In 2014, I surveyed pastors and church leaders about their experience pastoring those over 40. (Click here if you’d like to have a peek at those posts.) Those responsible for shepherding their congregations are stretched in dozens of different directions on any given day. A discussion about how to effectively minister to older congregants may sound as though I’m suggesting adding another half-dozen tasks to that impossible to-do list. I’m not.
As several respondents to that survey noted, some older church members are known for being the ones that utter that darling phrase that almost always sucks all the air from a room: “But we’ve always done it that way”. While some pastors noted that older members were key participants and leaders in their congregations, many other leaders expressed at least mild frustration because they perceived older members were rigid and contentious.
I was surprised when I heard from more than 80 pastors from a variety of denominations and church sizes that most of them really didn’t have a clear sense of how to spur adults toward spiritual maturity in their congregations. They could cite programs for children and teens, but hadn’t thought much about adults beyond perhaps Sunday School class offerings or women’s Bible study groups. While a number of leaders cited things like church service attendance, programs, or…ahem…sticking around for coffee hour after church (?!), quite a few confessed that they really hadn’t given the question the attention it deserved.
When some of these leaders express frustration that they’re dealing with spiritually-immature older members, while sharing that they haven’t thought through at a deep level what spiritual maturity is or considered what they can do to cultivate a culture of maturity beyond program attendance and coffee hour banter, I can understand where friction and frustration would set in on both sides of the equation.
One small step toward changing this culture might be by inviting a small group that includes older members from the congregation (and maybe even a member or two who seems to have downshifted from their former level of involvement in the church) to think through what lifelong discipleship might look like for those in their second adulthood who no longer buy the line that showing up at services, sticking around for coffee hour, and helping with VBS equals growing in faithfulness. This will mean the willingness on the part of church leaders to realize that a program or class will not be a quick-fix panacea.
In my own informal conversations with my age peers, I’ve heard repeatedly that most are not looking for another 12-week pre-packaged program at church. Most are far more interested in spiritual growth that flows out of a culture of spiritual direction – and of the kind of growth that comes as the church truly honors and supports the ministry (work, family, community, and/or cross-cultural mission) to which God has called them. For instance, “My former church didn’t really care about my vocation as a public school teacher. They only cared about whether I was available to teach a Sunday School class of 2nd graders.” If that was the case for this person (and I have no reason to believe it wasn’t), then it may be that her former church leaders had a bit of a maturity problem of their own.
What do you think, Perennials? If you’re connected to a local church, does that body offer ways to support spiritual growth for adults? If so, how? If not, why do you think this might be?