likely have your evangelists. While they are different from unchurched boomers, they are connected to others in their generation.
According to generational theory, the boomers came of age in a turbulent time that formed the boomer culture. The good news for evangelists is that this group is about to have a second coming of age – retirement. Boomers will have more in common with each other than they have had since childhood and adolescence. Retirement and aging will change their culture and lifestyle. They will need help with processing this new stage of life. This provides the church with opportunities to disciple conventional boomers and their less-than-conventional friends.
The two comings of age mirror each other. Each includes struggles over the three I's: Identity, Independence and Intimacy. Identity before retirement rarely carries over into retirement, meaning boomers will be examining who they are in life as well as their purpose and meaning in terms of legacy and service. Independence becomes more of an issue for boomers as health declines and lifestyles become more complicated. Intimacy is about relating to others. As boomers abandon preretirement relationships, some will need help with forming new ones. All of these provide unprecedented opportunities to attract new boomers and to develop boomers as evangelists.
Boomer converts who return to the church are a great source of information about how to design ministries to attract others. They hold the key to understanding how to attract other boomers because something clicked and led them into the community of faith.
This group can sometimes make even better evangelists than the "conventionals." They often have a greater appreciation for the difference being a part of a faith community can make. Many are willing to share with others the church in which they have found a home.
Many aspects of congregational life provide a great opportunity for churches to see boomers as a field ripe for evangelism instead of a desert wilderness to avoid. These include:
Service: Many boomers grew up believing they could change the world but now look to leaving the world a better place. By offering opportunities to serve through the church, congregations can target the gifts of retiree boomers. Those involved in service will form friendships with others within the faith community, which can draw them to become involved in other areas of church life. Finding ways to serve may also overcome lingering perceptions of hypocrisy – of failing to live what it taught – that caused the boomers to reject the church in their youth.
Community: Retirees leave behind support networks and friends. Retirement, divorce or the death of a spouse, changing health or the desire to live near extended family can mean relocation accompanied by a search for new places of which to become a part – to belong. The church can become the community of support and belonging retired boomers crave – if they have an invitation. Boomers can be trained to be evangelists who will seek opportunities to invite others to the places where their church offers community – places such as fellowship meals and healing services, places where the gift of belonging is shared along with faith.
Wellness and recreation are important components of the boomer lifestyle. Boomers do not like to think of themselves as old. To maintain this self-concept, they will have to work at it. Evangelism based on relationships can come through nutrition, fitness and wellness activities, fairs and classes or even a minister of fitness or wholeness.
Ultimately, retired boomers can assist the church in making disciples when they are trained to do so. Given time to develop their faith story, training on how to share it and the vision to look for the opportunities to invite others into faith, boomers will prove my theory that boomers can make great evangelists.
The Rev. William B. Randolph is director of aging and older adult ministries at Discipleship Ministries, Nashville, Tennessee.