The First Church Of The Good Ol’ Days

A few years ago, 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 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 sitting in the pew next to us during the visit. The majority of the people in attendance were middle-age or older.   

It was sobering to see so much gray hair, and no little kids.

The congregation seemed to have a “use by” expiration date stamped on their doors. 

“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 by church leaders, friends or relative to prod those who’ve checked out of church 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.

I got the feeling that spurring one another toward love and good deeds had faded among this group to the intensity of a facebook poke (remember those?) before becoming just a memory. Some of the language used by both the pastor and the people with whom we chatted following the service gave us the impression that the memories of the good ol’ days felt as real as though they were happening @rightthismoment, instead of being bell-bottomed, Honeytree-soundtrack’d history.

I have no idea what this congregation may have tried over the three decades between our visits, but I could imagine that they probably may have attempted this, then that, then five other things, interspersed with a few intramural political battles. The day we visited, we sensed the comforting, nostalgic, sentimental coziness of the familiar shaped their small community in every way. On one hand, I’ll confess to envying the short-hand ease of relationships I sensed among the group. It was apparent many of them had been together for a long time. 

On the other hand, I felt sad because this just ain’t the way it’s meant to be as we age in a church community.

Is it? 

Have you ever been a part of a sundowning congregation? What was it like? Did you stay or leave? Why?

 

About Michelle Van Loon
  • Pat68

    “…it is entirely possible to give up meeting together even when you show up for a church service week after week.”

    Amen!

  • Boyd

    Hmmmm, why does the mere lack of children conjure up thoughts that members are not encouraging one another while the presence of children somehow brings to mind the idea that a church must be spurring one another on towards love and good deeds? Just because parenting is a difficult task that requires community does not mean that Christian encouragement it limited to issues related to parenthood, does it? Are love and good deeds limited to helping parents raise children? I realize that this is often the default mode of thinking, but I’m quite confused by the jump you made from seeing a congregation with all gray hair to thinking that the congregation was simply going through the motions and just showing up week after week without somehow being active in Kingdom work.

    • Carol Marshall

      I’m seeing both sides of this issue right now. To use the a propos analogy of a family: while a family does look forward to and rejoices in new life–such as we are doing with our recently arrived grandson–it is crucial to respect and care for the elderly–such as I am doing with my parents as they transition out of their long time home.
      I am seeing the church place so much emphasis on bringing in young families that their older saints are being neglected. The seniors are expected to give up their traditions, their time for serving, and their money for funding programs that often exclude them due to the focus on activities that are not appropriate for the elderly. The church might give lip service regarding the wisdom of the older members of the congregation but my observation is that unless they are speaking the “party line” their opinions are often marginalized at best, mocked at worst.
      Christianity Today did an article on the juvenilization of the church about a year ago. I believe this is an issue to be addressed in all seriousness. We need every age group to be represented and valued in the Body of Christ. Maybe older congregations such as Michelle has described are this way because they don’t feel welcomed, respected and affirmed by the up and comings.
      As in all things, the answer will probably lie somewhere in the middle. We all must allow the Spirit to examine our hearts to reveal if we are holding on too tightly to our own way of doing things.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Boyd, I appreciate the pushback! I am trying to make sense of the experience, which I first wrote about 3 years ago (but which I re-experienced a few months ago when visiting another church). The nostalgia of the service was characterized for me in the sole use of 1970′s and 80′s camp/praise songs (hymns – or even a mix of a few newer songs with the golden oldies would have given me less of a time warp experience, I ) and some of the cultural references in the message. The conversations we overheard among the small group, as well as the ones we had with a few people, gave us the impression that they’d stopped trying as a congregation. I would hope that they are involved in love and good works as individuals. Children are not the litmus test of love and good works.

      The fact that the congregation was basically a single generation of aging Jesus Movement people was sad for me because I could remember the congregation in its early days, teeming with kids and visitors. At some point, the kids grew up and left and the visitors stopped visiting, some sticking around to become a part of the body. Perhaps for me the lack of kids said that this congregation did have an expiration date stamped on it. And maybe it should. Still trying to figure this one out.

