40+ And The Church / Creating A Culture Of Maturity

In my earlier posts in this series, I queried pastors and church leaders about their experience pastoring those over 40. (Click here if you’d like to have a peek at those posts.) Those responsible for shepherding their congregations are stretched in dozens of different directions on any given day. A discussion about how to effectively minister to older congregants may sound as though I’m suggesting adding another half-dozen tasks to that impossible to-do list.

As several respondents to that survey noted, some in this demographic tend to be the ones that utter that darling phrase that almost always sucks all the air from a room: “But we’ve always done it that way”. While some pastors noted that older members were key participants and leaders in their congregations, many other leaders expressed at least mild frustration with their perceptions of rigidity and immaturity among older members.

Each one of us is responsible for cultivating our individual relationship with the Lord. (Going to church every time the doors are open doesn’t automatically confer maturity on us. On the other hand, nor does avoiding any sort of corporate connection with other believers. We are not a constellation of disconnected individuals – we are all part of the Bride. One Bride. Singular.) That noted, our life together as believers is meant to form us as individuals as well as in expressing Christ’s love to the world he came to redeem.

It was a bit surprising to me when I surveyed pastors to hear that some of them really didn’t have a clear sense of how to nurture growth and spur toward spiritual maturity in their congregations. While a number cited things like church service attendance, programs, or sticking around for coffee hour after church (?!), quite a few confessed that they really hadn’t given the questions the attention it deserved. When some of these leaders express frustration that they’re dealing with immature older members, while sharing that they haven’t thought through at a deep level what spiritual maturity is or considered what they can do to cultivate a culture of maturity beyond program attendance and coffee hour banter, I can understand where friction and frustration would set in on both sides of the equation.

One small step toward changing this culture might be by inviting a small group that includes older members from the congregation (and maybe even someone who has downshifted involvement) to think through what lifelong discipleship can look like for those in their second adulthood who no longer buy the line that showing up at services, sticking around for coffee hour and then helping with VBS equals growing in faithfulness. This will likely mean the willingness on the part of church leaders to realize that a program or class will not be a quick-fix panacea. In my own informal conversations with my age peers, I’ve heard repeatedly that most are not looking for another 12-week program at church.  Most are far more interested in spiritual growth that flows out of a culture of spiritual direction – and of the kind of growth that comes as the church truly honors and supports the ministry (work, family, community, and/or cross-cultural mission) to which God has called them. For instance, “My former church didn’t really care about my vocation as a public school teacher. They only cared about whether I was available to teach a Sunday School class of 2nd graders.” If that was the case for this person (and I have no reason to believe it wasn’t), then it may be that her former church leaders had a bit of a maturity problem of their own.

A couple of notable posts have crossed my screen in the last twenty-four hours that address these issues. I commend both to you:

(1) Dr. Peter Enns reflects on his experience of “outgrowing” a particular congregation or faith tradition.

(2) The Barna Group’s latest study about whether we Americans believe church helps us grow in our faith.



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  • Boyd

    I believe you link to the Peter Enns article is incorrect.

    And did some pastor REALLY mention “coffee hour” as a means of nurturing growth??? Socializing happens, yes, but just because a Biblical term–fellowship–has been applied to the practice does not mean that it nurtures growth.

    That someone might actually think that simply gathering together to meet, and to mix, and to mingle WOULD be the path to spiritual growth astounds me.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy

      It’s called “Fellowshipping” (verb) in Christianese.

      • Boyd

        All I can say about this Christianese is that I would hope pastors, at the very least, are aware that simply calling something “Fellowshipping” doesn’t mean that Fellowship is taking place. Good grief! People can call a squirrel a giraffe all day long if they want to, but the squirrel won’t magically be transformed into a giraffe simply because they want it to happen or because people use a certain term to describe it. Coffee time may be called “Fellowshipping” in Christianese, but Pastors should know better.

        People enjoy socializing; it’s not evil to enjoy socializing. But that is likely all that sitting around and drinking coffee amounts to. So I’m not even sure Fellowship is truly happening during these Mocha Moments. Socializing? Yes. Fellowship? Maybe. Maybe not. And, yet, Michelle indicates that at least one pastor thought Coffee Hour was, indeed, a means to maturity and spiritual

        Mentoring may be what the pastor ASSUMED was happening over coffee, but I am not convinced that much mentoring goes on while sipping lattes, even though certain groups within Christianese speaking cultures may be convinced otherwise.
        Mentoring involves a great deal more than just “sharing the details of my life” with someone.

        I wonder how many pastors are using this Christianese as a way to baptize various activities with religious sounding terms without actually realizing that they don’t have a firm grasp on what it is they are describing or trying to create. At a very basic level, Mentoring entails a teacher and a pupil. Friendship MAY result from Mentoring, and it is wonderful when that happens, but creating friendship isn’t the primary goal. Teaching is. And
        simply sitting around and chatting doesn’t automatically produce a learning environment where deep teaching occurs. Chatting
        does, however, lend itself quite well to socializing, but if people are calling socializing by the term fellowshipping, then they likely aren’t aware that they aren’t doing what they think they are doing.

        So, if pastors and others are using some Christianese term for what they think is happening during Coffee Hour to describe what should be happening during Mentoring, it might well explain why they can call a squirrel a giraffe, even though those two animals
        look nothing alike. If no one ever examines either animal, eventually people will no longer have a firm grasp of what a squirrel is NOR what a giraffe is. But they will have become so used to the Christanese term for something because they
        know that somehow that term is supposed to be associated with what Christian people are doing or looking at. They may then
        get to the point where they apply their own spin on things and sooner or later start calling the animal a squiraffe. And no
        one will bat an eye and realize there is no such thing as a squiraffe.

        Mentoring is sipping a mocha latte and chit-chatting with someone with the goal being to develop a friendship?

        That’s a very scary squiraffe.

        • Michelle Van Loon


          LOVE IT.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Thanks for the note about the link. It’s fixed now. (This is the correct link: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peterenns/2014/03/leaving-a-church-well-or-is-your-church-spiritually-co-dependent/)

      And yes, a pastor did list coffee hour as one way in which spiritual growth happens in his/her church. I can not make this stuff up.

      • Boyd

        Maturity via the Mocha Latte Method? Well, someone certainly should write a book on how that works.
        You are right; you cannot make this stuff up. 🙁

  • For me, this is a great example of why the institutional church just doesn’t work. We are called to be a body with EVERY part actually functioning as it was designed to. But the IC culture, which has bought into the clergy/laity dichotomy, promotes immaturity by its very nature.

  • steve burdan

    Add another twist by including discipling issues for older SINGLE adults – more of us than ever nowadays…

    Also while the IC has downsides, there are far more advantages and conduits for God to work – it can’t be discounted, though it must be constantly tinkered with…