40+ And The Church / Survey Final

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.)  

About Michelle Van Loon
  • http://connectingdotstogod.com/ Judy Allen

    Well done, Michelle. I could not agree more with your conclusions and recommendations.

  • Boyd

    “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.”
    I, too, hope that some real hard data can be gleaned from this topic. The time for looking at “how to reach the next group” as an exclusive area of research probably needs to end. Evangelism is a necessary thing, but the focus cannot continue to remain on how to target the next emerging group.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Amen! “Targeting the next emerging group” can be evangelism – or just good ol’ marketing. :)

  • http://www.the-white-stone.blogspot.com Brian Owen

    I’ve really benefited from reading through this thoughtful series. Thanks for the hard work of putting this together.

    Two thoughts:

    1. Your observations remind me of the research coming out of Willow Creek’s REVEAL study. According to this survey, those in the earlier stages of spiritual growth have a more formal organized relationship with the Church and need more “hands on” direction and help with spiritual growth and serving opportunities, while those in the later stages have a more informal, organic relationship with the local church…still participating but not as dependent on formal, structured activities.

    2. During my time in seminary, I was under the tutelage of Dr. John Coe, head of the Institute for Spiritual Formation at Talbot School of Theology. His class on “Developmental Spirituality and Contemplative Prayer” was paradigm shifting for me and help provide a road map for the dry and dark times I was experiencing in my life with God as I entered mid-life. You might find his public lectures on this topic to be helpful to your research. You can find them here:

    http://www.biola.edu/spiritualformation/lecture/

    Of the 5 lectures listed, you’ll want to listen to the lectures entitled “Drawing Near to God when God seems Far Away” and “Going on with God in Dark Nights.”

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Brian, thanks for your kind words. I’ve bookmarked the Biola lectures, and plan to listen to them soon.

      I was reminded of the REVEAL study, too. I read it when it first released, and followed along as they shared additional findings. I don’t recall if the study addressed how churches can deal well with those who are maturing in their faith. One thing I heard loud and clear from many respondents in my informal study was that they often felt marginalized by church leaders once they moved out of the “desirable” family-with-kids demographic. And of course, many of them choose to move on or decelerate their connection as they entered new phases of their lives.

      • Boyd

        I have often wondered if the “idea” that kids make a decision for Christ by age 12 shifted to became a “factual error” and the fear that churches would somehow miss the window of opportunity became the engine that drove so much of the **desirable family-with-kids demographic** that has became the foundation of so much of church life in the later 20th Century and beyond.
        As parents became more and more fearful of losing that “factual” window with respect of their own children, did they encourage changes in church life so reflect an emphasis on “the family” or did the church get swept along with the greater culture and its emphasis on youth and, thus, children?
        I would love to see research on that, too.
        As for how churches deal with those who are maturing in their faith, I think history has a lot to show us–the current situation has not always been the way most churches operated, so a look backwards to a time less “famiy-with-kids demographic” centric would likely be helpful.

  • Pingback: What’s on Your Spiritual Bucket List? | Kim Karpeles


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