Baby Boomers

Facing the Sexual Revolution, even among 'active' believers in conservative pews

When pastors gaze out from their pulpits, they may want to imagine what would happen if they asked their flocks to respond to this statement: "As long as it's between consenting adults, any kind of sex is fine."

If this were a conservative or nondenominational Protestant church, the active, "practicing" members would be sharply divided, according to a new Barna Group survey. Nearly half -- 46 percent -- would affirm this live-and-let-live approach to sex outside of marriage, while 40 percent would disagree "strongly" and 12 percent "somewhat."

There are the active members, not the people who occasionally visit the pews.

"What is surprising is the way that even practicing Christians are beginning to conform to the beliefs and behaviors that are now considered normal in our culture," said Roxanne Stone, editor-in-chief at Barna. "The big story here is that people no longer agree when it comes to the purpose and meaning of sex -- including in our churches. Many no longer connect sex and marriage the way they used to."

When looking at broader trends, this study found the usual evidence that older Americans -- the "Elders" and "Boomers" -- have much more traditional views of sex and marriage than members of the younger "Gen-X" and "Millennial" generations. Rising numbers of young Americans view sex through the lens of self-expression and personal growth, with few ties that bind them to institutions and traditions.

"What people are saying is that sex is about two people loving each other and experiencing intimacy, but you don't really need to have the word 'marriage' involved in this discussion," said Stone, in a telephone interview.

"It's surprising how quickly some of these changes have become part of what is now considered normal. … Normally, these kinds of radical changes in a culture evolve over time. But, sociologically speaking, Woodstock wasn't that long ago."

Is there a dark side to all of those fun funerals?

For centuries, religious believers in many cultures have held solemn funeral rites that were then followed by social events that were often called "wakes." 

The funeral was the funeral and the wake was the wake, and people rarely confused their traditional religious rituals with the often-festive events that followed, noted blogger Chad Louis Bird, a former Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod seminary professor who is best known as a poet and hymn composer. 

But something strange happened in American culture in the past decade or two: Someone decided that it was a good idea to have fun funerals. 

"Our culture is anxious to avoid dealing with death. It seems that the goal is to keep your head in the sand and not have to face what has happened to your loved one and to your family," said Bird, in a telephone interview. 

Out the church door

At the last church she attended before dropping out, Julia Duin was not impressed with the service opportunities available to her as a single woman.

She could do child-care work, greet people at the door or join the women in the altar guild. However, since her journalism work required frequent travel, Duin sought more flexible commitments. Perhaps she could play harp before services? Fill an occasional teaching role, using her seminary training or material from her books?

After several frustrating years, she quit going to church.

Soon she discovered that she wasn't alone, which caused the Washington Times religion-beat specialist to do what reporters tend to do. She started listening, reading and connecting dots. What she found was, as one researcher put it, a "spiritual brain drain" out of churches today.

"I found that a lot of people who were leaving were not necessarily new believers. They were the Baby Boomers who had been involved in all of this for 20 years," said Duin, speaking at the recent national Religion Newswriters Association meetings in Washington, D.C. These active, committed laypeople had "been there and done that. ... So you couldn't just say to them, 'Oh just try this. Oh just try that.' "

Many believers, she said, are sad or mad -- or both. "They say, 'Listen ... I've done everything. Now I'm in the middle of a mid-life crisis and I'm not getting any answers.' These are the people who are saying, 'I'm out of here.' "

The result of her research is a new book, "Quitting Church," that pours painful experience over a foundation of troubling statistics.

It's important to stress that Duin -- a longtime family friend -- focused on active churchgoers, not the "backsliders, the slackers and the complainers" most church leaders think would quit.

Also, this is not another volume about the fall of the "seven sisters" of liberal Protestantism -- the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the American Baptists and the Christian Church (Disciples). In recent decades, their membership totals have declined 20 percent or more -- a trend shaped by falling birthrates, bitter doctrinal fights, an aging population and other factors.

Now, sobering statistics are showing up elsewhere. The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, has seen a steady decline in baptisms. While the nation's largest non-Catholic flock claims 16 million members, Duin noted that its 2007 report indicates that about 6.1 million people regularly attend worship services.

