40+ And The Church / A Matter Of Time

40+ And The Church / A Matter Of Time May 10, 2013

Three weeks ago, I posted a brief survey querying those over 40 about their experience with the local church. I’ve been sharing results of this survey (here, here and here), and am still collecting responses here if you’re interested in sharing your thoughts. It may not be a very scientific instrument, but the results most definitely call further study and conversation.

One theme that emerged in the responses to my question about why respondents were more, less or just as involved in their local church now versus a decade ago was the issue of time. This is not surprising, as one of the important emotional and spiritual tasks those in second half of life must navigate is coming to terms with the fact that our time on earth is limited. Health issues (for our parents or ourselves), career issues, and flagging energy. Some of those over 40, particularly those who are weary by doing years of laps around church programs and politics, appear to be less inclined to use their precious time to keep repeating the same sort of behavior.

25% of the respondents noted that as their career or family responsibilities lessened, they had more time to give to their local church than they did a decade ago. Here are a few examples of the kinds of answers I received from these individuals:

  • Less busy with my secular profession allowing more time for church and mission/ministry related activities.
  • My work schedule has changed to allow more participation. I no longer work nights and weekends.
  • In retirement I have more time! the interest was there, but not the time. 

28% said they were just as involved:

  • I am just as involved, but in wildly different activities. Before, we attended a “Bible church” and I was involved with typical Women’s ministry things (that I did not enjoy, but felt obligated to participate in). Now we attend an Episcopal church where my female-ness is appreciated and I’m considered for more than nursery duty.
  • My husband works for the church, so I kind of have to be involved.
  • Love the Lord and enjoy being a member of the family of God.

And from the 43% who explained their lessened involved due to the choices they’ve made (or that have been made for them) about the way they’ve chosen to use their time:

  • After 18 years membership and service in same church, husband became ill and disabled and I became his caregiver. We are unable to actively serve the church any longer, so we are ignored.
  • Increased commitment to career; decreased motivation to lead @ church.
  • 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
  • Want to be less busy and have more discretionary time.
  • My church seems to focus on involvement in programs and projects that have little lasting spiritual impact in the lives of those served.
  • As I’ve advanced in my career my hours at work make it difficult to commit to evening church events. I’m in management and more tired at end of day. But part of it is also my degree of excitement about my church.
  • I have two kids now. Work is very busy. I burned out when involved a decade ago and am determined not to do so again.

A few brief observations on those over 40 and the matter of time:

Some second adulthood members do have time and energy at this point of their lives and want to be involved in building. They live into their role as respected elders, serving as mentors, leaders, and willing servants in congregations that have valued their contributions, gifts and experience and provided them meaningful opportunities to do ministry. A healthy church culture will not manipulate members of any age into participating in order to serve a leader’s agenda or “vision”. The churches where older members are serving believe their older members are assets, not simply check-writers or audience members–or progress-blockers.

Some of these “over 40s” have taken what they’ve learned in their apprenticeship years serving in the local church to parachurch ministries or community service/missions organizations outside the church, electing instead to use their time in a way that offers a closer connection to their gifts and calling than they might find in their local church. These organizations are partners in the gospel, and can be extensions of the local church–if church leaders are able to expand and extend their definition of local churchto embrace the community work members are doing “off the ministry org chart”.

The other time-themed reality for many over 40 is that many have more, not fewer, responsibilities as they age. Some are caring for aging parents, troubled young adult children or are primary caregivers for their grandchildren. Instead of excluding them from the life of the church because they may not make it to Sunday services or small group, these caregivers are expanding and extending the work of the local church, too. In some church contexts, regular visits from other members bringing prayer and fellowship into a home – or practical service (meals, rides to doctors appointments, a few hours of respite care for families with long-term responsibilities for other family members) may be a far more powerful testimony of God’s care and a better use of church resources than banging out yet another one-week VBS program just like the one the church up the street is hosting.

The final time-themed observation is that relationships require an investment of time. Some of those who took the survey noted that they were driven from toxic institutional church settings by leaders who demanded members use their free time to fill and run church programs. A number reported experiencing the life of the Jesus more fully when they exited these high-commitment churches and gathered with other believers in more informal settings. A cup of coffee with meaningful spiritual conversation and/or prayer turns out to be more strengthening the false guilt that may have driven them when they were younger to jump on the church activity treadmill. Other respondents  had chosen to focus their time on career, and elected to extract themselves from church programming in order to have their remaining time available for family and friends.

And perhaps those two words – “remaining time” – are an important key in thinking about how older adults relate to their local church. A big part of what happens to us as we enter our second adulthood is coming to terms with the fact that our time on earth is limited. “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12) is a prayer that describes the questions those over 40 bring to God about the way they’re using their time, and to what end.

Upcoming (Lord willing!) in this series:

  • A look at those who are flourishing in their local church
  • What does maturing faith look like?
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  • Michelle: I’ve been thinking a lot about your survey results and what you’ve written in other posts. I have a couple of tentative ideas, partly based on my own experiences. First, I agree that much of church programming is aimed at the first stage of adulthood: young married classes give way to MOPS which give way to Children’s Church, which give way to teen ministry programs. Then the kids go to college and get married. What now? Tell the truth, do you really get excited about the children’s program or the teen musical when you aren’t related to the participants? (Whom do you record on your phone?)

