Where Have All the Boomers Gone?
A Missing Persons Report
With apologies to Pete Seeger, let me adapt the lyric of his protest song from the 1960’s as a title for this meditation. Mourning the loss of flowers, young girls, their young men and soldiers, Seeger finally asks, “When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?”
Where have all the flowers gone? Long time passing.
Where have all the flowers gone? Long time ago.
Where have all the flowers gone? Girls have picked them every one.
When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?
Where Have All the Flowers Gone, words and music by Pete Seeger
©1961 (Renewed) Fall River Music Inc All Rights Reserved.
Consider my generation of worship leaders—the famous Baby Boomers. Many of us started in the ministry of music back in the 1970’s but there aren’t many of us still actively involved. This is truly ironic for reasons I wish to explore.
Baby Boomers are the children of the men and women who, raised in the depression, went on to fight and win WWII. The survivors of that terrible conflict returned home to marry and have lots of babies.
- The boys were raised to be heroes like their dads.
- The girls were raised to be strong like their moms.
They had to beat the Russians to the moon and keep the Communists at bay and they did, though many of them dreamed often of mushroom clouds on the horizon. There were so many Baby Boomers schools had to be built at every level from 1st grade to college.
On their slim shoulders they carried the future of the country and for the Christians among them, the future of the church. Many of them received calls into the ministry, some of them into the ministry of music. They knew they had to get an education because most of their parents didn’t have that opportunity. They studied music because they wanted to and because their parents told them it was the way to succeed and to have security. Some of them felt a call from God to be “Chief Musicians.”
The Turbulant 60s and the Wild 70s
In the 60’s and the 70’s Baby Boomers finished college and started working in the ministry. Back then the church had song services, not times of praise and worship. Over the objections of their uneasy parents and pastors, they stretched the accepted forms of worship to the limit. They wanted more than these hand-me-downs could give them so they started improvising. Historians now call what they did by various names: the Charismatic Renewal, starting in the 60’s, the Jesus Movement of the 70’s and finally, the Praise and Worship Movement which flowered in the 80’s.
(For an excellent analysis of late 20th Century worship movements, see Robert E. Webber’s The Complete Library of Christian Worship, Vol. II, Twenty Centuries of Christian Worship, Chapter 7, articles 149-160)
The Amazing 80s
The 1980’s were a marvelous time for Baby Boomer worship leaders.
- They performed great choir and orchestra music and developed new forms of praise and worship songs.
- They saw the “song service” evolve into the “Praise and Worship Time,” giving rise to the office of the worship leader. Pastors back then did not easily share any of the spiritual leadership of the church.
- Baby Boomers expanded the traditional music ministry into worship arts ministry with theatre, dance, church orchestras and as many artistic forms of ministry as they could think of.
Many Boomers stopped right there, perfectly happy for the rest of their lives to sing scripture songs, majestic anthems, updated hymns, songs of prayer and spiritual warfare marches with their highly developed choirs and orchestras. I cannot really blame them. Their dreams, born in years of study of theory, orchestration, choral technique and music theatre, came true under their batons week after week and season after season.
The Intimate 90s
But the world of worship did not stop, even for so rich a decade as the 1980’s and for so skillful a group as the Baby Boomer worship leaders. Many of them swallowed hard and went on with the changing worship scene.
- The majestic song of the Throne Room of God led to the intimate song of the Father’s lap and to the warmth of the embrace of Jesus.
- They learned how to be intimate with the Lord.
- They heard the song of their children, the cry for friendship with God and for a community of worshiping, like-minded friends, and they sang along, knowing this was vital.
The Boulevard of Dreams
In the late 1990’s Matt, my future son-in-law, and I were walking one day by Hillsborough Bay in Tampa. The paved walk by the bay is called the Boulevard of Dreams. Its peace and beauty inspire walkers, bikers and skaters to think great thoughts. Suddenly Matt asked, “What would you say if I said I did not like the way we have church? that I didn’t like the way anyone has church?” My mind raced back to the 60’s and 70’s when we thought words like these but did not dare to speak them out. This was my answer:
“Matt, I am a man of the 20th century. I was born in 1949 and my life has consisted of the second half of the 20th century. You are a man of the 21st century. Why would I expect you to like my way of doing things? This is my promise to you. I know you will need to change things. I won’t fight you. In fact, I will help you, if you let me. It never occurred to my parents that anything would ever need to change, so they fought us over every innovation. I will not repeat their mistake. Let’s change things together.” This was my dream, not just for that day on the Boulevard of Dreams, but for a lifetime.
