40+ And The Church/What Pastors & Leaders Have To Say (Part 4)

Though Barna’s 2011 survey and my own less-scientific one last spring showed that those over 40 were leaving or greatly decreasing their involvement in their local churches in large numbers, I wondered what pastors of all ages observed about church involvement, attitudes and spiritual needs of the congregants in their second adulthoods, so I asked them. (Click here to see earlier posts about the results of this survey.)  Today, I’ll be sharing what some of these pastors had to say in response to the questions “Do you believe those over 40 may have spiritual/emotional concerns or needs that are not being adequately addressed within your church? If so, why might this be?”

Some respondents either didn’t have much contact with this age group, couldn’t see any demographically-specific issues, or hadn’t seen a driving reason to pursue the question:

“Probably. I am not near that age group and so I don’t know, but our leadership is and I am unaware of anything jumping out.”

“We haven’t even gotten there. We’re dealing with a very wounded and broken generation in their 20-30′s. We could use some older people with more wisdom to help this age group.”

“No aware of glaring concerns specific to that age group.”

“I am sure they do, but we are a tiny church with a mostly part-time staff and it is hard to meet everyone’s needs.”

“No, the (white, male) pastors are over 40 and design worship and study that reflects their particular generational ideals and concerns. They are typical Boomers (“It’s all about me”). They are not meeting the needs of the GI/Silent generation nor the GenXers or millenials.”

“No. The gospel presented as free of human traditions, transcends age groups, social-economic divisions. But it must be presented in a practical, readily assimilated form.”

A few respondents suggested that their 40+ congregants had “left the building” even if they were still present by checking out of their own spiritual lives or the life of the church:

“Of course they do, but they probably aren’t aware they do and don’t show up in very big numbers for anything that isn’t on Sunday mornings.”

“Likely. I feel like there are two issues. There are a huge number of hurting, shame-ridden individuals in this demographic. It’s a lot of work to convince them that they are needed, have something to offer, and they aren’t who they believer or who they have been told they are. There are also a number in our context who have served for a long time, take a long deserved break, and just don’t seem to re-engage. They seem to not just take breaks from serving, but breaks from their faith.”

“Many of these people are part of the rote, institutional life of the church. They do daily devotionals but much seems mechanical.”

“Most believe that they are OK and not worried about growing spiritually.”

Others noted that the questions were areas of genuine pastoral concern:

“Not enough conversation about these needs. Assumptions made based on observable habits.”

 “We are particularly considering the attendance at our children and youth programming on Wednesday nights (well over 100 families represented) versus what we offer parents at the same time (one small group gets fewer than 6 families represented). We want to engage particularly the intersection of faith and daily life by tackling issues like: raising children in faith; mental health stigma; faith after the kids are raised; etc.”

“Especially our older adults are craving small group experience. They are seeking places to belong.”

“Likely. I feel like there are two issues. There are a huge number of hurting, shame-ridden individuals in this demographic. It’s a lot of work to convince them that they are needed, have something to offer, and they aren’t who they believer or who they have been told they are. There are also a number in our context who have served for a long time, take a long deserved break, and just don’t seem to re-engage. They seem to not just take breaks from serving, but breaks from their faith.”

“Embracing the aging process, recognizing and lamenting fully what must be left behind while reorienting and marshalling remaining capabilities is the biggest challenge for many.”

While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to the questions, some leaders either didn’t believe there was a problem or had chosen to put their energies elsewhere, perhaps as a result of frustration with the “but we’ve always done it this way” traditionalists represented by the older crew. Other leaders were grappling with these issues.

If you could ask one of the groups of leaders above a question in response to their answers, what would it be?

In my next post, I’ll be doing a bit of thinking about how the responses of these pastors and leaders intersects with what I heard from congregants in my earlier survey.

 

Leaders, it’s not too late to take the survey! And if you do so before tomorrow at midnight Central time, you have an (optional) opportunity to toss your metaphorical hat into the ring to win an Amazon gift card.

About Michelle Van Loon
  • Boyd

    If I could ask a question of them, it would be
    “Do you believe those ***under 30*** may have spiritual/emotional concerns or needs that are not being adequately addressed within your church? If so, why might this be?”