      • Boyd

        Just thinking through this ….
        Teeming with coverts would be a sign of the congregation’s health, correct? Teeming with kids and visitors, however, may simply be a sign of something else that has nothing to do with Christianity. Neighborhoods and cities cycle through “life stages” just as people do since neighborhoods and cities are comprised of people. That local churches draw from local neighborhoods in the cities they are located simply is how things work, so as a neighborhood or area “ages” so will a church.
        Suburban churches planted in the last 30 – 40 years ago may only now be experiencing this since many suburban neighborhoods were still “booming” as little as a decade ago.

        We see this geographically, too. Churches in “older” parts of the country, areas that were “booming” in the 1950s through the 1970s but experienced a population flight in the 1980s through the 1990s, will likely have churches that have fewer children and visitors simply because the population has shifted, not necessarily because the people in the pews are not actively seeking to serve Christ. I would anticipate that at some point in the next 30 years that the areas of the country which now have highly “vibrant” churches **based on the criteria of children and visitors** will have many “gray haired” churches, too, as population shifts continue to occur.

        Kids do not automatically inherit the faith of their parents, so seeing a church teeming with kids is absolutely no indication of its health, although in America we’ve been conditioned to think so since the last 60+ years have seen the rise of child-centric churches.

        Also, visitors may come and hear the Gospel, but that does not automatically translate into rebirth and repentance and transformation, although we’ve become conditioned to connecting a large number of visitors seen with the spiritual vitality of a church since the last several decades have seen the rise of seeker churches.

        A church can just as easily become more of a “country club” than a “hand or foot” of the Kingdom while teeming with children and visitors.

        • Boyd

          Also, I’m just thinking that Paul’s various assessments of churches’ vitality makes no mention of the presence of kids or visitors. Nor was the style of music (be that ” the sole use of 1970′s and 80′s camp/praise songs” or something else) part of his criteria for praise or lack thereof. Ditto for Christ’s assessment of churches in Revelation.

          My point is that I think we are unaware just how much our culture’s definition of church vitality shapes our expectation of what a “healthy” church is or isn’t. Remember, the cliché about a middle aged man buying a red corvette to regain a sense of “vitality” exists for a reason–we have become conditioned to thinking of vitality in terms of youthfulness, and youthfulness is about excitement and action and certain types of media, so we apply those criteria to churches. Growth quickly becomes narrowed to the category of numbers (families with kids and a steady stream of visitors?), not maturity, which is more about fruitfulness. Yet our culture has us swimming in books and blogs and conferences that emphasize the culture’s definition of vitality.
          Again, my point is that we may subconsciously be using the culture’s emphasis on “youthful” and “exciting” as well as our own Christian subculture’s definition of “programs we remember from our youth we associated with vibrant churches” as the criteria without realizing that is what we’re doing.

          • Michelle Van Loon

            Again, good questions, Boyd. I agree with you about our addiction to novelty. However, I do think a congregation that only has one age demographic does have an expiration date on it – whether it is a group that meets in a retirement home, the weary Jesus Freak group we visited, or a 20-something ministry like Willow Creek’s former Axis ministry or the former Chicago area Heart And Soul Cafe, which used to draw hundreds of teens every Saturday night.

            If you were to visit a church like the one I described in my post, how would you prayerfully assess whether it was a place for you? What markers of fruitfulness/faithfulness would you look for on a first visit?

          • Pat68

            A couple of markers for me is a congregation that is not intentional about reaching out to people outside of their congregation as well as their demographic and not actively seeking to grow in their faith. It’s easy for any group, regardless of age, race, class, to get stuck in a mold.

          • Boyd

            I agree with you that having ONLY one age bracket implies somewhere along the line that target marketing winnowed downed the congregation. Eventually some kind of expiration date is likely unless things change—30-something hipster churches that seem to be
            thriving now will become just as passé to future generations as the one you visited if they continue to try to appeal to just that group in order to grow.

            And I believe that may be the thing you’re looking for in
            terms of evaluation—what does a church mean by “growth” since if it is highly invested in target marketing, then “growth” will be almost exclusively about
            numbers rather than maturity. It will be a church that is all about evangelism at the expense of training disciples. I would have to ask myself, “Do I see signs of how this church promotes MATURITY across the age spectrum, or is everything “targeted” towards one life stage? Does the church appear to have lots of outlets for socializing but few for serving? Does the church’s sermons habitually
            emphasize the early aspects of discipleship to the exclusion of how life as a follower of Christ changes over time?” Or I might look to see if the church was
            located in an area that seemed like it afforded opportunity to boldly proclaim the Gospel but wasn’t showing signs of that—that evangelism was, in effect, dead. If I sensed that the church was tipping the scales too heavily either towards evangelism or the status quo, I would have to wonder what the long-term ramifications would be and pause.

