40+ And The Church / (Re-)Sowing What We’ve Reaped

40+ And The Church / (Re-)Sowing What We’ve Reaped July 23, 2013

A recent Christianity Today cover story profiling the perpetual adolescence of American Christianity asked “When Are We Going To Grow Up?”

For those of us over 40, it’s now or never. Those of us in this age group may have grown up hearing that we weren’t supposed to trust anyone over 30, but most of us discarded this bit of wisdom around the time we turned 31.

Or did we? When it comes to church, it seems many of us internalized this bit of 1960’s-era youth power doggerel. Over the span of a couple of generations, we worked with the determination of revolutionaries to dismantle old structures, challenge tradition, and reengineer worship to reflect our preferences, experiences and understanding of God. It seemed good to us to ditch the hymns, stained glass and choir robes, move away from Sunday evening services, toast-dry sermons and dressing UP for church in our relentless quest to discover the poor relation of the Fountain of Youth – the Holy Grail of Relevance. By and large, we succeeded.

(I’ll confess that I was one of those who cheered the arrival of ear-splitting modern worship music and dressed-down, accessible messages in church.)

One thing I heard from a number those who’d responded to the 40+ And The Church survey I did a few weeks ago was that their congregation’s relentless focus on catering to the felt needs and market tastes of a young demographic left them feeling as though there was no place for them in their churches. Some mentioned worship style issues (“The music is too loud”), others mentioned the fact that the church’s programming focused on families with kids under age 18. As Boomers supplemented or replaced evangelism with marketing, we grew organizations that were marked by responsiveness to the felt needs of our target market. This worked as long as the target market was us.

We know many of our kids are disenchanted and disconnected from the church cultures we helped to create. And my unscientific survey reminded me that our kids aren’t the only ones who no longer feel welcome in their local churches. Though there have always been voices from within our ranks asking us to consider what we were sowing during the rise of the Evangelical movement in this country, they were drowned out by all of our (apparent) numerical success.

We sure did plant a lot of seed during those years, but what we’re sowing today may not look anything like what we imagined it would.

Andrea Palpant Dilley’s recent essay entitled Change Wisely, Dude offers some sober insight from the perspective of a younger Evangelical about our movement’s addiction toward tinkering with church:

For some, the instinct is to radically alter the old model: out with the organ, in with the Fender. But as someone who left the mainstream church and eventually returned, I’d like to offer a word of advice to those who are so inclined: Don’t. Or at least proceed with caution. Change carefully; change wisely, with thoughtfulness and deliberation. What young people say we want in our 20s is not necessarily what we want 10 years later. 

Dilley and her family returned to a more traditional church. Some of us over 40 have done the same. Others have chosen the route of less involvement in our contemporary churches. Some have exited entirely. Some continue to stay connected in the churches they helped to build.

I am wondering if beyond the personal decision to move on or stay put, might there be some conversations some of us over 40 might want to have with those in charge of the churches we helped to build with our attendance, our giving, our prayers and our emotional energy? If we recognize that some of the seed we sowed was planting plastic flowers instead of growing fruit that remains, would it be helpful to acknowledge this to those in charge at the churches we built – even if those running these churches are cheerfully working for the Lord within these structures? If we had these sorts of conversations, what would they even look like? 

Your thoughts? 


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  • Tim

    I like that insight about not wanting 10 years later what we wanted when younger. I’d add that my own kids – 20 and 22 – don’t want what 20-somethings wanted 10 years ago.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Tim, what are some things your kids do want – and how do these things differ from what 20-somethings wanted a decade ago?

      • Tim

        The music in church is one thing. A lot of people in our generation and the one immediately following were in the movement to modernize the music sung in church. Now my kids (and particularly me son) are drawn to churches that embrace songs out of the hymnal. Their churches are less focused on the leader and more on the experience. Darkened stages with the worship band barely visible, or preachers standing up and diving right in without hoopla seem to be the norm in the congregations my kids are drawn to.

  • Pat68

    I would encourage them to be more open to dialogue at the very least and to recognize that not widening their circle, particular to the young, will sound a death knell for them if they’re not careful. Also, I would encourage them to be open to re-examining their doctrine in a changing world. I’m not sure how helpful it would be since I was part of leadership and left because of the lack of openness. Sometimes, people have to be faced with dwindling attendance and dollars for their attention to be gotten. Or one of their clique would have to have a revelation before they’re open to considering change. Those outside the clique are not always welcome to give their advice, even though we’re all supposed to be on the same team.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      After a day and a half of tech woes that locked me out of commenting, I am glad to see I am once again allowed on my own blog. 🙂

      Wouldn’t it be something if those in power would meet occasionally with groups of those who aren’t in power – just to listen? And to promise that the gathering will be a safe place? Would that have changed things at your church, Pat?

  • Boyd

    We sure did plant a lot of seed during those years, but what we’re sowing today may not look anything like what we imagined it would. … If we recognize that some of the seed we sowed was planting plastic flowers instead of growing fruit that remains, would it be helpful to acknowledge this to those in charge at the churches we built…?

