40+ Adults And The Church / Outgrowing The Congregation?

Is it possible to spiritually “outgrow” a local congregation?

It is not only possible, it happens more often than you’d think. One trend I saw in my poll of those over 40 was that a notable percentage of those who’d changed churches or decreased their level of “official” involvement at their present congregation did so because they’d grown past what the church offered.

I’ve met precious few church leaders who believe that anyone could “outgrow” their congregation. Think about it. When was the last time you heard a church leader explain the departure of a long-time member who’s chosen a different faith community in glowing terms?* “Ken and Julie have left our beloved Baptist church to join Messiah Lutheran because they believe God has called them there, and frankly, we don’t have much to offer them beyond great preaching, the opportunity to help out at Awanas, and Ken’s role as a deacon, which is basically a building caretaker. They’ll be able to grow much deeper there because they’re going to become Stephen Ministers at the church and use their gifts of encouragement and service in a much more meaningful way. Too, their new church has a great history of spiritual formation-oriented small groups, and we are praying they find rich growth and deeper connection with God in their new congregation just up the street. May God bless you, Ken and Julie. We love you and are grateful for the time we’ve had with you in this church.”

Most pastors work very hard to keep the organizational plates spinning. They’re overseeing and encouraging participation in the programs of the church – programs created for the purpose of helping people grow. They’re writing sermons and leading services meant to point people at Jesus, the One who transforms lives. Though in theory they may have a kingdom mindset that says that their congregation isn’t the only church on the planet, the reality is that when a member leaves, it can hurt like the dickens.

To release people who’ve maxed out at a church is to acknowledge a congregation’s limitations and weaknesses. It also means that a church leader is losing someone who would likely be a strong ministry leader, or at the least, a committed helper/servant. It is a lot easier for some to demonize the leavers by questioning their motives or (ironically) challenging their maturity. “If they were really mature, they’d be more willing to serve here instead of taking their toys and moving on to somewhere where they would get their ‘needs’ met.”

Those over 40 grew up in what was dubbed as the Me Generation. The questions of selfishness are legit and need to be answered. But as I’ve already pointed out here, many who leave churches have valid and important reasons for doing so. What I’m hearing from those who’ve responded to my survey is that growth has often taken them out of churches where they’ve grown weary of passivity (all meaningful ministry is reserved for paid staff, or limited by gender/racial beliefs held by the leadership team) or the constant requests for time and money to support the ego-driven “vision” of a leader. I believe both of those reasons are markers of growth in a leaver, not a sign of selfishness.

Others who’ve changed congregations or stopped attending entirely noted that they’d found other non-Sunday-morning-in-a-church-building-centric forms of community, worship and service. And if you think a church leader might struggle to release Ken and Julie to move from independent Baptist to mainline Lutheran, imagine how difficult (and at first – and maybe second blush, irresponsible and uncaring) it would seem for a leader to release someone to…a small group, a parachurch ministry or community service with a side of podcast or online sermon watching.

With or without a pastor’s “permission”, people do move on because they’ve outgrown a congregation. And I find myself wondering today if it is harder to outgrow a church that understands itself to be a resource and a launch pad than it is to leave a church that functions as a spiritual destination. Few churches use this language of themselves, but that doesn’t change the reality that some congregations are precisely that – organizational terminal points for learning, worship and service.

If you attend or know of a church that has done a good job releasing those who may have outgrown it, I am anxious to hear from you. Contact me here.

A peek ahead at some upcoming posts in the 40+ Adults And The Church survey series:

  • Beyond Sunday morning church attendance 
  • The question of time 
  • A look at those who are flourishing in their local church

Elsewhere on the web, a complementary conversation touching on some of the same themes I’m discussing here might be of interest to some of you: The Respectful Conversation Project around the theme of “American Evangelicalism: Present Conditions, Future Possibilities”. One person who took the time to write me last week pointed me toward it, and iMonk has a series of links to the first entries here.

*It really can happen. One example from my own life: My Jewish parents allowed me to attend Young Life meetings from time to time when I was in high school, and I remember asking a leader why all the messages seemed so basic. I’d been a believer for a couple of years at this point, and the YL leader told me that I had probably spiritually outgrown the evangelism-focused club meetings. He did invite me to attend the Campaigners’ Bible study, which went a bit deeper than the inspirational devotional bits at the club. 

 

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About Michelle Van Loon
  • drew

    Same goes for small groups. Teaching leaders/members that it’s ok for the group to hit the point where we’ve learned what we can from each other and should mix it up.

    As to the main point, consider the reverse problem (I’ve experienced it): recognizing a person needs a new location for healthy growth and them feeling kicked out! It seems that some embrace change too often to avoid accountability or chasing a me-first mentality, while others resist change because new is scary when it might be better for them!

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Drew, there are definitely people out there who are religious consumers. Some switch churches whenever their feathers get ruffled. But I think a good number of those who’ve been branded as consumers may be those who are struggling to find their fit.

      And yes, there’s a conversation that needs to be held about those who’ve calcified themselves, refusing to change or grow. They’re sprinkled throughout the church, aren’t they?

      • drew

        That’s one thing that can be so healthy about a denomination or something like Christ Together. If your heart is all about food pantries…and we don’t have one but a sister church DOES, then why not share servants? And if a person ends up “switching” churches because their gifts are used effectively there than they haven’t really left a church at all, they’ve just relocated in The Church. Thanks for your work on this. I think leaders need more training to go beyond just not fearing those who migrate, but on how to assist transitions in healthy ways.

  • Boyd

    Two comment stood out:

    ” I’d been a believer for a couple of years at this point, and the YL leader told me that I had probably spiritually outgrown the evangelism-focused club meetings.”

    and

    “They’re writing sermons and leading services meant to point people at Jesus, the One who transforms lives.”

    Unless churches have a plan in place to transition people who’ve “outgrown the evangelism-focused club meetings,” then what happens after they’ve been evangelized? And if “sermons [are] meant to point people ***AT*** Jesus,” what happens once they’ve been introduced to Jesus if the church stays focused on evangelism? Is part of the problem that many congregations have hired Evangelists to lead churches instead of Pastors rather than sending Evangelists out from their midst into the community?

  • http://connectingdotstogod.com/ Judy Allen

    “And I find myself wondering today if it is harder to outgrow a church that understands itself to be a resource and a launch pad than it is to leave a church that functions as a spiritual destination.” For me this is the heart of the issue. I can’t express it any better than you just did. Well done.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Judy, thank you!

  • Boyd

    “If they were really mature, they’d be more willing to serve here instead of taking their toys and moving on to somewhere where they would get their ‘needs’ met.”
    Why are their needs any less valid?

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Boyd, I wrote this quote as if an uncaring church leader was saying it, as an illustration of what selfish pastoring can sound like.

      I actually heard a pastor speak very similar words about a person who’d just left that pastor’s church. There wasn’t one drop of blessing in those words – just curse-filled anger and disappointment. I’m sure there was a story behind those words. Maybe the pastor had poured hours into working with this person. Maybe the person shouldered a lot of responsibility in the church. But in the end, the pastor’s mean words had more to do with building his kingdom than building THE kingdom.

      Absolutely, the leavers’ needs are valid.

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