    “Do you believe those ***between the ages of 14 – 24*** may have spiritual/emotional concerns or needs that are not being adequately addressed within your church? If so, why might this be?”
    In other words, do they see specific spiritual/emotional concerns or needs for SOME age demographics but not others? And if so, why?

    • Boyd

      Also, in all of your various posts about this issue, I found this comment to be the most troubling so far: There are also a number in our context who have served for a long time, take a long deserved break, and just don’t seem to re-engage. They seem to not just take breaks from serving, but breaks from their faith.”

      If this statement is not an anomaly and not simply specific to this individual respondent’s church, the implications are beyond troubling. If a significant number of American churches have a segment of people who check out and do not re-engage for significant periods of time AND the leaders across the denominational spectrum are either unaware or unconcerned, something much deeper is happening than just decreased involvement.

      That this respondent also thinks there may be a “break from faith” going on AND, again, leadership across the board is either unaware or unconcerned, this does not bode well. As I often tell “the younger” crowd, “being fascinated with the newest and shiniest gadget may not be the healthiest pattern to carve into a person’s life.” If this respondent’s observation is true and very few others sense this, AND if it is revealing a new trend of leaders who are so concerned with whatever the “newest and shiniest” demographic is that they lose sight of whomever is not part of that “new and shiny” group, I am deeply, deeply troubled.

      • Michelle Van Loon

        Again, great insights, Boyd. Regarding those who “take a break”, I believe a sizeable number of pepole who downshift their involvement do so because they’re burned out. The challenge for leaders is how to keep the program engine rolling via recruitment and cheerleading volunteers. There’s not much capacity to address issues of burnout among those who are making a move away from involvement.

        How would a pastor committed to deeply personal, redemptive, healing relationship address a burned out member’s concerns and struggles? What would he or she have to give up in order to pursue these folks? How could the gifts and services of trained spiritual directors be a part of this equation?

        So many questions…

        • Boyd

          Part of what I find so troubling is that, at least from the samples of leaders you’ve provided so far, there seems to be almost a complete absence of awareness on the part of some about just how much long-term damage is caused
          by THEIR own “lack of involvement” with those who have disengaged. If someone has “burned out” and gradually disengages over an extended period, I can understand a lack of awareness. But if this is happening to many people or it is happening to some people very rapidly, HOW can that disengagement continue for any significant length of time without leadership at least seeking to discover why? The only reason I can come up with off the top of my head is that something else constantly has the exclusive focus of the leadership.

          As I have often told “the younger crowd,” maintenance isn’t sexy, but if the church leadership doesn’t pay attention to maintaining what already exists, at some point the damage will pile up and the long-term effects could be devastating. It’s much easier AND FUN to focus on new buildings and new furniture and new “whatever,” but it
          demonstrates a lack of wisdom to neglect maintenance. If the existing roof leaks, if the existing chairs break, if the existing windows don’t get washed and repaired when cracked, if the existing carpets don’t get cleaned, if the existing floors don’t get swept, if the existing walls don’t
          get painted, if the existing landscaping is neglected … well, at some point, the price to be paid to fix what was ignored will be significant. If one of those things is neglected, a church may be able to “bite the bullet” and repair any damage done by the one abandoned thing. But if the pattern of leadership is to habitually neglect overall maintenance, then trying to fix all the neglected items may prove too costly.

          That same “maintenance isn’t sexy” concept holds true for
          relationships with people as well, and that’s what I see missing from the comments. If leaders are blind to the
          dangers of neglecting and abandoning those who no longer fall within the “new and shiny” demographic, those leaders may be running the risk of laying a foundation for a church to have serious long-term problems.

          • Boyd

            For example, if a water spot suddenly shows up on the ceiling, it’s probably a good idea to go up into the attic and see if there is a problem. If the water spot continues to
            get bigger and bigger AND NO ONE notices or has the time to go check, that speaks to a lack of wisdom. The same is true of people. If the burnout is gradual and pullback takes place over a period of years, then I can understand why a specific individual’s lack of engagement may not pop up on leaders’ radar. But if a person who was once highly active does a fairly fast drop out, the alarm bells ought to go off. A person who has been a committed member and who participated in Sunday School for years and years suddenly stops going to Sunday School completely and no one in leadership asks the person if there is a problem? Ouch. That same person who also volunteered for VBS year after year and then suddenly stops and no one in leadership asks the person if there is a problem? Double ouch. The person also had a Sunday
            morning worship habit that including not missing more than a handful of days over the last 2 decades suddenly starts missing weeks at a time and no one in leadership asks the person if there is a problem? That isn’t just ouch anymore. That kind of “lack of involvement” on the part of leadership shows a complete disregard for a person, and I doubt any person who had been “abandoned” by leaders in this way is going to “re-engage” any time soon. It also means the person’s lack of involvement will only continue.
            And since the issue—whatever it may be—wasn’t dealt with BY THE LEADERSHIP, the uninvolved person is likely to completely “slip through the cracks” after a certain point.