    Second, and more importantly. the stages I listed above have one thing in common — they provide evidence of change. Remember when Sally was Mary at the Christmas program? Look at her now! Remember when Bob was a nervous teen in the youth group? We just dedicated his new baby. But what happens then? Once I’m in my 40s, are these experiences new? Do I have a sense of change over time? Or do I feel like a race car driver, going around the oval again and again, aware of my surroundings but mostly trying not to crash (the metaphor might run away on me).

    If I’m thinking about investing my time in church, and worry that it will be just the same as the other thousands of time I’ve been there, how will I know I’ve invested wisely? Could it be better for me to take that young couple out to breakfast and get to know them? Can’t we see that as meaningful worship?

    I’ll keep thinking about this.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Your thoughts are very timely, as a few older women in my area (many of whom have seminary degrees and/or decades of professional accomplishment) are hoping to figure out a way forward for us +40’s. Right now, I have more questions than answers.

      Your thoughts about the possible insanity of continuing to do the same thing each week are great observations. Is it really a wise investment of our limited time to do the same thing again and again? Of course, worship and learning are never a waste, but I think our definitions could use a little stretching. Worship can happen when cleaning a toilet – and it most certainly can happen across a breakfast table with a couple of young adults.

      Please do keep thinking about this, John! I’ll look forward to hearing from you as you get some more ‘ah ha!’ moments on the topic.

    • Boyd

      “Tell the truth, do you really get excited about the children’s program or the teen musical when you aren’t related to the participants?”

      The same holds true outside the church. How many people really get excited about the local elementary school fall festival once THEIR OWN KIDS have aged out and are in junior high or high school? Or how many people really get excited about the local high school musical when THEIR OWN KIDS have aged out and are in college? If so, then is the church is simply acting like the general culture rather than showing a contrast to it? How does following the culture’s lead help those in the 1st half of adulthood learn to become mature so that they will be productive in the 2nd half?

      If the excitement and subsequent commitment is … selfishly motivated? … then once the mini-me is out of the program, do I stay committed? What can churches do to
      1). point out the motivation (if it is selfish) and the problems with being selfish, even if it looks good (how can “loving my children” be bad?)

      2). move people in the 1st half of adulthood away from building a foundation on that kind of motivation?

    • Boyd

      I’m not sure I agree with your comment that “more importantly. the stages I listed above have one thing in common — they provide evidence of change.” I think they show evidence of aging, which implies a certain level of change, but not anything other than biological changes.
      If I look at Mary and think back to when she was in the Christmas program and then look at her now as a teen in the youth program but only see evidence of aging, not growing to maturity in Christ, I can also see how this would produce angst. Those who are not direct family members have invested time and resources in church programs that they believed existed to help children not simply age but grow into Christ-likeness, yet seeing a sea of Marys who have only aged could contribute to a drop in committment or excitement from the 40+ crowd. They see no evidence of “fruit” so they are not motivated to continue running along on the hampter wheel of church programming simply to support another generation of Marys who age without maturing.

    • harald joesaar

      What about Community? I’m a church newbie but not a life newbie. I’ve lived in a great College town for the last 20+ years (Boulder) and I’ve always been frustrated by the transient nature of many relationships. College friends are great but then they move away. Post-College friends are fun.. but then they move away.. Then there’s the stage where you’re trying to find a mate which mostly involves the bar scene because there aren’t a lot of ways to meet people outside of work or friends. Finally, after marrying and having babies, does a brand-new social scene develop – Babies, new families, schools, programs, etc… That’s really cool! But once again… kids go to different schools, new jobs, families drift apart and voila… same thing; friends drifting apart.

      Within the last two years I’ve been going to church and that seems to be a real community center. At whatever age/stage you are, you can go to Church, make friends, and develop a community. I’ve talked to some of the older parishioners about this thread and they informed me that real long-term friendships develop that will sustain you throughout life… and now I see that. Isn’t life about developing relationships? Our very existence is mononotous in nature; work, commute, home, sleep, eat… we’ve done it all THOUSANDS of times.. but what else is there? It’s the relationships. Right? anyone agree?

  • Boyd

    “…and a better use of church resources than banging out yet another one-week VBS program just like the one the church up the street is hosting.”

    combined with

    “My church seems to focus on involvement in programs and projects that have little lasting spiritual impact in the lives of those served.”
    Does something like VBS actually have any LASTING spiritual impact as an evangelistic tool because there is precious little data out there to support the idea that kids who didn’t regularly attend church with their parents but did VBS in the 1980s or 1990s had any “seeds” planted. So I can fully understand the emotional angst that comes with feeling that “involement in programs and projects … have little lasting spiritual impact” and how such angst can lead to disengagement in church.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Good questions about the age of those who say they have more time to give. Retirees are a different category than a 43 y/o mother with teens in the house. A full, serious study of this subject matter would net lots of useful information that would put my queries into broader context. Denominational affliliation, widow/er status, financial responsibility for adult children or aging parents – there are lots of variables my 10 question “free version” Survey Monkey tool couldn’t ask.But the questions need to be asked, and then answers heard. And so does your related one about what happened to all those seeds – and craft projects, expense and time – “planted” during VBS.

