40+ And The Church / The Connected Have Their Say

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 here, here and here.

However, 28% are just as involved and 25% are more involved in their local church than they were a decade ago. Here’s what a few in this slight majority had to say about why they’ve remained involved.

Some continued their involvement because of tradition or habit:

  • I believe that as Christians we are called to be a part and participate in a local congregation, as imperfect as any of them may be.
  • Love the Lord and enjoy being a member of the family of God,
  • We had children and it became important to my husband who grew up in the church.
  • Because I can’t just give up on the church, as flawed as it is.

They stayed involved because they enjoy the relationships they have in their church:

  • We love our church family and growing in our knowledge and love of Jesus.
  • Love the Lord and enjoy being a member of the family of God.

They’ve stayed committed to the same level of service in their congregation because they sensed their contributions were valued by others:

  • Our church started two satellite campuses, and I became actively involved in helping out (greeting, ushering, counting, etc.) at one of them.
  • I see the value of it and enjoy it.
  • I am more “on board” with what our church is doing now.
  • Hopefully because i am a bit more grown up, less self-involved. Also, I have been asked to be.

At least 10 people noted they were involved because they were paid/vocational clergy, and responsible for leading their congregations. One person stated, “ Paid my dues, moved into leadership.”

One person explained that he became more involved after his former church imploded. The small group of people who stayed behind were forced to rethink why they did what they did as a community:

  • Through several unfortunate events and indiscretions by leadership, the church dwindled to 30+ over a decade. Those of us left felt this an opportunity to re-envision church; lay leadership and teaching, intergenerational approach, living in loving community to minister to each other, our neighbors, and our small city, to disciple and mentor each other, to honestly wrestle with issues, to not be threatened by questions or doubt, flexibility in meeting (where and when), to give of our money and time, to commit to simplify our lives for more time with family, church community, and service. I am actively involved on the leadership team (1 of 3 elders), on the teaching team (teach 1 to 2 times per month), and actively serving with my family and brothers and sisters in Christ…For the first time in 54 years of church going I am experiencing community and purpose.

Community and purpose capture the heart of why most in the “just as involved” and “more involved” group stayed connected to their local churches, even if that purpose was simply force of habit.

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.

The way we in the church talk about what spiritual maturity looks like could certainly use some refining. And beyond talk, I believe we need some prayerful, soul-searching conversation about how to cultivate growth in people in every stage of life.

Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about cleansing rites, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And God permitting, we will do so. – Hebrews 6:1-3

In my next and final post in this series, I’ll offer some thoughts about the new questions that have arisen in my mind as a result of the response to the survey – and where I hope to see this conversation go from here.

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  • Tim

    Interesting points you gleaned, Michelle. And as for great preaching, that’s exactly how we chose our present church. I guess that puts us in the minority of your respondents.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Preaching/teaching is definitely a big factor for people. The fact that it didn’t make it onto the list may have been from the way I framed the question about the “why” behind a congregant’s involvement lack thereof. I wonder if the reason I didn’t see more reference to it is because great preaching may not always translate into rich community life in a church. Think of the number of churches – including those with big, online ministries – where a person can attend a church but stay uninvolved as anything more than an audience member.

    • Pat68

      I also look to good, sound teaching/preaching, Tim. I wonder if the fact that isn’t emphasized in a greater majority may have to do with what is lacking among some people today in terms of theology and deep-thinking. If that’s not a part of a person’s life, then they’re not necessarily going to look for it and may not even see it as something that they lack.

      • Tim

        Could be. Another possibility is that the survey respondents have solid preaching at all the various churches they attend, and it’s something else that is driving them elsewhere.

      • Boyd

        Another possible reason for not listing sound preaching is that so much is available online, just a mouse click away.

        If people are able to find solid preaching somewhere that isn’t local, then they may be using other criteria for their decision to stay or go.

        I will add that because of the available online sources, it does make finding preaching that lines up with pre-existing beliefs easier, so having to struggle with various issues while staying at a particular church is less a given than 50 years ago.

        I’m not sure it is a question of something people aren’t aware of as being lacking if they are finding things online.