40+ and the Local Church

Michelle van Loon carried out an extensive study, though not scientific, of the church attendance of 40+ folks, and his post draws from her last two posts (here and here):

I’ve received more than 400 responses to date from those over 40 when I queried them about their relationship with the local church, I saw a trend among respondents away from the same level of involvement they’d had a decade earlier. I’ve reported on what I was hearing from people who took the survey herehere and here.

However, 28% are just as involved and 25% are more involved in their local church than they were a decade ago….

Not surprisingly, the search for community and purpose are why the other 47% downshifted their involvement in their local churches. Because most churches tend to focus on the spiritual tasks and content associated with first-half of life foundation-building, those in their second half who find a place of meaningful connection in their local body will stick around. Precious few people mentioned their church’s great preaching, teaching or inspiring worship services as a motivating factor in their continued or increased involvement. 

Many church leaders use language with their congregants that implies (or in some cases, state outright) that involvement in a local church’s programming is a mark of spiritual maturity. A few of those who took my survey echoed those sentiments.

But many more didn’t. In fact, I heard the opposite from not only the 47% of post-40 church downshifters, but from many in the “continued or increased” camp as well….

Today, a few final thoughts about where I’d hope this conversation might go from here:

First, further study on the topic is desperately needed. This study needs to be done by someone with some serious academic/research chops, and the results of that study belong in the conversation about spiritual formation at the seminary level and as part of the conference/ongoing training in which “on-the-job” church leaders partake. I’m encouraged by the fact that I’ve heard from a couple of academics interested in the results of my survey. Though my results aren’t scientific, the volume and nature of the responses I’ve received offers a helpful direction if someone out there could find the funding the do further work in this area. Pollster George Barna’ssurvey captured the trend of “Over 40′s” downshifting or ceasing congregational involvement. My questions were a starting place to find out why this is happening.

Next, church leaders must do some serious thinking about their models for spiritual health, growth and church “success”. Yes, I know there are hundreds of people speaking and writing about how and why to do this, all promoting their specific fix for the problems of our churches (Be missional! Be multi-site! Formal liturgy/modern worship/yada yada yada! Reformed theology! Reach families/youth!). The focus many leaders have had on endlessly building and tinkering with church forms and structures has burned (and burned out) a sizeable number of older members. Many of my survey’s respondents willingly participated in earlier versions of the same old carnival ride when they were younger and wisely recognize that it is insanity to keep repeating the same cycle of church life and expect different results.

Third, church leaders need to reconsider how they speak of and nurture spiritual maturity in their congregations. The fact that almost half of those over 40 who took my survey are less involved in their congregations today than they were ten years ago is, in many cases, a marker of their spiritual maturity, though precious few church leaders would likely assess it in that way. Many older people are limited from church involvement because they’re caregivers for frail parents, ill spouses or their grandkids. Others have “aged out” of their church’s family-centered programming, and have found other ways in their community to connect, serve, mentor and learn. Filling a slot on a church org chart may be a sign of a member’s church commitment, but it is not a measure of his or her spiritual maturity. Churches that understand themselves as launch pads rather than destinations appear to be poised to best equip those over 40 to flourish when those in their second adulthood are bearing their fruit outside the four walls of a local church. These congregations that embrace and celebrate these people will have the additional benefit of continuing to access these members’ gifts, experience and presence.

Fourth, those over 40 must recognize we are very susceptible to our culture’s temptation to individualize and isolate. These are not small temptations, but they are familiar ones to most of us. Quite a few of my survey’s respondents had explained that they weren’t pursuing any sort of spiritual community at all these days. Others had hair-raising stories of spiritual abuse, and admitted they were currently hanging on to church by just a thread. We may be able to protect ourselves from further wounding by isolating ourselves from other Christians, but we won’t be able to grow past the hurt, which is God’s loving intention for us. Prayer, a book or Bible study with one or two others can create healing community.

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  • Pat68

    I participated in Michelle’s survey and have long felt this was a demographic that needed to be studied. So much attention has been give to the millenials (and rightly so) that I think we’ve ignored what was bubbling up among the 40+ crowd. Maybe we would be better off at just looking at what can be done to retain and nurture people in our congregations and then look at age-specific solutions vs. merely focusing on one age group or other demographic to the exclusion of others. Because while we focus on one group, the other group is experiencing their own challenges that go unnoticed or unchecked until we finally wake up to the reality that they’re no longer with us. The trick is to identify trends as they’re happening, not after the fact.

  • Tom F.

    Part of this may be developmental/life stage. I think that this is an important aspect, but focusing too much on age-specific problems might miss the broader reality: today’s 40’s are a different generation than 10-20 years ago.

    In fact, according to Pew, at least in affliation, today’s 40 something’s identify as religious unaffliated 50% more often than the 40 somethings of a generation ago. And actually, they were 50% more often unaffliated as 20’s and 30’s somethings too. So, it could be that there’s no change amongst the actual people in involvement, its just very noticeable that all the Boomer 40-somethings have all aged out of this group in the past decade.

    I think what is happening is that the 40-early 50 demographic in churches is all Generation X now. What appears to be developmental/life-stage is at least partially just the all the X folks moving up in the age cohort. Generation X isn’t just less likely to be involved in a church: they are less likely to be part of *any* social institution. This suggests that there may be an interaction between life-stage and generation: perhaps some Generation X folks hold on in churches hoping that things would change, but that by 40, increasing numbers of them are giving up.

    Anecodotally, when our church experienced a major conflict recently, a disproportionate number of 40-somethings were involved in the conflict and then also left as a result. Our church became very U-shaped: a large number of 20 and early 30-somethings, and then a few 60+. I wonder if some of Generation X hold on in churches thinking that when they got older, they would be able to be empowered an in leadership like Boomers were at 40-something in the church. However, once X’ers got to 40, they found that the Boomers were still holding on to power, and not interested in empowering generation X.

    http://www.pewforum.org/Unaffiliated/nones-on-the-rise.aspx (See “Generational

    http://www.people-press.org/2011/11/03/section-1-how-generations-have-changed/ (“Generations, Social Issues, and Religion”)