Gallup polls keep showing church attendance hovering at roughly 40 percent of the U.S. population. However, Duin noted that two other studies from 2005 cut that number down to 18 to 20 percent.

What's happening? Duin shows evidence of parallel and even clashing trends. Many people say they're too busy, some are burned out and others are mourning the loss of great churches they knew in their past.

There are paradoxes in this story, too. In recent decades, thriving megachurches have dominated the landscape, offering media-friendly services and chatty sermons in gigantic sanctuaries that give seekers a cushion of anonymity. But in 2007, the influential Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago found that many older members said they are now spiritually "stalled" or "dissatisfied."

Duin is convinced many evangelical churches are also struggling to deal with rising numbers of single adults and single-parent families. In 2005, a University of Virginia researcher found that 32 percent of married men and 38 percent of married women are churchgoers. But only 15 percent of single men and 23 percent of single women go to church.

There's another reality that is hard to put into statistics, said Duin. Many believers have grown tired of quickie services, PowerPoint answers and pop lyrics. Many "quitters" she interviewed were yearning for intimate, down-to-earth churches where pastors and people knew their names. They'd been born again. Now they wanted to know how to face the doubts and pains of daily life. They wanted real spiritual growth.

Many candid believers, said Duin, "are perplexed and disappointed with God" and they found that when they asked tough questions, they "were not getting meaningful answers from their churches. In fact, they were encouraged not to talk about their pain. ?

"The big questions are not going away and the answers can no longer be put off."

Faith in St. Arbucks

As he drives to church, the Rev. Greg Asimakoupoulos always notices the Sunday crowd gathered at one of his favorite sanctuaries.

There are a dozen religious congregations on Mercer Island, even though the island east of Seattle in Lake Washington is only six miles long and three miles wide. It's easy to spot the signs for the major brands, including the Presbyterians, Mormons, Orthodox Jews, Episcopalians, Christian Scientists and others.

But Asimakoupoulos pays special attention to the flock at the cozy haven with the simple green-and-white sign. Even though he leads the Mercer Island Covenant Church, the evangelical pastor and poet knows this other "church" well, since he visits it faithfully.

Asimakoupoulos calls it "St. Arbucks." There are six on the island.

"We like to say that our church is a genuine community of faith, the kind of place people can feel at home," he said. "Still, you may have to go down the block to get to see that become a reality for lots of people. We need to be honest and admit that people are lining up to get into Starbucks, but they aren't lining up to get into many of our churches. Why?"

There is more to this, he stressed, than pricey consumerism pushed by an omnipresent global empire. For many of its customers, St. Arbucks represents more than the individualistic era that a wealthy character played by Tom Hanks mocked in the movie "You've Got Mail."

"The whole purpose of places like Starbucks," quipped Manhattan tycoon Joe Fox, "is for people with no decision-making ability whatsoever to make six decisions just to buy one cup of coffee -- short, tall, light, dark, caf, de-caf, low-fat, non-fat, etc. So people who don't know what the hell they are doing or who on earth they are can, for only $2.95, get not just a cup of coffee, but an absolutely defining sense of self. Tall! De-caf! Cappuccino!"

It's true that local Starbucks offer their flocks a wide variety of choices, noted Asimakoupoulos. Meanwhile, the trend in many modern American churches is to embrace growth strategies that focus on music and programs that meet the needs of one type of person -- all the time.

At his own church, the pastor has even decided that it might be good to let people open the old-fashioned books in the pew racks and sing a few hymns, along with those pop-style praise choruses. Churches seem afraid of variety these days.

But the key to the success of St. Arbucks, he said, is that these establishments have become what researchers refer to as "third places" for people to gather or hide -- a safe zone between home and office. For generations, bars, diners, barbershops and a host of other locations have played similar roles.

This kind of hospitality has become rare in this rushed world.

Regulars at St. Arbucks are greeted by name and the baristas may have their favorite drink -- Asimakoupoulos is a grande-drip purist -- ready when they reach the counter. Many modern churches have grown so large that people cannot know the names of many people with whom they are praying.

