40+ And The Church/Pastoring Those In Second Adulthood

40+ And The Church/Pastoring Those In Second Adulthood March 5, 2014

Last May, after hearing from more than 400 people over the age of 40 about the nature of their relationship with a local church, I made these observations:

Church leaders must do some serious thinking about their models for spiritual health, growth and church “success”. Yes, I know there are hundreds of people speaking and writing about how and why to do this, all promoting their specific fix for the problems of our churches (Be missional! Be multi-site! Formal liturgy/modern worship/yada yada yada! Reformed theology! Reach families/youth!). The focus many leaders have had on endlessly building and tinkering with church forms and structures has burned (and burned out) a sizeable number of older members. Many of my survey’s respondents willingly participated in earlier versions of the same old carnival ride when they were younger and wisely recognize that it is insanity to keep repeating the same cycle of church life and expect different results.

Church leaders need to reconsider how they speak of and nurture spiritual maturity in their congregations. The fact that almost half of those over 40 who took my survey are less involved in their congregations today than they were ten years ago is, in many cases, a marker of their spiritual maturity, though precious few church leaders would likely assess it in that way. Many older people are limited from church involvement because they’re caregivers for frail parents, ill spouses or their grandkids. Others have “aged out” of their church’s family-centered programming, and have found other ways in their community to connect, serve, mentor and learn. Filling a slot on a church org chart may be a sign of a member’s church commitment, but it is not a measure of his or her spiritual maturity. Churches that understand themselves as launch pads rather than destinations appear to be poised to best equip those over 40 to flourish when those in their second adulthood are bearing their fruit outside the four walls of a local church. These congregations that embrace and celebrate these people will have the additional benefit of continuing to access these members’ gifts, experience and presence.

More than 60 pastors and church leaders shared some observations about their experience ministering to and with congregants over 40 in the survey I ran last month on this blog. (Note: The survey is still open if you’d like to weigh in, though I did award amazon gift card to respondent KC over the weekend.) I am very grateful to each one who participated.

This week, in my Paul’s Letters & Acts class at Northern Seminary, prof Scot McKnight suggested that there are three general categories of pastors in our modern world: the Entrepreneurial leader (think Bill Hybels or Rick Warren), the Preacher-Teacher-Theologian (John Piper is an example of someone whose primary focus is to give the congregation excellent sermons each week), or Pastor as Spiritual Director (Eugene Peterson, a shepherd committed to formation of souls). 

While Entrepreneurial types have always been with us – think Billy Sunday or Charles Finney, for a couple of examples from a few generations ago – many Boomers really gravitated with this oh so modern control-and-command style of leadership. The main alternative to having C.E.O. helming a church in most Evangelical congregations was the Preacher-Teacher-Theologian (P-T-T) type. (I would suggest that of the three in the hypenated list, “Teacher” tended to be up at the top of the list.) Church-as-classroom made many of us over 40 feel as though we on familiar turf at church. If we acquired a nugget of koine Greek from the message and a task to do or fix in our lives in the coming week, then church had done its work in us. While some of the parents of Boomers may have grown up in small churches with a spiritual director-type pastor, this type of pastor is far less familiar to most of us.

C.E.O. and P-T-T church leaders offer tools and motivation to those in the first half he first-half-of-life business of building a family, career, and identity. (Richard Rohr’s excellent meditation on second-half spirituality, Falling Upward, notes that churches in general tend to focus on “first half” concerns.) I’d like to suggest that those in the second half, who are given to dismantling first-half life structures in order to create meaning and leave a spiritual legacy, may be looking for less command-and-control and more spiritual direction from their churches. I’d even suggest that some of the issues of inflexibility and spiritual malaise from older members that some pastors reported in my recent survey might be this desire in a form that congregants maybe haven’t even been able to articulate, except in the form of becoming a problem to a leader.

Those who are leaving or downshifting engagement from their local churches are searching for spiritual meaning, not another ride around the same old merry-go-round. That goes for younger congregants, too. Millennials as a demographic are far less inclined to be interested in C.E.O. or P-T-T leadership than Boomers were, though there are some pockets of exception to this in the “young, restless, Reformed” world.

Most church leaders I’ve known want to care for their congregants. How that care is expressed flows out of their own brokenness, ideals, theology, and relationship with God, as well as the expectations within their own spiritual tribe. This stew leads them to express their care as they work their way to one of these different pastoral models. What I’m suggesting may sound like I’m suggesting they switch horses if they’re a C.E.O. or P-T-T. That isn’t necessarily the case. In my next post in this series, I’ll do a little more thinking out loud about what a culture of spiritual direction might look like based on what I’ve heard from congregants, ex-congregants, and leaders alike.

What do you think about this proposition? 

Note: If you have not yet read Mary DeMuth’s excellent post “Ageism In An Age Of Hipster Christianity” at A Deeper Story, please hie thee there ASAP. She is touching on many of the themes I’ve tackled in my posts and surveys in this space about the relationship of those over 40 with their local churches.  

