40+ Adults And The Church/An Update

40+ Adults And The Church/An Update May 1, 2013

Last week, I shared some preliminary results (here and here) and first thoughts (here) about what I was hearing from those who took my quick survey (here) asking those over 40 to reflect about their relationship with the local church. On Monday of this week, Dr. Scot McKnight highlighted the survey on his popular Jesus Creed blog (here). As a result of that exposure, nearly 400 people have now taken the survey. Because many Jesus Creed readers are church leaders, a few of the stats I’d reported last week shifted. But remarkably – or not! – many of those stats remained fairly static.

I’m giving an update on some of those stats today, and opening a discussion about what has been for me the most sobering and sacred component of the information coming in from the survey – the 289 unique responses to the question asking why respondents were more, less or just as involved in a local church as they were a decade ago. In my next post on the topic, I’ll take a closer look at those answers. I will also offer some thoughts about where this conversation is leading me, and where it might be leading at least a few others as well.

  • The gender balance of respondents shifted from last week’s 2/3 female, 1/3 male. This morning, the proportions are far more balanced: approximately 52% female, 47% male. A little better than 90% of respondents were between 40 and 65
  • Nearly 84% of respondents reported they were married, 10% said they were single (never married), and nearly 6% told me they were separated or divorced. Since I am a rank amateur when it comes to knowing how to best query demographic data, I do wonder if the way I worded question about marital status may have confused respondents. Those figures don’t entirely make sense to me. 
  • One basic proportion that held true to my first report was the length of time respondents attended their local church. 37% had attended their church for more than 10 years, 26% for between 4 and 9 years, 17% between 1 and 3 years, 9% less than 1 year, and 9% do not attend church. A number of people added comments explaining that they’d once been faithful church members for years – decades even – but due to burnout or relocation, no longer attended. Perhaps the starkest comment came from one church leader, who wrote, “I have pastored a church for over two years. If I were a congregation member, I would quite attending this church.” 
  • 52% of respondents reported that they were involved in both weekly corporate worship and participation in a church-based small group, Bible study or service/outreach ministry. An additional 21% said they attended weekly corporate worship services. The remainder of respondents attended less frequently, or not at all. A few commenters explained that they were pastors or leaders. I would assume in most cases this meant that they were in that 52%. A few noted that their primary faith community came via informal gatherings with others believers formed apart from an institutional church; a few others told me they were planning on leaving their current church soon. 
  • When asked if they were more, less or just as involved in a local church as they were 10 years ago, the stats were very nearly the same as last week’s: nearly 42% said they were less involved. 29% told me they were just as involved, and 25% said they’d gotten more involved. Because of the influx of new respondents – and many more men – via the Jesus Creed post, this stat may be the most revealing: almost half of us over age 40 are less involved in a local church than we were a decade ago. A few commenters added notes of explanation: “I have changed my understanding of what ‘church’ is biblically”, “MUCH less involved; used to be a part of the machinery. Now no involvement at all” and “More, but no longer formally as a member.” 

In response to my “Why?” question about their level of involvement today compared to a decade ago, I certainly heard from a number of people who were excited about being involved at church. “I just can’t give up on the church, flawed as it is,” wrote one respondent. Another cited his/her desire to be involved in effective outreach: “I want to reach the world for Christ through a mobilized local church.” Others cited their pastoral or lay leadership role as the thing that kept them spiritually involved and energized.

My best guesstimate about the ratio of answers given by the less-involved-than-a-decade-ago people to the more/just as involved people is about 2:1. Some may chalk it up to the fact that it’s easier to complain than compliment, but I didn’t hear much whining from those who’d dialed down or switched off their involvement in a local church.

I did hear sadness, burnout, anger and a deep desire for true community. I also heard people drawing boundary lines around their limited time and energy. And I heard a very strong distaste for the institutional insistence on lockstep theology and ideological uniformity among members. If one popular definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, I would characterize most of the less-involved group’s answers to the survey’s “why” question as coming from a longing to gain (or regain) spiritual sanity rather than engaging in an axe-grinding habit:  

I do not agree with the way “church” is done. I’ve been to “church” in every denomination. Each one is trying, but they are non-inclusive and only really love if you don’t ask questions and act just like them. Otherwise, you are considered questionable.

No longer find it helpful – continually being judged concerning my involvement, commitment, etc.

Decided I could no longer muster the energy to navigate the politics of “leadership”. So, I went stealth with my ministry and teach a Bible study for young women on a yearly & weekly basis. I’m no longer connected with the power struggles and fragile egos.

…As I’ve grown older, I find my needs have changed. I don’t need a weekly barrage of long, multi-point sermons going over and over the same basic areas of scripture and doctrine while avoiding large chunks of the Bible. I need something to the point that I will consider and chew on over the week. I don’t just want to be immersed in the church, I want to live out my faith in the community, and that takes time that previously I might have spent at other church activities.