          • Boyd

            And if a group of people starts becoming uninvolved and the leadership doesn’t notice, there is likely more than just a “leaky roof” issue going on. Other maintenance issues are not being dealt with by the leadership if no one is noticing that a formerly active segment of the church is turning into pew potatoes.

          • Boyd

            Essentially, since the burned out person or group was never really on the leadership’s radar beyond being that of a some kind of “beast of burden” to be counted on to do the work of the programming or write the checks to pay for all the levels of programming, the person/group never really shows up on the leadership’s radar when he/she/they stop(s) being involved … except when the programming needs a beast of burden to harness for work.
            I cannot imagine anything but massive cognitive dissonance for any burned out member who is neglected and abandoned by leadership in this manner. The now non-involved pew potato also has to deal with being blamed for his/her lack of engagement or his/her faith is questioned by leaders? Ouch. I don’t image anything
            the leadership has to say will go over well at that point, (again, waiting too long to see what’s going on in the attic is unwise) and noting the absence of any real kind of TRAINED spiritual directors in most evangelical churches, I’d guess the pew potato will end up having to go it alone and find some new way to “be” part of a church or let go of any remaining ties. The leadership’s “lack of maintenance”
            revealed something that won’t simply vanish with a few words of encouragement here or there if the pew potato discovered church was only a façade, that a caring
            “family” where he/she had value was more illusionary than real.
            Even the slightest thoughts about “re-engaging” will be met with a remembrance that he/she had no value to the leadership beyond that of a “beast of burden.” Add in that since the leadership didn’t previously seek out the individual (when the water spot showed up on the ceiling), and I sincerely doubt the individual will now seek out leadership who thinks of him/her as someone who is “part of the rote, institutional life of the church” or “believe that they are OK and not worried about growing spiritually ” Ouch. Ouch. OUCH!

            I realize some in leadership are focused on the “brokenness” of the younger generation and/or are consumed with the day-to-day running of a business aspect of many churches, but how exactly does leadership go about fixing that kind of “brokenness” that they themselves cause?
            Anyone have the cell number for Solomon?

          • Michelle Van Loon

            You have captured where I am going in some of my conclusions – particularly this: “The now non-involved pew potato also has to deal with being blamed for his/her lack of engagement or his/her faith is questioned by leaders? Ouch. I don’t image anythingthe leadership has to say will go over well at that point, (again, waiting too long to see what’s going on in the attic is unwise) and noting the absence of any real kind of TRAINED spiritual directors in most evangelical churches, I’d guess the pew potato will end up having to go it alone and find some new way to “be” part of a church or let go of any remaining ties. The leadership’s ‘lack of maintenance’ revealed something that won’t simply vanish with a few words of encouragement here or there if the pew potato discovered church was only a façade, that a caring “family” where he/she had value was more illusionary than real.”

            Definitely, maintenance isn’t sexy. The church world needs more true pastors, and less communicators and visionaries. You comments are wise, insightful. If you are a pastor, something tells me that people don’t fall through the cracks in your congregation. Something else tells me that maybe, you’re not overseeing a multi-site industry, either.

            Thank you for what you’re sharing. Your analysis is very, very meaningful.

          • Boyd

            Not a pastor. :-D Just blessed to have spent my youth with a much “wiser” group of adults who laid a foundation I shall be forever thankful for since it has enabled me to avoid much of the church growth movement’s dangerous elements. I was taught to understood that “trendy” was often in direct conflict with long-term maturity. I was observant and learned from them to count the costs and not simply focus on the moment, and I guess they also taught me to have a BS meter long before any Millennial did since I’m always skeptical of “trendy” calling itself “real.”


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