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?
Cover photo by Kevin Gawlik on Unsplash
How does one continue to grow? An interesting and important question. Since one of my spiritual gifts is leadership, I look at what exists, assess needs, and jump in. I joined the Women’s Ministry team soon after my husband and I joined the church. Among other initiatives, the team established a book study group that meets for a few weeks twice/year on Sunday morning, a breakout session, an option to regular Bible study. Among the topics we’ve tackled thus far are time-management, worry, prayer, grace, and forgiveness. We get to know one another in ways that are not possible when attending services or standing around drinking coffee or volunteering. We become a Community, welcoming, encouraging, growing in faith. It’s a start.
“We get to know one another in ways that are not possible when attending services or standing around drinking coffee or volunteering.” This is wonderful, Carole. Was there resistance to the idea of a book study group? What are the titles of some of the books your group has tackled so far? – Michelle
Hi Michelle –
We already had a small book club associated with the church, but it met on Saturday morning… a not well attended “and” time commitment. Meeting as an alternative to Sunday morning Bible study was an “or.” Other break-out sessions had happened previously, so there wasn’t too much push-back. We started with Lysa Terkeurst’s The Best Yes then moved into Timothy Lane’s Relationships: A Mess Worth Making and Living Without Worry, then Paul E. Miller’s A Praying Life, John Newton’s Falling into Grace, and Donna Pyle’s Forgiveness. Those books provided good discussions, I think because the women either suggested the books or wanted to learn more about the particular topics. -C.D.
I find the best “program” for my age group is my small group. Studying and doing life together, learning from and supporting each other. Building strong Christian relationships in a smallest group of about 7 couples and a single has been my rock.
I think when we were young and open to growing in our faith, we were all coming from relatively the same place when it came to sitting together to learn and grow. We had much to learn—all of us. But when we are older, this changes. We are vastly different people than when we were in our twenties. Life’s experiences have colored our perceptions of the way things are. We come to discipleship at different places and we do that dealing with regret, dreams that have died, and mounting losses. The church doesn’t process grief well (for the most part)–individually or corporately and as a result many hearts grow cold. As the cultural has moved more and more toward isolationism, this seems to effect the older generation most. We can talk about quiet times all we want, but we grow most in community and that is a challenge for everyone. My observation is that many older Christians don’t understand what it means to be living in the kingdom now, as they tend to see God’s kingdom as only future. They resign themselves to sitting by the puddle when they could live in a beach house by the sea.
Tonight, I’m hosting a small group mentoring session at my home. A “older woman” will share her story about choosing to live the discipline of simplicity. We are calling the once a month offerings, The Living Room Sessions, each month with a different mentor. This is our first time to meet. Next month the topic is self-care. Hospitality, Grief, and Spiritual Friendship are the mentoring topics for the rest of the spring. All the women leading have passion about the subject they will share about. We are doing this “podcast-interview” style and then Q & A. Interestingly, I expect most who show will be older. We were thinking younger women are wanting mentors, but older women need them as well. (Sorry, this comment is long. I could talk on this subject all day!!)
This is FANTASTIC! IF you’d ever be interested in putting together a post describing these gatherings for our readers, we’d LOVE to see it! –Michelle
Absolutely agree with Michelle – I would love to hear more about Living Room Sessions.
Just to comment more generally on the post, Michelle: these comments got me thinking about something our church has recently started: TEDD Talks (Theology, Education, Discussion, Discipleship). These are one-hour talks, usually offered midweek, on topics that someone in the church has expertise in. The only one I’ve gone to was a talk on “Postmodernism – I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means” offered by a Ph.D student in History who attends our church. It was really good. Maybe a similar format could be used for talks on subjects like Deanne’s talking about here and that are related to later-life spirituality etc. OR that just draw on members’ areas of interest/expertise, like writing or art or whatever.
TEDD talks! Love this, too! What other topics have they tackled?
It’s just started so there have only been a couple; the other was Hearing God Through Scripture but I couldn’t attend that one. I look forward to hearing what upcoming topics there will be … and maybe suggesting one!
I agree with the conversation above: small group interaction, one on one relationships to foster connectivity, and accountability. Maturity is not going to happen in one hour on Sunday morning. Even if our local churches do not have “programs” in place to bring this about, we are all capable of making it happen around our dining room table–or at a local restaurant!
Agree 100%. Most of us discover that a video series or program at church usually won’t do all that’s necessary to help us continue to grow. Each of us is responsible for that. I do think that churches could do more to cultivate growth: modeling, talking, praying, resourcing older members. Too many take a passive (or even subtly hostile) approach to their older adults.