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'Generation Xers' Find Their Place in the Pews


The stereotype of Americans under 30, so-called generation Xers, is of media-sated tribalistic cybersurfing waifs for whom religion seems boring or phony. Or just out of the question.

Yet a glimpse of the US religious scene shows that significant pockets of baby busters, as the generation born in the wake of the baby boomers is also called, are turning to faith - with a hunger and inquisitiveness that might startle their parents. They have pierced noses and ears. They dress down. But they want God.

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This is not to report that they are experiencing a collective Great Awakening to things spiritual. But particularly in Protestant and in Christian evangelical circles, younger Americans are not only being discovered by clergy - they are themselves evolving distinctive styles and approaches to worship, often based on the desire for deeper human relations and "authenticity."

*The All Saints Episcopal church in Pawley Island, S.C., holds two services at once. One has an organ, choir, and formal liturgy. The other has a rock band, no prayers from a book, no ordained minister - and a crowd of worshippers under 30.

*In Texas, a 25 year old minister sits on an old sofa and sermonizes spontaneously to 700 youths about the message of the Gospels and the lyrics of rock bands like Counting Crows and Smashing Pumpkins. His message: "If there's not a God, then our lives don't have much meaning."

*A young Roman Catholic in Somerville, Mass., practices his faith in cyberspace, discussing Jesus' historical role on line, and whether women should be priests.

"Kids are sick of institutional and flashy approaches to church," says Victoria O'Donnell, who grew up Catholic but now attends a variety of evangelical Gen X services in Boston. "But we don't just want good relationships. We also want truth."

Few in the generation have denominational loyalty; the question rarely comes up. Typically, they desire a multiethnic worship service with greater equality of the sexes. And they are asking for a voice - often in the increasing number of services being held just for them.

In some ways, as Xers of faith point out, the generation is ripe for religion. Many are disillusioned - or perhaps have few illusions. Xer family life has often been broken, with kids bounced around emotionally.

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Large college loans and small job prospects are not unusual. Sexual relations have often been casual. Institutions and formal sources of authority may seem distant. Much of the "meaning" lived by Xers comes through popular culture - via artists and musicians whose work is loaded with spiritual imagery even while it often describes a world of despair.

"A whole set of pathologies have beset this generation, and eroded our sense of meaning," says Tom Beaudoin, a doctoral candidate at Boston College and author of a forthcoming book on Gen X faith and culture. "In a generation that has grown up like ours, what we most want answered affirmatively is: 'Will you be there for me?' "

Many Gen Xers on the other side of the pulpit agree. "We're just who we are," says pastor Chris Seay, who tends a Gen X Baptist church in Waco, Texas. "Church has often seemed to us a place of pretense or falsity, where everyone is supposed to be so good and virtuous. But when you read the Gospels, it is the weak, the poor, the broken who Jesus is calling. A lot of us these days think, 'That's me.' "

Gen X worship is the subject of an upcoming April 29 invitation-only meeting for 500 buster leaders, including students, musicians, and ministry staffs. The meeting at a San Francisco retreat is engineered by the Leadership Network, a Christian ministry group out of Tyler, Texas, that connects growing churches with each other. Last year the first Gen X meeting drew 200 leaders.

"Busters don't want to go to church as spectators, but as participants," says Carol Childress, a Network official. "Gen X services tend to be more experimental, more stressing a sense of ownership. They don't want anything too slick or packaged."

One answer has been "church within church," where a minister will either add or modify a service for Xers, often finding a new assistant pastor for the job. The Overland Park, Kan., Episcopal church started a fourth service on Sunday. The Rev. Ron McCreary started from scratch, hired a focus group, and today has a service that features rock music, no vestments for the clergy, and readings from thinkers like C.S. Lewis and St. Augustine, as well as from the Bible.

Mr. McCreary found that Xers work more as a team at the church. "They take responsibility for the whole service. Older members just look after their own area, like ushering or the platform," he says. "But these guys are more networked with each other."

(As a coda, Overland members are surprised to find that today their Gen X meeting is the most intergenerational service in the church, with Xers bringing their parents.)

Another answer has been the "stand alone" Gen X church. Such congregations exist in Minneapolis, San Diego, Seattle, and Atlanta, to name a few. NewSong outside San Francisco has 2,000 attendees, three-quarters of whom are under 30.

The Rev. Dieter Zander, the former NewSong pastor, compares his preaching style to talk show host David Letterman's approach to TV - designed to upset the expected and to expose the sacred cows of a consumer culture. Mr. Zander also wants the buster experience of church "to feel just like a rock concert."

Some fault lines are forming over the effort to reach Gen Xers. The divide is between those who want to target a Gen X market, and those who want Xers to be naturally included in the church as people of faith.

The idea of a strategic plan with a focus group to shape services horrifies a number of young pastors like Chris Seay, who oversees a congregation in Waco, Texas. They feel it is inauthentic to design a self-consciously "authentic" style of worship. Recent marketing pitches, in the words of one church pamphlet, stress "how important it is to seem authentic" to busters. Seay is also bothered by "megachurches" like Willow Creek outside Chicago that target baby boomer tastes through sophisticated polling.

Ms. O'Donnell thinks the best approach is an eclectic one where each church figures out its own worship style, and gives Xers a voice in decisionmaking and participation. "Let's be honest here," she says. "It's a marketing thing most of the time. It's 'what will the congregation buy?'"

Many Xers challenge the stereotypes about them. The generation ranges from new high school students (called "millennial teens") to families in their early 30s. Bostonian Mike Brooks sports a baseball cap and a ring in each ear but likes traditions and finds services aimed at Xers "sometimes too much."

Some Xers say they prefer multigeneration services, where they can learn from and respect older people. Others are more ambivalent. A couple from a Presbyterian youth group in Pennsylvania recently visited a Gen X service in Boston. "I came here tonight to see Park Street's approach, and to figure out what I'm supposed to be like as an Xer," the husband said.

"Some of the kids fit the stereotype of Kurt Cobain alienation," says McCreary, referring to the popular Seattle musician who committed suicide. "Other Gen Xers are as satisfied with life as anyone else."

Perhaps the most basic theological distinction for Xers is between that which is "spiritual" (good) and that which smacks of traditional "religion" (bad). Religion is often negative because it is associated with the church institution, while spiritual is more free form and that needs no structured expression.

Yet a number of clergy sympathetic to Xers, but critical of the recent high-profile romance with "grunge worship," point out that spiritual maturity for individuals often requires a community or church. "I usually hear it is cool to be spiritual, but not in a church," says the Rev. Gail Miller of the Acton-Boxborough Congregational Church in Massachusetts. "Yet at some point I think at least Christians find that they can't grow without a church."

For his part, Mr. Seay says the goal of his congregation "is not to be Gen X, to be 25, 27, or 28 forever. We will definitely evolve. Our goal is to be open to change, to deepen our values."

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