One theme that emerged in my 2013 survey of more than 500 people asking people over 40 if they were more, less, or just involved in their local church as they’d been a decade earlier 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 involvement 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.

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.

What has your experience been with your local church in regards to time issues?