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.