Being part of a triple decker sandwich generation: youngest offspring finishing university and marrying (and moving); downsizing; health issues (self and hubby); caregiving aging parents (and helping them move); supporting parents as they die . . . challenging to have predictable time to commit to church involvement.

Burn out, kids grown, felt a bit suffocated in the rather non-porous church bubble, doubts.

One had to go…either the church or my faith. I chose my faith and left church. Why, largely lack of honesty about life, faith, etc. Too much pretension. I can’t play that game and church does not like people who don’t play that game.

…Sunday School is geared for “newbies” who have almost no understanding of Scripture or the church. Events designed to get people to “plug into community” are “child-centric” (Easter Egg hunts, Fall Festivals bouncy houses, face painting, games/rides, VBS, etc.)…Captial Campaign every 3 yrs to build new structures & keep things “fresh” and “new” and attractional to younger families w/ kids; etc.

Fewer opportunities for service without going through a multi-year training program, and then being allowed only to teach the pre-defined lesson for the week.

Don’t want the church to be my identity.

Tired of the way church is run and the failure to address some of the real life issues. Also, my wife and I left for 6 months and no one noticed. But they did call to ask me to teach Sunday school. I agreed and went back. We then realized that after being gone for 6 months (and not giving during that time) no one realized we have been gone, including people we sat next to each week. We wondered why we kept attending.

I was a pastor for 33 years. Was fired 3 1/2 years ago because the church didn’t grow. It’s been in decline since the 60s. I did 130 funerals in 8 years. I lost my house, my church, my income, my friends, my network. Didn’t have the energy to start over, but I do preach for a small church on Sunday mornings. So much silliness in church. No real depth, maturity or willing to change in order to welcome others. I guess I lost my calling. This has created a huge spiritual crisis for me. So much of what I hear Christians say sounds so foolish to me now. There is no real interest in and engagement with theodicy and so many significant issues.

Are those who’ve become less involved examples of narcissistic Boomers and older Busters who are just looking to get their needs met? Or is there something else happening here?

Is it possible that some of those in the second half of life might be outgrowing their local faith communities?

Stay tuned. This conversation is just getting started.

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  • Very, very interesting Michelle. I am most intrigued by your question about those in the second half of life outgrowing their faith communities. An organization housed in a facility and driven by numbers and budgets is very different from an organically growing Body. Perhaps we have confused the two.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      I think in many quarters that we’ve done exactly that, Judy.

  • Boyd

    Is the decline in involvement of the 40+ crowd possibly connected to their children’s ages? Highly visible church involvement for lay people often revolves around children. Young married couples without children may be more involved because their time committments do not involve all the various parenting responsiblities, although if parents were more involved 30 years ago, even the stay-at-home mom issue probably isn’t enough to explain all of the lack of involvement. Or they may spend years not develop the habit of being involved if they do not yet have children, and then they develop burnout when they are suddenly thrust into the deep end by shadowing their children for the next decade.

    Some of the lack of involvement may also stem from the fact that many mid-sized to large churches have jobs that used to require active involvement but now those things are channeled to paid workers, which means people don’t experience the need to do various things because those things simply get done without lay people’s input. Those who attend small churches or start-up churches often have to have high levels of committment because there is no one else to do what needs doing. This can lead to burnout, too.

    Also, women of young children are often involved in their own children’s church programming–things like working in the nursery, helping teaching Sunday School to young children, planning and executing VBS or Christmas/Easter programs, etc.–and those things are often on top of the advent into high involement in their young children’s educational needs. Once the children reach middle school age, however, women may no longer be involved in those types of things since their children have aged out of those church programs. And unless women have become involved in things that do not revolve around their own kids (assuming that there are highly visible non-paid things to do and they are aware of those things), they may drastically reduce their involvement once the high school years roll around. By the time college and the empty nest occur, many women who are 55+ may have stopped being engaged in the highly visible levels of involvment or have found other outlets besides “official” church involvement that foster relationships.

    Plus, men who work 50+ hr/wk may also have fewer involvement venues if their weekends are spent catching up on family time or household chores. Or men work from home, and they are never “off” from work since their cell phones and laptops keep them constantly plugged into work demands. Weekends and evenings are about the ever increasing demands of family, so church involvment gets reduced to some committee work that often is unsatisfying and/or unproductive. Or some men may start to view their involvement as simply writing checks to pay for other people to do the work that generations ago was done by members, and that leads to even less connection.

    And if both parents work full-time, I would think burnout would happen that much faster. People work beyond age 65,so they are caught in the same boat in terms of devoting their time. And even if people over the age of 65 started becoming involved in teaching Sunday School to 1st graders, today’s programs are often “high octane” ones that may not mesh well with people who no longer have the energy to keep up with 15-20 kids who are used to a go-go-go-go outlook on life.

    I’m no sociologist either, but I would think these things play at least some part in what’s happenning.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Good insights, Boyd. I agree with all of your thoughtful observations. Professionalization of ministry, which then often leaves the staff in the position of recruiting congregants to give of their precious time to do the grunt work – and the fact that a lot of church involvement cycles around children – both lead to a great big vacuum as congregants age out of that system.

