“I wonder what the average age is of the group in this room.”
Author and pastor Ian Morgan Cron scanned the group gathered in the chapel at Willow Creek last Sunday night for the experimental gathering dubbed The Practice. He was there to speak about, then lead us in communion. While there were a good number of twenty- and thirty-somethings representing, the crowd definitely skewed to older Gen X’ers and Boomers. Probably because there is no childcare or children’s programming available at that time, the demographic that seemed to be light in the room were the parents of kids under 18.
I’ve written a lot (click here, here, or here for starters) about the quiet exodus of the very crowd that has been quietly slipping out the back door of their local churches as they’ve hit their empty-nester years. One thing I discovered about as I’ve researched this topic is that many of us are have become burned out on “doing church” as we’d done it in our builder years. However, at this point in our lives, we know that the cure for burn out isn’t novelty or more things to add to our spiritual to-do list. We’re looking for meaning.
My husband and I have been attending The Practice since the third or fourth week they began meeting though we’ve never been Willow Creek attenders. The gathering is, in some profound ways, the opposite of what Willow Creek has become known for. The worship service is shaped using formal liturgical rhythms. The focus of the room isn’t a stage with overheads, but a communion table. We are encouraged during the service to turn to another person or two and respond to a verbal prompt. There is space for silence. There aren’t always sermons in the traditional sense; we’ve done lectio divina as a group instead. The focus is on formation, not seeker-sensitive evangelism.
And yet, the room on Sunday nights is full of seekers. The hunger for God is palpable among us.Because The Practice is an experiment – a very well thought-out experiment, but an experiment nonetheless – it is far too soon to draw any conclusions about it. Because of its organic nature, it most definitely is not the kind of thing that could become (perish the thought) a packaged program to export and sell to other churches as a way to reach congregants over age 40. In part this is because its not about the two hours we’re in that chapel gathered around the table on Sunday nights. It is about the rest of our week, with the accent on forming and living into a rule for our lives. The other part of the equation is that this sort of thing needs to grow in the soil of a local church because leaders are willing to cultivate that soil deeply instead of relying on the “harvest” netted from quick-growing, shallow-rooted hybrid seeds.
My writing and reading on the topic of the relationship of those over 40 and their local church has given me lots of questions about spiritual formation for those in their second adulthoods, and why so many churches lose connection with their older members. (And I can’t count the number of singles of many ages I’ve heard from in the course of my writing, all of whom express the same sentiments of feeling marginalized by the congregation because they aren’t part of a traditional family unit that includes children under 18.) I’m searching for examples of how churches and individuals alike are addressing these issues in a healthy, mature manner. Contact me if you have a good lead for me! Meanwhile, I’m grateful to show up on these Sunday nights at Willow as I watch them attempt to answer this question for seasoned believers, and hungry ones.
I am both.