            In other words, I’d ask myself specific questions like, “There appears to be lots of things that are appealing to 20-somethings but very little to appeal to 50-somethings, so is this church target marketing and probably
            developing a congregation that is more homogenous than heterogeneous?” Or I might have to ask myself, “Everything seems geared towards the established 60-something crowd with nothing for 30-something parents. Does that mean that homogeny has set in and that evangelism has taken a back seat to boldly proclaiming the gospel in this location?”

            Although being to spot these things from only an hour or so of very limited interaction will probably be impossible, there are probably certain clues that a particular
            church is heavily invested in reaching a narrow segment of the population: the music will be one type and the lyrics will repeat one concept; the sermons will be directed at one group via the use of specific jargon and illustrations and examples that resonate with a particular market segment; the servicing opportunities will be geared towards only one area which seems to be driven by personal preference rather than needs in the larger community; fellowship is touted as the highest Christian
            virtue at the expense of all others, including sacrifice; and as you observed, the people will be on one age bracket yet live in a more diversely populated area that could attract various ages.

            For example, a red flag will probably go up if the music is
            restricted to hymns from ONLY the 1500s through the 1700s. A red flag should probably also go up if ONLY
            rock band/light show praise and worship music with everyone swaying to the music a la a concert is played. Another red flag would be a sermon that uses ONLY the lingo of pop culture as support for concepts, specifically if those pop culture references are limited to a particular age bracket—60-somethings likely don’t regularly interact with
            Twitter, The Walking Dead, and Mumford and Sons, so they might not understand habitual references to such things. And a red flag should probably go up if all the sermon illustrations are so high brow as to indicate that a PhD in astrophysics is necessary to follow along. I would think a red flag would go up, too, if I saw little sacrificial serving opportunities or if I noticed that people generally viewed the church as a consumable—lots of self-serving
            programming was the only “service” listed on a website or in the bulletin or some other information source. Plus, as
            you noted, a red flag should probably go up if ONLY gray hair is spotted as well as if no gray hair is spotted or if the only gray haired people are such a small percentage. Ditto if NO children are spotted or if children far outnumber the adults. The same is true for a congregation where NO
            unmarried young adults are present or ONLY hipster 20-something unmarried adults are present. And even if there seems to be a mix of ages present, do I see that the young ONLY interact with the young and the old ONLY interact with the old because life stage based cliques probably means that the wisdom necessary to help transform the saints is not easily being transferred—a heterogeneous fellowship that is highly segregated is essentially just several homogenous congregations who simply occupy the same space for an hour or two.

            All of these things point to the idea that a congregation
            has gotten so narrow that it CANNOT attract those who don’t already fit the mold. It is unlikely that such a
            congregation will have enough diversity to be effective in promoting maturity. Only whatever is fashionable for a particular niche market will be highlighted. And it’s
            the presence of a fully established niche market that would make me pause—whatever the niche is. Unity and uniformity are not the same thing, so while no church will be without some “clumping” since human nature promotes birds of a feather to flock together, in terms of “vitality”
            I would look for INTENTIONAL things that seem to indicate the church is aware of the dangers of homogeny and is at least trying to NOT promote that.