      The way you describe the motivation of those in the first half (as audience members for their children’s involvement in church programming) both parents and children to experience church as a performance/stage for the kids. I can affirm that sitting through a children’s program on a Sunday morning when I don’t know any of the kids or many parents doesn’t have the same interest for me.

      The whole dynamic brings up questions of idolatry of children/families. (Not that they’re not gifts from God!) But our child/family centered church may not be forming any of us to mature well.

      • Boyd

        I would love to see some data from a national survey that asked people who are in their 20s and 30s if as children they attended church with their parent(s) and if not if they attended some type of VBS program. Those who only attended some VBS programs could be asked what specifically they remember, although I have a feeling it might very well reveal not too many seeds produced any lasting fruit.
        If the data showed that the “extra” stuff like games or crafts or maybe part of a song is the stuff that stayed, what would that mean? Or worse, what would it mean if the actual Biblical information was very limited (to a easily told Bible story that could be presented in 10 mintues with a game-type review for the next 10 minutes), but the rest of the information was presented and revolved around a THEME (jungle, castle, city, etc.) and done in tv show/movie format supported by cartoonish characters or skits that only kids who really understood the Bible stories would be able to piece together afterwards as being connected? Are there people who learned only a small amount of information at VBS and it’s wrong information because all the other stuff captured their attention?

        Can’t say that I’d be inclined to continue to put in the expense and time to continue supporting a program that I thought was not only ineffective but might actually create problems. I don’t have data to verify this, but I cannot be the 1st person to think there ought to be data at this point. A vast number of kids have cycled through VBS programs since the 1980s, but I think the “child/family centered church” structure that exists in many places works against anyone wanting to know the answers. If the “outreach” aspect doesn’t really exist, would churches be able to justify a continuation of the expensive program since all the resources would now clearly be about “my own kids” rather than some lofty “Gospel outreach” concept, and those who have children who have aged out of that program may not be inclined to support it.
        Throw in that if the effectiveness of VBS was shown to be less than expected, what other “child/family centered” programs that carry the “outreach” banner would need to be examined? That would require some serious “idol” examination, yes?

        Just some thoughts since I think that if the 40+ have “limited time” they want to make sure that their time isn’t wasted, and so they may not be as inclined to simply tow the line as previous generations have.

        • Michelle Van Loon

          Now I’m pondering all the financial, material and human resources going to VBS-type “outreaches”. Most churches buy curriculum from a handful of vendors, and I see Church A, B, C in a town, each running the exact same program throughout the summer. (I’ve also seen a few churches coming together to partner on these programs, which is a good development in terms of unity and kindgom thinking.)

          You’re asking some very good questions, indeed. “Very good” meaning dangerous questions that might usurp the status quo.

          But I think you’re right in that these questions aren’t divorced from the burn-out and time questions arising from my 40+ survey.

          • Boyd

            “I laugh in the face of danger. Then I hide until it goes away.” ~ Xander Harris, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
            I’ve been asking these “dangerous questions” for a good while now. As I’ve said previously, I do not (nor have not) fit into any of the target markets churches have focused on over the last several decades. As such, I have had a sort of “outsider” status while inside, so I see and notice things others do not because they are “insiders” moving through the system’s programs and routines. 🙂

        • I don’t know of good large scale surveys, but having done statistics for a small regional office of a denomination, VBS was one of the things that really was successful for many churches. That may have changed over the past decade or so as more parents are full time and less churches are doing VBS. But many of our churches used VBS not as much as an evangelistic tool for the particular child but as an entry point to the family. So I can point to a number of people that became christians and regular church members because their kids first went to VBS and then they church build relationship with the family over time and drew them into the church. Does the kid remember much about the particular VBS 20 years later? Probably not. But if they were drawn into the church then what is important is what they remember it is what they learned over time.

          • Boyd

            Without data, it is hard to know if any of these parents who are drawn into the church stay or if they just show up for a few weeks after VBS and then leave. Is it a success if they are showing up for 3 weeks and then do not return? Without data, no one can tell.

            Also, as many friends around the country have commented to me, the current trend they have noticed (at least in suburbia) is for parents to use VBS as a free baby-sitting service. Parents bring their kids to multiple VBS programs held by various churches during the summer, and either the parents have no intention of coming to the host church since they are already attending somewhere else or they end up at the church that has the most attractive “programs” for them to utilize. Basically, VBS has become a consumer program that the culture taps into on an “as needed” basis.

            Does VBS bring in some families? Probably. Do they stay? Maybe. Do they become involved in the life of the church beyond what they can consume? Unknown without data.
            All of this is what the kids will “learn over time” –be that the idea of the church as something to consume or use vs something else. It is all a learning situation.

  • Boyd

    Of the 25% who had more time to commit — how many of them are not 40+ but closer to 60+ since the free time may come from retirement? Also, how does that play out in less affluent areas of society since only those who have some sort of financial resources set aside for their later years can, in fact, retire.