What do Boomers want?

One of my first clues that I am not a Baby Boomer was that I like music on a pipe organ. Sometime during my first couple of years in ministry I went to a workshop on “Reaching Baby Boomers” where I learned that they identify organ music with ballparks and funeral parlors. The conclusion to which the workshop leaders jumped, then, was that a church that wants to reach baby boomers needs music that is not played by an organist.

I grew up in churches with organs. All through college I sang in the chapel choir which was usually accompanied by the organ. According to the experts I was the right age to be a Boomer, but according to the experts I didn’t like organ music.

It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I began to understand the problem. The leaders of the workshop had set up the wrong categories for understanding the preferences of “people my age.” It took Pat Boone and Little Richard to help me understand the real problem with reaching Boomers, and, for that matter, anyone who is unchurched.

In the 1950’s Pat Boone sold more records than any other artist or group. Yes, he even sold more than Elvis. Boone’s success can be attributed to the fact that he did cover versions of other people’s songs; and the songs he covered where by black musicians. In the 1950’s very few white folk would buy music performed by black musicians, but would buy it if it was performed by a white person.

So, in the early 90’s, at a youth ministry seminar, I saw video clips of Pat Boone performing one of his biggest sellers, “Tooty Fruity.” Immediately following his version, I saw a video clip of Little Richard, the author of the song, performing the same song.

Now, I didn’t grow up in the racially tense and divided time of the 1950’s, but I immediately asked myself, “Why would anyone want to listen to Pat Boone when they could hear this from Little Richard?” There was life in the song when its author sung it; for Boone it seemed to be simply words.

The problem Baby Boomers have (if any) with pipe organs was not the instrument, but that many of them had grown up in churches where it was played with no life or feeling. Many learned to associate the sound of a pipe organ with cold, passionless worship, or “going through the motions of church.”

Are we doing better than going through the motions of church?

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2 Responses to What do Boomers want?

  1. Richard H says:

    I’m another weirdo that likes organ music. You talk about the need for real life in music (of whatever kind or style). In a funeral home, a stereotypical organ location in popular culture, the musician (if there is one – often takes/cds are used) is hiding from the congregation. The occasion is thought to be somber, so the music is played to match.

    One other comment. Pipe organs sure are EXPENSIVE. We’re having ours renovated and it’s costing about 185k. That’s a lot of money for a small church in a small town. I think I can honestly say that I like organ music better than I like organs.

  2. What I see happening in churches, at least some I’ve been in, is this: (1) the “traditional” hymnals have been thrown out, and (2) all music is modeled after what is heard on “commercial xtian radio” or sold by the “xtian music industry”, on the theory it’s what people actually want to listen to.

    Some of this music is quite beautiful to hear on the radio, and the artists who perform it are often very talented, but the big problem with much of it is this: most of the congregation really cannot sing this sort of music because, except for the most musically proficient, it’s simply too hard to sing. So what happens is that many people get left out of the most important communal act that the church does: worshipping God together. They end up being bystanders and spectators. Thus, the music ends up being reduced to entertainment.

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