The Dream Remains
I still have that dream and so do many of my Baby Boomer friends. A lifetime of ministry has prepared us to be a part of the current climate of change. We are veterans of many changes:
- pastoral changes,
- interims without pastoral leadership,
- moves across town or across the continent,
- changes inherent in a long marriage while raising children to adulthood,
- the empty nest and all along the way, the aging process itself.
Far from being oblivious to change, many are skilled at managing its processes. There are ways to lead change, not be led by it, to be pro-active and responsive to needs instead of re-active and driven by pressures.
There is a way to go about changing the music without losing worshipers along the way. Decades of leading worship can yield a deep understanding of the music of worship. New songs have always been a part of God’s plan. When the structural differences between the songs of today and those of yesterday are understood, leaders can judge a song’s heart as well as its text. New songs can match up with older songs to include more people in the worship experience. Older songs can be updated without destroying them. Following the example of Old Testament Levites, (1 Chron 15:22) worship leaders spend their lives learning the skills necessary to handle songs, new and old, with seasoned and continually improving skills.
Today’s leaders enjoy a plethora of musical styles, song genres, and textual freedoms. Do they realize this creative climate is rooted in the ground-breaking work of leaders in the 1960’s-1980’s? Baby Boomers broke the trail for those who came behind them. In this the words of Peter at Pentecost came true, “… your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams…” (Acts 2:17-18 ) In a very real sense, the prophetic “visions” of the millennial generation are the fulfillment of the “dreams” of the Baby Boomers. Where Boomers are still found in leadership, this is a profound witness to the youth-driven culture around us. Where else but the church can the world see the peaceful, united work of “old men” and “young men?”
As a worship educator, I have always been welcomed by the younger generation of leaders and worshipers. I think this is because I am truly respectful of them as the Lord’s anointed and as my generation’s spiritual progeny. I want them to succeed. I want their pastors to succeed as well. I want them to carefully engage in true worship renewal, powered by biblical authority and conducted in a Christ-like manner. While many Boomers resonate with the improvements young leaders bring to the process, they also have the wisdom to test each innovation by the Word of God to see if an innovation is really an improvement or perhaps a distraction.
Do Boomers have a Rightful Place?
These are the questions:
- Can people with bald heads, graybeards and ample waistlines lead the church in worship today?
- Is it necessary for a worship leader to be of a specific generation or appearance to lead the matching generation in worship?
If worship leading is an external process dependent on looks, sound, and presentation, yes. But worship leading is not an outside-in process. Like all Spirit-led ministry, worship leading functions from the inside-out.
These are the truly necessary things:
- To engage all generations in worship and to reveal the presence of the resurrected Jesus to seekers observing our worship, the worship leader should be totally passionate and sincere lifting his/her heart to God as a personal sacrifice of praise.
- He or she should choose liturgy (worships songs) that speaks in the cultural languages (musical, visual, textual, and artistic) of both worshipers and seekers.
- This liturgy should be drawn, over time, from the representative cultures within the congregation in a sincere effort to engage everyone in worship.
- The worship leader must refuse to be the center of the musical presentation and He/She must never permit the music, sound or look to dwell at the center.
- If the worship leader, young or old, keeps Jesus and only Jesus at the center of the worship, Jesus has a way of bringing the church together. The Bible says Jesus tears down the walls of hostility between culture groups. (Eph 2:14-15)
A worship leader who is truly led and empowered by the Holy Spirit can lead the whole church in worship that is a most powerful witness to the seeker. (1 Cor 14:23-25)
Worship leading is about spirit and truth, passion and reason, mission and ministry, humility and artistry. Age is not an issue.
One of the principles of the Protestant Reformation was semper reformanda — “always reforming.” Speaking for myself, this is the moment I have lived for, not to preserve my methods and preferences, but to raise up another generation of godly reformers. There is much work to be done. All too often the church is being driven by the culture rather than speaking as a holy counter-culture. Change is necessary and godly, but it is meant to be a multi-generational process. It may take an older, more experienced eye to see some of the dangers ahead. It is time to place generational preferences on a lower shelf than scripture and lead change from a united front, to break up the fallow ground of our hearts and to seek His face together.
Hosea 10:12 NKJV
Sow for yourselves righteousness; Reap in mercy; Break up your fallow ground,For it is time to seek the LORD, Till He comes and rains righteousness on you.
If we ask, “Where have all the Boomers gone?” and they can scarcely be found, the loss is not just for older leaders worn down by the work, or those marginalized by their own failures or squeezed out by a church that is too close to the mold of a youth-driven and celebrity-mad culture; it is a loss for the whole church. Thus the irony: many of those who broke the trail, though still strong and willing, are no longer on the journey.
“When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?”
© 2016 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved