A few weeks ago, I wondered if it was just me having the same conversation with multiple friends who’d confessed to rethinking their relationship with their local church – or if there were others over 40 years of age floating on the same little pontoon. I put together a little online survey, and quickly discovered that this wasn’t a little pontoon, but great big ship.
The ship is so big, in fact, that I recognize my survey is a tiny first step in both measuring the tip of the iceberg and in recalibrating the ship’s coordinates. (Metaphor mixing intended.)
To read through the series of posts I’ve written about the results of the survey, click here.
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’s survey 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.
I’ve done a fair share of online writing on personal spiritual formation-type midlife topics, and plan to continue doing so. However, I find myself prayerfully considering if there might be something more than online posts (like a book) that would help both church leaders and those over 40 recognize and honor the ways God is at work in our lives and in our ministries within the body of Christ as we age. Please contact me if you have any additional thoughts on this topic.
I’ve been honored by each response I’ve received to my survey. I’ve read each one, and have worked hard to ensure that I’ve represented you fairly. Respondents, I am with you, and you are in my prayers.
Finally, I will leave the survey live for just a few more days if you want to add your thoughts. (Alas, I can’t afford to leave it up indefinitely or I would.)