The Midlife Church Crisis

I’ve read an article this past week in Christianity Today about the growing number of folks in their 50s and 60s who are leaving their churches. As faith communities focus increasingly more on programs for children and activities for the youth and targeting young families, older Christians around us are experiencing a midlife crisis of faith. But they’re not wrestling with their beliefs, they’re struggling with their role now in the body of Christ. Empty nesters are facing different challenges now: relationship shifts, loneliness, health issues, death. And they’re attending and participating less and less in the life of their churches because they’re feeling more and more like their particular place in life is being ignored.

The author of the short article, Michelle Van Loon, took an informal survey of 500 Christians about their church experiences as they had grown older. Almost half of the respondents said they had scaled back their involvement from what it had been a decade earlier. Those who had downshifted or left their churches cited several reasons: weariness with church politics, increased career demands, significant time devoted to caring for parents or grandchildren, health issues, and a sense that somehow they had outgrown their church.

“I’m tired of the same programs year after year,” one said. “I want deeper relationships with fewer people, more spiritual exercises like prayer and meditation than the canned studies our church offers.”

Now, here’s the part of the article that really spoke to me and confirmed for me a whole lot of what we’re doing here at Central:

“Anecdotally speaking, it seemed that those over 40 who discovered meaningful service, worship, and connections reported that their church was committed to intergenerational ministry rather than family-centered, child-focused programming. Though there is some overlap between the two ministry philosophies, the congregations that concentrate on families with children under 18 unintentionally marginalize those who don’t fit the profile. Churches with intergenerational ministry have invested in building connections between members of different ages and nurturing fruitfulness in every season of life.”

I am completely sold, and have been for a while, on fostering an intergenerational culture in our churches. From our Running the Race series a couple of summers ago to our Sticky Buddy initiatives today, we’re trying to do more and more of this here at Central. But it’s tough. It goes against our human nature; it certainly goes against the grain of our culture. It’s hard work trying to integrate our small groups. It’s not easy to get older people to outdoor family picnics and activities or to get our younger families and students to attend potlucks or game nights with our older crowd. It takes careful planning and a high commitment to the importance of intergenerational relationships to come up with new and better ways of getting our people together.

We’re trying to do it in our worship assemblies with more interactive time during the Lord’s meal, with more storytelling and sharing, with more prayer time together in the pews. Our student ministry is in its second year of discipleship “tracks” that pair our teens up with a couple of adults to explore knowledge, community, inner life, and mission avenues of spiritual growth together. Our current “Holy Sexuality” series is a carefully scheduled “congregational conversation” about everything from raising holy kids to identifying and working on sexuality issues in our own marriages to recovering from sexual abuse. Our purity ceremony is an event for the whole church family. Our second Sticky Buddy event is coming up next month.

Some of our ideas are better than others. Not everything we try wildly succeeds. But we believe that if we spend most of our “church time” only with our peers and people of our own age and stage of life, we’ll produce shallow, inwardly-focused Christians. Intergenerational churches willing to do the hard work that’s required, we think, will turn out Christians who understand sacrifice and service, who have a much broader view of the Kingdom of God and who’s in it, and who are appreciated and highly valued at every stage of life. We’re committed to it here at Central.

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The process of de-DFW’ing my children has not been slow and steady; it’s been rapid and sure. Valerie bought a pair of cowboy boots less than six months after our move to Amarillo. All the pre-sets in her truck are on country music stations, and have been for a while. All three of the girls prefer the locally owned restaurants and coffee shops instead of the national chains — The Palace and Texas Tea are the favorites — and they’ll defend them like they’re members of the family. They complain about a long travel distance to the other side of town (ten minutes) and they praise the big sky and the beautiful sunsets.

It was seriously hammered home to me this weekend just how “rural” we’ve all become when we spent more than three hours with Carley as she showed her rabbit at the Randall County Junior Livestock Show. Oliver, a six-month-old cinnamon breed who’s been living in a large cage in my garage since September, didn’t take first place. But both Carley and Ollie did us proud in their own understated ways. She didn’t drop Oliver while moving him from the carrier to the judge’s boxes in front of the crowd like a few of the participants did. And Ollie behaved himself very well for the awkward manipulations he had to endure and for the pictures afterward.

Yes, my youngest daughter is in FFA. No, I never would have imagined that four years ago. And, of course, I couldn’t be more proud of her and more grateful that we live with such wonderful people in Amarillo.

Peace,

Allan

1 Comment

  1. Mark

    It is interesting that those older people who are leaving are saying they can’t find their role in the body of Christ. Some of those who are leaving are the same ones who attempted to run off the young and did not want them to feel accepted. I guess the congregation isn’t big enough for everyone.

    Obviously some in leadership don’t know what intergenerational means or how to put it into practice.

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