A Conversation With Michelle Van Loon
Author of Becoming Sage
Why are older adults leaving or downshifting church involvement?
Many have focused on church leavers who are millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) and older members of Gen Z (those born from 1996 to about 2015). But there is a quiet exodus from the church at nearly the same rate of people at midlife and beyond: Boomers and members of Gen X.
There are many reasons for this. Some report they’ve “aged out” of congregations that focus entirely on the faith lives of families with children under the age of 18. They feel there’s no meaningful place for them to grow, learn, or serve as they move into the tasks and challenges of their second half of life.
Others report that it is increasingly difficult to maintain or deepen a connection with a local church in light of increased caregiving responsibilities for aging parents or young grandchildren (or both!). Some are also dealing with health challenges, and find that if they’re out of sight for too many Sunday. mornings, they’re not given much attention for ongoing pastoral care by church leaders.
Some in this group are also juggling workplace responsibilities, as they tend to be at the peak of their careers during these years. Many who were once involved also report burnout from church dysfunction and toxic congregational politics as a reason they’ve stepped back from involvement. The church becomes a place of pain for some, instead of the life-giving community they know it can and should be.
How can churches better support, bless and resource their older members?
Honoring and valuing older members can’t happen with a quick-fix program. It comes from developing and deepening a culture that honors every member’s contributions and presence. To this end, here are a few things church leaders can do on an ongoing basis to be culture makers in their congregation:
1. Pray regularly and publicly for the deepening of the ministry of those already committed to your congregation.
2. Pray regularly and publicly for those who are committed to caregiving or workplace duties. Reach out to caregivers regularly to find out what kind of support they may need from the congregation (visits, help with practical tasks such as small household repairs, rides to doctor visits, meals).
3. Engage in frank self-evaluation about the focus of the church’s ministry: Are you emphasizing reaching out and caring only for families with children under 18 to the exclusion of other demographic groups? Consider why this might be and what steps you might take to change this.
4. Ask if you are willing to bless those who’ve left your church in search of a congregation that might be a better fit for them.
5. Consider how the culture of your church may be burning out committed members.
What does it look like for Christians in midlife and beyond to “become sage”?
A person who is becoming sage grows in the core Christian virtues of faith, hope and love (1 Cor. 13:13).
A sage lives (sometimes uncomfortably) in the tension between two seemingly disparate truths. The first is that God is neither cruel nor powerless. The second is that God is under no obligation to reveal his purposes to us. When there are no explanations, nor any relief when we are faced with suffering, we are presented with the hour-by-hour choice to trust the One who suffered for us and stands with us in our anguish.
A sage demonstrates hope in God that rightsizes our notions of who we are in this world. The process of unlearning how to perform for the approval of others leads us to discover the joy of being appropriately honest about our strengths and our weaknesses. Hubris fades, and humility and gratitude mark the growth of a person becoming sage.
A sage moves toward an increasingly generous, generative life that reflects the way we are loved by Jesus: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:16). As we mature, we recognize that love might look like cleaning up after a parent with dementia who has had a toileting accident … or holding out our arms to welcome home a prodigal child, forgiving someone who has wronged us, or passing on what we possess and what we’ve learned to the next generation.