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  • Amanda Holm Rosengren

    Thanks, Michelle — you’ve put your finger on something that I’ve heard from many, if not ALL, of the 40+ crowd who have joined our church in the past couple of years — “spiritual meaning, not another ride around the same merry-go-round.”

    • Michelle Van Loon

      I’m glad you’re listening to them, Amanda!

      it’s very difficult to find a congregation who takes the notion of meaning with the seriousness it deserves – which is why too many older folks are quietly wandering toward the exit doors.

  • Mary DeMuth

    Humbled to be mentioned here. Thank you.

  • Boyd

    I think that the influx of so many “evangelists” into the pastorate has also created problems. Evangelists are, by nature of their calling, more focused on the beginnings, on bringing people in, on the early stages of faith. In the past, evangelists may have been more committed to a more transient ministry. Pastors, on the other hand, often did not see themselves primarily as evangelists, so those who went off to seminary for training in being a PASTOR may have gotten less instruction about how to be “attractional” and more about how to “minister.” Sixty years ago, seminary grads did not have any classes on “how to be missional” or “how to reach seekers” or “what’s trendy among the newest up-and-coming generation and how you need to tailor your ministry towards their wishes” but did have classes on how to prepare a theologically deep sermon, how to study, how to minister to the sick, etc.
    The scales probably tipped at some point so that now a good bit of instruction is about how to “attract” people to church, meaning people who are planting churches are receiving a good bit of instruction on how to be EVANGELISTS, and since the time in seminary has not drastically increased, they probably receive this new evangelism curriculum at the expense of being taught how to be PASTORS. There was a time, generations ago, when the two types of ministries worked together–one to direct the “seekers” and those in the early stages to someone else’s church, and one to shepherd and nurture to maturity within a church who had heard the evangelist’s message. Now we lump the two together as if all should be equally gifted as Evangelist-Pastors.
    I wonder just how much seminary instruction over the last 40 or 50 years that has been geared towards fostering a more Evangelist mindset at the expense of Pastoring is responsible for the endless merry-go-round.

    • Boyd

      It would seem I am not alone in considering this idea of whether or not there has been a shift from “pastor” to “evangelist” since I just found this:


      A few interesting things about their comments that I personally didn’t agree with, and I will admit up front my bias in favor of small to mid-sized churches directly impacts my opinion about this topic since I believe a good bit of what we have seen over the last few decades related to problems (of all kinds) is the “standardizing” of the large to mega-sized church. The desire to be a “pastor” of a BIG church has so many implications, and I hear it in some of these comments.
      1. The idea that “I am a pastor to pastors” seems like an attempt at justifying not being a “shepherd” to me. The speaker indicates that not being a shepherd is wrong, yet he needs to find a way to make his lack of being a shepherd seem “ok” to the audience, so instead of admitting that when a church reaches a certain size, pastors cannot pastor their congregations, one comment came across as a sort of “Well, I pastor pastors, so that solves the problem for me.”
      Sorry, but my feeling is that you need to examine this “justification” for what you’re NOT doing and possibly accept that if you think you are called to be a “pastor of pastors” what you really need to do is stop being the pastor of a local congregation and give up all the “perks” that come with that. If you want to be an evangelists, that’s not a bad thing, but it probably means you need to pull up stakes and be more transient. And your family needs to be onboard with that, too.
      2. The idea that cultural expectations have changed–people think it strange if you come to their house–really illustrates that “pastors” are focused on the younger generation since I have to wonder if members who are 65+ would find it “odd” if their pastor said he/she wanted to come visit. And hospital visitation being “strange” for members? Really? I find that hard to believe.
      I also find that most people would find “interacting” with their pastor to be totally strange. Even if a “home” visit is now strange, something else is the new normal, and I’d wager that members would be ok with Starbucks visitation. Good grief! From what I’ve witnessed among younger people, they WANT Starbucks type visits. The home visitation, however, is much more formal and doesn’t allow for nearly as much “chit-chat” about general things. By the 2nd or 3rd home visit, a pastor has moved beyond superficial Starbucks talk.
      Perhaps this is why it has fallen out of favor?
      3. The comment about being a pastor to the leadership–shepherding the elders and deacons and other lay leaders vs being the shepherd to the entire congregation–still seems like a way to justify being a pastor to a large church and somehow trying to justify neglecting the role of shepherd, at least to me.
      None of these men seems to want to deal with the larger problem of the inability to shepherd a congregation once a certain size is reached. Their desire to “proclaim” the Gospel rather than shepherd a group of people seems to indicate, at least to me, that they have embraced the title of Evangelist OVER Pastor since they all seemed to try to find ways to get around the very basic idea that they weren’t primarily shepherds.
      As I’ve said before, I think the shift from Pastor to Evangelist is at least partially to blame for “the mess we’re in” in the American church.
      Anyone else watch this video and notice something or disagree with me?

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