We rarely hear it put as bluntly as did the small congregation of Grove United Methodist Church, where some members recently claimed “age discrimination” over a service being cancelled, but there are many churches sending a similar message: “If you are an older adult, we don’t want you here.”
As a part of denominational efforts to reboot the Cottage Grove, Minnesota, church, leaders are asking the 25 or so people who gather each week in the Grove building to leave their building and worship at the nearby sister congregation while a team plants a new church at their campus. According to a St. Paul Pioneer Press report, these mostly older members have been directed to wait 15–18 months after its launch before asking new leadership if they can “migrate back.”
While a single news story can’t fully capture the history of the relationship between the lay-led congregation and the denomination, nor the nuances of recent discussions over revitalization (church leaders clarified their approach in a follow-up by the Washington Post),the situation highlights a phenomenon with which many older adults are all too familiar.
During more than a decade writing about spiritual formation in the second half of life, I’ve heard a painful litany of stories from those who’ve been ignored, marginalized, patronized, or treated as rusting obstacles blocking the path to the holy grail of church growth.
Older member hear the message they’re not valued in a variety of ways: a worship team comprised of members under 40, a range of programming designed for younger attenders, or a lack of pastoral care when they’re in the trenches of long-term illness or caring for aging parents. Those who’ve been burned or burned out by congregational politics tend to fade away from congregational life, and many have told me that no one ever bothered to find out why.
A few years ago, I did an informal survey of nearly 100 pastors and church leaders and heard mixed perspectives on the older members in their congregations. While some expressed gratitude for their wisdom, experience, stability, and ongoing financial support, others were frustrated. They said the older demographic appeared to resist change while decreasing regular involvement in the life of the local church.
Sadly, few leaders brought up how older members faced different challenges as they moved into the second half of their lives. Spiritual practices and church involvement are necessarily impacted by increased caregiving responsibilities, workplace demands, fatigue from church politics, disconnection from programming focused on attracting young families, and loss and grief.
As we hear from studies and think pieces alike, the young are leaving many congregations. But so are Gen Xers and Boomers, who claim they no longer feel welcome at the churches they helped to build in their youth. Barna Research found that the majority of those who “love Jesus but not the church” are actually over 40. Nearly half (44%) of unchurched Christians are Boomers, and another third (35%) come from Gen X.
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Source: Christianity Today