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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