I’d rather burn out than fade away

Last week, my husband and I visited a congregation we’d first attended nearly thirty years ago. We didn’t see many familiar faces – not that we even would have recognized any of them. Thirty years is a long time, and people change. It is quite possible that a few of those folks from the days from when Flock Of Seagulls songs were in heavy rotation on the radio might have been there during last week’s visit. The large majority of the people there were our age (middle-age) and older. The congregation had flowered during the Jesus movement that swept through the boomer generation 30-40 years ago.

This wasn’t the church we visited, but the pic sure tells the story.

It was sobering to see so much gray hair, and so few little kids. (I mentioned another small congregation with a similar demographic in a blog post here.) These congregations have a “use by” date stamped on their doors, it seems. They’ve not been able to transmit their DNA to a new generation.

A lot of the children of these boomer++ parents have exited the church. Many still profess love for Jesus, but have a bitter taste towards the institution that claims to represent him. We can list the many painful reasons why: politics, marketing, crappy leaders, hypocrisy, abuse (verbal and sexual), irrelevance, nowhere to share the gifts they’ve been given…and on it goes. My sympathies are definitely with them, though I am not convinced that foregoing any sort of corporate gathering is the only alternative for de-churched young people. (Or de-churched boomers, for that matter.) It’s not easy out there, but finding a few others to prod you onward is at the heart of what spiritual community is meant to be.

“Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” – Hebrews 10:23-25

This Scripture passage is usually used to chide (or shame) non-attenders into re-upping. But after visiting the graying, non-reproducing congregation last week, I realize that it is entirely possible to give up meeting together even when you show up for a church service week after week. Somehow, the spurring toward love and good deeds fades to a gentle poke, then a just a memory. The memory of loving and doing is so real to a sundowning congregation that it feels like action, when it is simply history.  The congregation goes gray and its story fades to black.

I would rather burn out than fade away.

Have you ever been a part of a sundowning congregation? What was it like? What attempts were made to turn things around? Did these attempts work?

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