    • Boyd

      1. Should we tell people that plastic flowers were planted? Hmmmmm.
      2. Should we tell people that seeds were spread on ground that had not been tilled prior to sowing? Hmmmmmm.
      3. Should we tell people that the philosophy they’ve followed for church growth may have produced numbers but not maturity? Hmmmmm.
      Would telling them make any difference?

      • Boyd

        It might make a difference; it might not. That’s probably the wrong question to be asking.

        If one speaks about this, how does one go about it? First, pray. Pray that what you’ve observed is true, not just simply your own discomfort with losing the “preferred status” place of having things revolve around you. Pray that your own motives about speaking would be clear to you. Pray that if what you’ve observed is true then that those you speak to will hear the truth and want to change. Pray that any suggestions you offer would be Godly suggestions, not suggestions that simply restore your own comfort. Pray that any hard work and sacrifice necessary would bring glory to God. Pray for endurance to see things through since any major restructuring will not be a quick change.

        Second, don’t assume that change will occur simply because you speak about it even if your motives are good and your observations true. If you are correct, a lot of what has been done and is still being done may have to stop or change, and people may not even agree that there is a problem, much less that changing what is currently happening will solve some problem. You may see more connections between things which are causing problems than other people do—some people see the forest and some see the trees. You may have to connect the dots for people, not just talk in generalities about what you’ve observed.

        Third, don’t assume that your comments will be met with pats on the back for pointing out problems even if people agree that problems exist. The amount of change necessary to alter the course of things is not insignificant because yanking out plastic flowers and reworking the landscape so that the soil is ready to
        receive seeds is hard work and costly, and a great deal of sacrifice may be required. If implementing change means dismantling too much too quickly, many people may see that as taking apart
        THEIR traditions since this way of doing church is all they have ever known.

        • Michelle Van Loon

          Boyd – I’ve been trying to comment here all day, but tech woes locked me out of the ability to comment here. Thankfully, it seems as though my flurry of “HELP!” emails have resolved the issue.

          I am grateful for your insights here. To tell you the truth, I think my primary thought in asking those over 40 to consider what part they may have played in creating the church cultures from which some now feel disenfranchised is to open up dialogue that includes humility (and perhaps, in some cases, repentance) before God. That humility must include a reality check that understands that a church isn’t going to change based on a conversation like this.

          And your first point – prayer – is what helps us disconnect from our agendas. It is what turns our recognition that we may have messed up into repentance.

          • Boyd

            Glad your tech problems have been resolved.

  • Very interesting, Michelle. Our three twenty-something children attend three different churches, all different from the church my husband and I attend. One is thoroughly enjoying an Anglican church with an activist bent, another is growing mightily in a more charismatic environment, and a Reformed church is the doctrinal preference of the third. They are attracted to life, Spiritual life, and authentic faith as expressed in worship, doctrine, and service. If my three accurately represent their generation (and they may not – they’ve never been inclined to follow crowds;), then I see a generation that is less enamored with style than they are demanding of authentic substance. In my humble opinion, churches that desire to attract young people would be wise to offer a variety of worship experiences (a worship set followed by announcements and a sermon is the formula for many services – it was once radical; now it’s routine) and authentic service. I also predict a change in the leadership style of churches. You are right on in your observation that ,many of our churches have been built on market strategies and CEO type leaders. Upcoming generations schooled in social media and crowd-sourcing will be likely to prefer a very different leadership model. Instead of a large ship under the control of one captain, churches will operate more like a school of fish organized by connections and personal choice to head in the same direction. Changes are coming. I pray that churches are attentive to the Spirit’s activity.

    • Boyd

      Just trying to understand your comment. Please define “authentic” since it currently is such a buzz word that I’m not sure people know what it means–they like that word, but they don’t really have a definition for it beyond their own personal interpretation.
      What specifically do you mean when you say you it would be wise to offer a variety of worship experiences and “authentic” service?

      • By a variety of worship experiences I mean that I would love to see churches break their style and structure formulas. How about adding a time of confession or a creed to a “contemporary” service once in a while? Maybe occasionally add some drama or drums to a “traditional” service. Why do we insist on one mold or the other? There are many beautiful ways to express worship.
        As for authentic service, I mean activity that springs from a genuine love for Jesus and his people as opposed to the dutiful filling of a service slot. Those slots must be filled, of course, and there will always be those who serve joyfully and those who serve dutifully. However, churches can create cultures in which people and their genuinely motivated service are valued, and I believe young people notice that.

        • Michelle Van Loon

          I might add – I wonder if the authenticity in service issue may be exacerbated if the church only recognizes the service done within its four walls or as community outreach done in its name. Some of the young people I’ve mentored chafe at the idea that a church only honors those who serve according to the parameters of their specific program, rather than releasing people into the ministry God has called them to do. There’s an authenticity breakdown when the former happens, it seems to me.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Judy – you and your husband are blessed that your three young adult kids are all engaged and growing spiritually.

      I appreciated this statement: “Instead of a large ship under the control of one captain, churches will operate more like a school of fish organized by connections and personal choice to head in the same direction.” Do you know of any congregations moving to this model?

      • I wish I did. I actually read that thought in The New Breed, a secular book about changes in the volunteer culture in the 21sr century. I wonder if the secular culture gets this better than the church.

  • Our church is 207 years old — it’s style has never changed… so there’s something comforting about that…