It's also crucial that these coffee sanctuaries are open to all kinds of people. At the Starbucks a short walk from his church, the pastor -- people watching over the top of his laptop screen -- has even seen believers reading their Bibles.

Writing in Leadership Journal, Asimakoupoulos noted: "At St. Arbucks, I've seen a rabbi mentoring a Torah student. A youth pastor disciplining a new convert. High school girls working on a group assignment. A book club sipping mochas while discussing a fiction author's plot." Could churches try to be more open to outsiders?

However, the pastor has watched one ominous Starbucks trend. When he was a college student in Seattle, this local institution was about excellent coffee beans -- period.

These days, the place that many call "four bucks" offers CDs, gifts, pastries and super-sweet drinks of all kinds, hot and cold. Hardly anyone goes there for pure coffee.

"Maybe we can let that be a warning," said Asimakoupoulos. "It's important for our churches to think about what people want, but we can't lose sight of what people need. We have to keep offering basic faith, the faith of the ages. The extras are nice, but people also need the classics."

Why eulogies have changed

Seconds after American Airlines Flight 11 passed overhead, another Franciscan brother ran to Father Mychal Judge's room in the friary to let him know the World Trade Center was on fire.

The veteran chaplain quickly changed out of his simple brown habit and into his fire-department uniform -- pausing only to comb and spray his hair. Judge was heading into danger, but he was also ready to face the cameras. Soon, a photographer captured unforgettable images of firefighters carrying the priest's body out of the rubble and his name was on the first Ground Zero death certificate.

"While he was ministering to dying firemen, administering the Sacrament of the Sick and Last Rites, Mychal Judge died," said Father Michael Duffy, at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in New York City.

"... Look how that man died. He was right where the action was, where he always wanted to be. He was praying, because in the ritual for anointing we're always saying, 'Jesus come,' 'Jesus forgive,' 'Jesus save.' He was talking to God and he was helping someone. Can you honestly think of a better way to die? I think it was beautiful."

Anyone who wants to know how to deliver a eulogy should study this poignant section of Duffy's remarks at the funeral of his close friend, said Cyrus Copeland, a former advertising executive who edited "Farewell, Godspeed" and the recent "A Wonderful Life," two collections of famous eulogies. The new book includes a chapter focusing on Judge and three other men who died on Sept. 11, 2001.

This one anecdote reveals two sides of the same man, mixing humor -- the final ritual of comb and hairspray -- with a vision of a faithful priest's willingness to risk his own life to provide comfort to his unique flock.

These days, said Copeland, the loved ones who gather at a funeral want to hear a celebratory toast to a life well lived, just as much or more than they want to face spiritual issues involved in their loss.

"People want honesty," he said. "They don't want to hear about the saint that nobody knew. They want to hear about the real Father Mychal, a man who loved the human soul, but also knew a good photo opportunity when he saw one. ? They want to hear about life, more than they want to hear about eternal life. Eulogies today are more human and they are becoming less religious."

Copeland is convinced there are several reasons that the art of the eulogy has changed so radically in recent decades.

For starters, most people alive today have grown up in a video age, surrounded by celebrity news and, more recently, the tightly edited rush of "reality television." They have seen their share of high-profile funerals. Millions wept as Lord Edward John Spencer spoke at the funeral of his sister, Lady Diana. Many watched as superstar Cher laughed and cried her way through a eulogy for her former husband, Sonny Bono.

Clergy rarely command the spotlight during these rites.

"It's important to remember that the celebrity memorial service was the first kind to be secularized," said Copeland. "So you expect to hear about heaven in a eulogy for Father Mychal Judge, with a priest in the pulpit. But eulogies for celebrities like Marilyn Monroe may not mention heaven at all. That's just the age we live in."

There's another practical reason that eulogies have changed so much. Friends and relatives are taking control of the microphone.

In the past, loved ones asked the family's pastor, rabbi or priest to deliver the eulogy. Today, it would be hard for most people to name such a person. Most modern families are scattered across the nation, divided by career choices and, far too often, broken relationships. Family members may not even share a common faith and they certainly have not spent most of their lives in the same neighborhood in the same city.

Clergy used to deliver about 90 percent of all eulogies. Today, "that number is about 50 percent and it's falling," said Copeland.

