Between the fall of 1988 and 1992 Wade Clark Roof and a team of researchers orchestrated a massive religious version of The Big Chill by interviewing more than 1,500 baby boomers about their religious lives.
Where the label makers have seen hippies and yuppies, flower children and the Me Generation, Roof discovered deep spiritual struggle and a coming transformation of the country's religious landscape.
Roof, who is the J.F. Rowny Professor of Religion and Society at the University of California at Santa Barbara, seems awed by the sheer diversity of the spiritual patterns he found and what he described as "the churning movement of people across faith lines and in and out of religious institutions."
Roof's book on the study, A Generation of Seekers (HarperCollins, 1993), concludes that the generation born between 1946 and 1964 is now turning to religion. This is the group that was spiritually shaken by the 1960s, felt the aftershocks of the 1970s and, by their numbers alone, became a battering ram for social change.
"There is a kind of spiritual renewal occurring among members of this generation," he said, but it does not necessarily mean a return to organized religion.
Of the 76-million members of the baby boom generation _ almost all of whom had something of a religious upbringing _ Roof found that a third never stopped going to church. Of the two-thirds who dropped out for at least two years, about 40 percent of them, or a quarter of all boomers, have returned.
Religious leaders can take heart: 58 percent of this group attends church or synagogues. Or they can lament that most of the dropouts remain absent. Roof divides these into what he calls "believers, but not belongers" and "seekers." Only 5 percent of the baby boomers declare themselves either atheists (1 percent) or agnostics.
The believers, 28 percent of the generation, remain very interested in religious questions, but they keep their distance from religious groups. The seekers, 9 percent, keep hopping from faith to faith. Roof recalled one seeker, a school counselor who went from "love-ins" and drugs in the 1960s to macrobiotics, Zen Buddhism and American Indian rituals. The woman, who built a sweat lodge in her back yard, speaks of being "into Quakers a lot these days," he said.
Despite the wildly different spiritual pilgrimages of many boomers, Roof learned that "boomers talk in very similar ways, no matter if they are talking about an evangelical church or a New Age gathering," he said. "Their language has to do with, "I'm looking for a place where I feel comfortable.' "
Roof's research team first obtained telephone interviews from about 1,600
baby boomers in four states _ California, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Ohio _ chosen for regional balance, and, for comparison, about 1,000 "pre-boomers." Later it asked 536 of the boomers additional questions. Finally 64 were questioned separately in face-to-face interviews and about 100 more in small groups.
Roof traces his project back to a phone call he received in 1980 when he was teaching the sociology of religion at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. A church in Springfield called. It had once been the state's largest Congregational church, but was considering closing for lack of members. About a year later, the church went under.
His interest piqued, Roof began to investigate the decline in the membership of the older mainline Christian denominations. When research revealed a generation of young people who had dropped out when growing up, "I became interested in what happened to those people," he said. "Where were they 20 years later?"
Roof, who is 53, is a dropout of sorts himself. Raised a Methodist in South Carolina, he left the South for the first time in 1961 when he won a fellowship to Yale Divinity School. In the mid-'60s he returned to the state as a Methodist minister in Spartanburg, which was embroiled in the struggle for civil rights. Roof, who recalls it as an awful experience personally, said, "Coming back with a Yale degree stigmatized me. I was perceived as more liberal than I was."
After two years, Roof gave up his ministerial credentials and turned to graduate work in sociology at the University of North Carolina. "But my concern for the fate of religion was in no way undermined," he said. "I became interested in being a sociological commentator on religious trends."
Roof, whose friends call him a "proto-boomer," declines to categorize himself. However, he does identify with that generation's religious restlessness.
"There are times when the willingness to seek becomes more important than certainty of faith," he said. "We don't have to look too far into the Christian tradition to see support for that."
The boomer generation's emphasis on feeling rather than belief or tradition is paralleled by its stress on tolerance and exploration. Six out of 10 of those interviewed said it was "good to explore many differing religious teachings and learn from them." Asked whether they preferred a congregation "with an open attitude toward people's lifestyles, or one that is more strict," 65 percent of the conservative Protestants and 88 percent of the Catholics chose the open attitude.
Despite these findings, people brought up in liberal churches were more likely to drop out and less likely to return. Returning baby boomers are more likely to return to evangelical conservative churches.
"Aren't the liberals doing what people really like, opening things up, letting you ask questions, showing more tolerance toward different lifestyles?" Roof mused. "And yet they lose. It's a puzzling question, and I don't know if we've really got a very good answer."
He credits evangelical churches with "provoking a compelling religious response." Conservative churches have used lively music, big screens and congregational microphones to "get people involved in the act of faith," Roof said, and they have proved flexible in sponsoring small groups centered on people's needs _ everything from 12-step programs to singles groups and sports clubs.
"Boomers are looking for action," Roof said. But they are also looking for an identity, he added, "and the evangelicals, with their more clear-cut beliefs and boundaries, are better equipped to provide it than are the liberals."
A Generation of Seekers confirms what sociologists already knew about religion and the life cycle: that people tend to drop out of organized religion in late adolescence or early adulthood and then to return in the face of midlife crises or when children reach an age for moral or religious education.
But Roof's research led him to emphasize the importance of a generational event like the political turmoil and countercultural experimentation of the 1960s. Virtually every difference in religious involvement, his study maintains, is correlated to a varying degree of exposure to radical politics, rock music and experimentation with drugs and sex.
That implies that the post-boomer population will probably have yet another attitude toward religion, one Roof would love to start studying. "I'm intrigued with the twentysomething crowd," he said.