The conversation around the relationship between those at midlife and the local church clicked into a higher gear last week with these two blog posts:
At Thom Schultz’s Holy Soup: The Rise Of The Dones. “After sitting through countless sermons and Bible studies, they feel they’ve heard it all…The Dones are fatigued with the Sunday routine of plop, pray and pay. They want to play. They want to participate. But they feel spurned at every turn. Will the Dones return? Not likely, according to the research. They’re done.” Though Schultz doesn’t specifically I.D. those at midlife and beyond in his post, the typical leaver in the “Done” category is someone who was for years committed to a local church and burned out or faded away; in other words, people at midlife. Again, the comments section in this post is perhaps even more instructive than the post itself.
At Wartburg Watch: The Consequences For The Church That Focuses On Youth While Ignoring Baby Boomers. This excellent post uses my column in the September print edition of Christianity Today as a jumping-off point to visit some stats and offer some important reflections about marginalizing older members. As of this writing, there are 172 comments on the Wartburg Watch post. The number may reflect the high level of engagement in the WW community, but I believe the topic itself drew strong opinion and debate. You may not have time to read all the comments, but they’re certainly worth a skim if you’re interested in this subject.
The comments following both posts echo the things I heard when I launched my own informal survey a year and a half ago asking those over 40 original about their relationship with their local church (click here for a summary), as well as some of the other writing I’ve done on the topic here and at Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics blog. A version of my own experience with spiritual disorientation and a sense of disconnection from the doings at church seemed to be taking place in the lives of many of my age/life-stage peers. I discovered early on that looking for answers or remedies was a fruitless task, as this disconnect wasn’t a problem to be fixed by applying 7 Simple Steps, praying a prayer or swallowing hard and signing up for more nursery duty.
The midlife shift isn’t about moral failure, and doesn’t need a solution. But I found I was in desperate need of a description. Two key resources that helped me make sense of what was happening to my faith and practice at midlife included a book and a series of early 19th century oil paintings. The book, Father Richard Rohr’s essential Falling Upward: A Spirituality Through The Two Halves of Life (offered me a description of what was happening to my interior world. If you’re looking for a summary of his ideas, I blogged my way through it a chapter at a time here.
The enormous paintings hang in an octagonal room of their own in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and were created by Thomas Cole. The series is called The Voyage of Life:
Childhood: A tiny baby is escorted into a placid, safe world by its guardian angel.
Youth: The angel stands on the shore as the eager young man forges ahead into a bright world full of dreams and ambitions.
Manhood: This painting is especially apropos of midlife. The skies are dark, the seas are stormy and the end of the journey is in view. The boat has taken a beating, and the angel, representing the presence of God, seems miles away. The man’s pleading seems to echo off the doors of heaven.
Old Age: The storms have passed. The end has come. And the old man homeward bound in the company of the angel.
In all the writing and reading I’ve done so far on the topic of midlife and the church, I see lots of discussion about the symptoms of this transition, as well as valuable assessment surrounding the unhealthy structures and assumptions propping up the four walls of too many local churches. Oh Lord, may those conversations continue and bear much fruit.
But in those conversations, I don’t hear many people taking seriously the deep spiritual shift of midlife that is occurring simultaneous to the cries of “Done!” Many at midlife may be done with filling a spot on a church org chart, and living off of the form their faith took during their builder years, but they are not done with God even though many are disoriented by the tumult of waves and blackened sky. This is what spiritual growth looks like, for those in the body of King Jesus with eyes willing to see what is happening in the lives of those who are downshifting involvement or heading to the exit doors. Neither condemnation from the (bully) pulpit nor sparkling programming will reconnect those who’ve given years of their lives to plopping, praying and paying, as Schultz summarized in his piece. But listening, loving and resourcing (sorry, I couldn’t come up with a third “L”) might move the whole church – old and young alike, those within an institutional form and those who’ve walked away from it in order to regain their faith – away from the kind of machinery that uses and uses up time, money and gifts instead of an organism that recognizes we’re human beings, created to love God and others.
What do you think? Are those exiting or downshifting from church involvement self-indulgent whiners?