          • Boyd

            In terms of fruitfulness, I sincerely doubt I’d be able to
            observe how well a congregation is being taught those things from a single Sunday visit, so I’m going to have to look for thing that point in a direction and imply fruitfulness. In other words, while there may be mention of fruitfulness in a sermon, I know that the teaching of such is a process where a foundation is laid and then built upon, so I’d have to look to see if the foundation is even present first. In a congregation of almost nothing by unmarried 20-somethings, the likelihood of having people present to pass along the wisdom of endurance that comes from having walked with Christ for decades is slim at best, so I’d have to actively search for HOW a congregation of all
            unmarried 20-somethings is passing along wisdom, not just knowledge. In terms of patience, do I see that people
            are reaching outside their comfort zone in terms of worship service preferences? Do people know that they actually have a preference? Do they recognize that there are other forms of worship if I mention them? What is their reaction to those forms? In terms of kindness and gentleness, how are people treating others who are not part of their “clique” or visitors? If I showed up at a “Biker Church” am I avoided because I’m not a biker? During the Welcome, do most people seek out visitors or do they gravitate to those they already know and view the time as simply a chance to carry on conversations that imply they already know one another while visitors are left alone? Are the people who most look like the target market the only ones who are treated with dignity, the ones who are greeted, the ones who are sought after? Are the elderly shown respect, which, again would be hard to gauge in an exclusively unmarried 20-something congregation? I’d also want to listen to the types of conversations the people are having before and after the worship service. Do they focus on superficially things no matter which group I move amongst or are some of the conversations deeper? And if I spoke with some of these people the week after the service, would they recall anything from the previous week, or is their religion more shallow and limited to the “here and now” and then forgotten by Monday morning? And what is the church’s reputation in the community at large? Do others even know it exists?

            Again, I don’t think one can make these kinds of
            observations from a one to two hour visit on any given Sunday. Most people, however, want to settle in quickly and not look under the hood, so to speak. But a person once told me that when looking for a church home, I shouldn’t be looking for the wonderful things I loved about a congregation. I needed to look at the weaknesses of a given congregation since all the wonderfulness would
            eventually wear off when the honeymoon is over, but the weaknesses might very well still be there. And it would be
            much harder to see the weaknesses and be emotionally taken in by the wonderfulness if I was desperate to settle in simply because I wanted a routine. If I looked, at least some of the weaknesses would be visible, and if I could live with those weaknesses, I could settle in since I’d know that when the honeymoon was over, I was prepared
            for the real work and the real mess of living alongside of other sinful human beings. I’d have something to share
            rather than wanting something to consume.

  • Boyd

    That the members of this congregation were able to short-hand their relationships was a sign of something wrong? It does indicate that newer members may not be joining at the same rate as when you were there 30 years ago, but I doubt all couples who have been married for 50 years and can short-hand their relationship would agree that the life has gone out of their marriage. Is it true for some couples? Sure. But the short-hand aspect of their relationship just indicates how large a shared history they have–one word tells the whole story.
    Also, that they remember the past with joy does not mean they aren’t also doing things now. Long-married couples often talk fondly of the “early years” of their marriage because the newness of it created lots of situations that had to be dealt with for the 1st time. It’s also why the baby books of first born children are full, but the books of third or fourth children often contain just a few items–the “newness” of that 1st tooth of that 1st laugh or that 1st smile is still important, but it has become “less than new” by then. It does not mean the third or fourth child is less loved or that the family is somehow in decline.

  • Ray Hooker

    I think there may be another issue going on here. There is a tendency to feel that we need to slant our entire service to the youngest. We don’t need to just be cool, but we need to drive the musical intensity to the point that it will appeal those in their teens and 20′s. It is 4 people casting an envelope of sound to drown out everyone else.. each is in their own cocoon. The music is carefully selected to a narrow band of time.. nothing too old. The programs that the pastoral staff works on promoting are largely geared to youth and the important band of 20-40. They are good people and want to reach others for Jesus. They just expect the older members are mature enough to take care of themselves. This is a church we used to attend.

    Contrast that to another church we used to attend. They are less than 200. It really seem to have changed little since we last attended in 1991. They are just a little grayer. They sing a lot of the same style and have added few people. It sounds dead. OTOH they helped started a spanish speaking church that is now larger than they are. They are passionately committed to reaching the poor and disadvantaged. They aren’t growing as a congregation but they are touching people for Jesus…. and those doing it are in their late 40′s and older.

    Finally there is another church. They have a mixture of ancient hymns and contemporary praise music. The congregation is largely young but it has people up into their early 80′s. The volume is kept at hand so that you can hear yourself. It is young but multi-generational. There is no attempt to focus simply on one generation. Also the church is liturgical but passionately biblical. Serving the poor is a big part of their vision. This is where we attend.

    What is the best approach? I can say that the multi-generational approach appeals to me most. I recognize that many different styles are needed. OTOH many churches have inadvertently looked past their aging members to try to reach the next generation. I think we can do better than that.

    Ray


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