    • So many thought provoking ideas here. I live in an area that has over 600 volunteer groups which means people must support at least 2 volunteer fund raisers a day each year. People will and do get out to support great people activities. So, what in the church can bring people to serve and volunteer and be active members? Our calling to bring “Good News ” to the poor, the widowed, the orphans needs to be updated. We still must see to those with needs!

    • Boulderjoe

      As I said, I’m new to the Faith Community and as a result of this topic, was wondering what will happen when we outgrow the “having children to take care of phase?” As an older parent I already have great, long-term friends. I am making new friends in the Church community and I’m sure some will stick to become long-term friends in my life. What else can we ask for? Friends, Community, Meaningful work, Faith?

  • Boulderjoe

    I’m 47 and new to church. I have younger children and I love the community that it provides. I like that it can provide a nucleus of community in a time when people are often moving for jobs, family, or schools. I’ve lost friends due to lifestyle factors but the church can possibly overcome that because it is inclusive towards the elderly, families, and singles.

    Aside from that, I have close friends that are searching for meaning.. I am the first to look toward organized religion and I find that my non religious friends are actually open to my explorations. I have always been the cynic but religion is helping me overcome that… stay tuned.. Good Job Michelle, I will return.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Boulderjoe, I’m so glad you’ve found a vibrant community for you and your family. You’re right – a church can (and should!) be a connecting point with God and with others. Your changed life and excitement about what you’re finding at your church must be intriguing to your not-yet-believing friends. That’s a great report.

      • Boyd


        I think that shadowing children in terms of invovlment may also contribute to a more “narrow’ pool of friends within a congregation–people associate with those in the church whose lives most closely mirror their own, so if once highly involved families leave in search of other “programs that best fit” their current life, or if adults no longer have as much interaction with other members due to no longer being highly involved in their children’s programs, there may be people who begin to develop a feeling of being “left out” of church life. For example, if they had high involvement in their young children’s programs that required a good deal of interacting with other members who were also involved in their own young children’s programs, that level of interaction may drastically decrease once the kids age out of the programs. If the majority of adult bonding occurred because of that interaction, adults might lose their “social” connection within the church once that involvement lessens which could start to make them feel “invisible” as church life continues to revolve around young children’s programs. The adults may have regularly attended for more than a decade, but once the “way to plug in” is gone, so, too, is the social fabric that held them together if their “peers” leave for greener pastures or no longer have a need to interact within the context of church.

        Also, I’m wondering if the same may also be true of Home Fellowship/ Small Group type settings–if people bonded together within one of those things but not with others outside of their small group, what happens when people are no longer active in that group? If a couple stayed connected to the same group of 6 – 8 other couples without broadening their interactions to the larger church, what happens if some of those 6 – 8 families move away or join another church? Or what happens if some of those 6 – 8 families begin to decrease their involvement–is there a domino effect? Or what happens if the small groups were really affinity groups and some of the 6 – 8 families are no longer interested in whatever was the orginal connection? I would guess that loss of the “tight knit” social group that existed a decade ago could contribute to a decrease in enthusiasm and involvement.
        Add in all the other things that people noted as to why they were less involved now than a decade ago, and perhaps we shouldn’t be so shocked that this is happening.

        • Michelle Van Loon

          Boyd, I definitely see how those involved in children’s ministry as a connection point with others could end up disconnected as their kids “age out”. I’ve experienced a bit of that myself. Though it is supposed to be Jesus that holds us together, we can get so focused on “giving Jesus to our kids” at church that we end up on the outside looking in when the kids are grown. I wrote a bit about this here: http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2012/august/why-friends-disappear-when-you-reach-midlife.html#more

          Ironically, small groups were supposed to be a solution to the lack of community many people experience in church – especially larger congregations. The ones who bond are actually ahead of the game. My husband and I have been in some groups that never clicked.

          It sounds like you’ve been there in both of these areas (small groups and children’s ministry). Any words of wisdom on how you navigated your relationship with the local church at midlife in light of the children’s min/small group shift issues?

          • Boyd

            My insights come from NOT being part of the “target market” since I have no children and am married to someone who does not attend church. Thus, I have never been part of the majority, and I get to see how things actually play out rather than be swept up by some sort of idealistic vision of the church.
            Because I have never been able to naturally “plug in” to the way many churches truly operate (no kids in a child-centric environment was one challenge plus being married to a non-attending spouse meant not being part of the couples OR widows or singles subgroups), I was able to watch the various patterns/trends of church life that people are only now discussing in books and on various blogs more than a decade after I first noticed them.

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  • Michelle Van Loon

    DaisyFlower, I just discovered this comment this morning (8/16!). Thank you so much for sharing your story here. I know several other women who could echo your words verbatim. Are you still involved in a church? How do you navigate the marginalization you feel?

    Being in a church culture that idolizes the nuclear family is not the picture I see in the NT, which presents the image of all of us together (“neither Jew nor Greek…”, married nor single…) being the family of God.