"So for many people a memorial service simply isn't a religious event anymore. It offers us a chance to say our good-byes to the dearly departed, but many people no longer think of this event as a bridge between this life and the next."

Boomer bishops on the rise

Some of the lessons Father Kevin Martin learned in seminary have faded with time, but he remembers when the future Episcopal priests were taken to see Catherine Deneuve play a Paris prostitute in the soft-porn "Belle de Jour."

The late 1960s were heady times at Yale University's Berkeley Divinity School, he said. The sexual revolution inspired people in clerical collars to do things that, today, would turn a sexual-harassment attorney into a pillar of salt.

"It was the spirit of the day," said Martin, who leads a renewal group called Vital Church Ministries near Dallas. "We were supposed to be broadening our theological horizons and getting in touch with our feelings and all that.

Postmodern Celtic Baptists

The first thing people do after entering the quiet sanctuary is pause at a table to light prayer candles for friends and loved ones, the tiny flames adding to the glow of nearby candle trees.

The ministers wear oat-colored, hooded robes tied at the waist with ropes and guide their flock through ancient prayers, a litany of confession and silent meditations marked by a series of bells. Hymns are accompanied by an ensemble that includes fiddle, acoustic guitar, wind chimes, pennywhistles, a Bodhran and even bagpipes.

This coming Sunday is the day before the feast of St. Patrick.

Thus, worshippers at Rivermont Avenue Baptist Church will sing the great prayer of Ireland's missionary bishop: "Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me. ... I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity, through a belief in the Threeness, through a confession of the Oneness of the Creator of creation."

This is not your typical Southern Baptist service.

Nevertheless, this Celtic service is held every Sunday at this historic church in Lynchburg, Va. The goal is to use ancient rituals to touch postmodern souls.

"Postmodern people -- like Baptists in general -- like to take some of the old and mix it up with some of the new and then put it all together. We're comfortable with the unusual juxtapositions that may occur when you do that," said Karen Swallow Prior, who selects and reads many of the rite's Celtic prayers. She is an English professor at nearby Liberty University.

"We don't think that what we're doing is getting back to the ancient ways. We think that we're using elements of the past in ways that make sense to people who are alive today. The goal is to create something new."

In the lingo of Southern Baptist life, Rivermont is known as a "moderate," or even progressive, congregation. In addition to the Celtic service, it also offers the plugged-in, energetic contemporary worship common in "seeker-friendly" congregations across America. The bottom line: Different kinds of people worship in different ways.

The contemporary service is larger and the pews are filled with Baby Boomers who have become the established, middle-aged core of the congregation. For them, pop praise choruses and a chatty atmosphere have become normal. What was once "modern" is now strangely "traditional."

Meanwhile, said Prior, the Celtic service is attracting a unique blend of young adults, who are drawn by its beauty and mysticism, and the elderly, who appreciate peace and quiet. Church leaders refer to this as a gathering of the "pre-moderns and the postmoderns." What was once "traditional" is now strangely "innovative."

"How will the postmodern church worship?", asked Chad Hall of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, writing at "One thing we know about postmoderns is that they are extremely experiential. That is, they learn, grow, develop and commit based on their own experience with truth not according to someone else's encounter or someone else's retelling of an encounter."

Postmodern believers want to use all of their senses, stressed Hall. They want smells and bells. They want to see icons and statues, as well as drama and digital clips from movies. They look for God in nature, as well as scripture. They want to encounter God, not mere words about God.

But this doesn't mean they want to change their beliefs. The faithful at Rivermont Avenue remain steadfastly Baptist, said music minister Wayne Bulson. While they use elements of ancient liturgy, they believe that the Irish Bannock bread is still bread and the grape juice is still grape juice. They are embracing symbols, not sacraments.

"People want a sense of the ancient, but they still want something that they feel is appropriate to their lives, today," said Bulson. "I mean, we're still Baptists. We're not Catholic or Orthodox or anything else. ... We're not pushing for Baptist monasteries. What we're trying to do is find out what will be meaningful to our people, what will help them experience God in their lives.

"We're not proud. We're willing to borrow things from all kinds of traditions, as long as they work for us."