In the evangelical megachurch where I spent the majority of my 20s and 30s, a small group of “senior” adults met upstairs every Friday to stuff the weekly worship bulletin with inserts for a host of programs and events, none of which involved them. They were performing a useful function for the church, but my generation was the one doing the real work of ministry downstairs. I never imagined their experience might one day become my own.
My friends and I grew into adulthood as the tail-enders of the baby boomer generation. We lived and worked in the Bible Belt at a time when church growth was pursued with fervent zeal. Most of us met in the highly visible congregation where we worshipped and socialized as singles; where we married and had families, forged careers, raised children, and assumed positions of leadership into our 30s and 40s. Our lives revolved around our church. We read and studied the Bible there, heard seeker-friendly preaching week by week, went on mission trips, taught Sunday school and VBS, tithed, supported ambitious capital campaigns, and served on countless committees.
Until we, too, disappeared.
Some studies seem to hint that baby boomers are “returning” to the church, but not the majority of the boomers I know. We’re wondering why the formative places that once anchored us now seem to find our contributions unnecessary and our needs inconsequential. And we’re reckoning with the reality that we’ve had a hand in creating the very landscape we lament.
We evangelical empty nesters have helped birth—literally and figuratively—a generation of consumer-minded churchgoers with high expectations for relevance, low tolerance for routine, and lofty standards of operating excellence. We’ve given a great deal to our congregations, yes. But we’ve also asked a lot of them in return. Our earlier thirst for plenty of programmed activity, peer-to-peer friendships, and opportunities to lead kept us solidly in the church’s growth-minded mainstream. But we’re no longer in empire-building mode. Where we once prioritized thoroughly applicable, user-friendly preaching, we’re now longing more for authentic experience than frenetic activity and valuing deeper avenues for discipleship. We’ve grown up. We’re a little lost.
And there are more of us than you might realize.
Andrew and Stephanie* married in the church that introduced them—the church where they raised their growing family and served for decades. Now they’re successful empty nesters living less than two miles from that same church—but they rarely attend. Their belief has not wavered, but something in their relationship with their church has shifted.
While they once created and supported the programs the rest of the church enjoyed, today they might pop into a Sunday school class and see a few old friends, then skip worship altogether. They say the issue is not so much change as a lack of it; church now feels to them more like a monument than the movement they once considered it.
We’re reckoning with the reality that we’ve had a hand in creating the very landscape we lament.
“Some Sundays,” says Andrew, “we just invite three or four couples to come over and watch an out-of-town streamed worship service with us.” They’ve visited other churches in their city, too, but nothing seems like a fit. “We know this isn’t a long-term sustainable plan for us,” says Stephanie, “but it’s where we are right now.”
They’re finding community and doing ministry, but these days their church is on the periphery of such activities, not at the center of them. “I’m in a weekday Bible study made up of women, all about my age, from a lot of different churches,” says Stephanie. “We’ve been together for several years now. And I’m leading a small group for young women my daughter’s age, using material from Jen Wilkin and other teachers. This group of girls has become my main ministry focus.”
Andrew participates in a Bible study he began at his office but misses the decades-long connections he used to share with those in church. “Our generation seems to be doing the church thing à la carte,” he confesses, “but we’re not quitting it altogether.”
Patrice is a never-married woman who cared for two aging parents until their deaths several years apart. A semi-retired corporate executive, she too has been active in one church since her early 20s. She remains on its membership roll but admits few of her friends from past years are still attending with any regularity, and neither is she.
Because the church’s services are livestreamed, she’s begun this year to worship alone from home—even though she lives minutes away. “The church makes it pretty easy to stay at home,” she says. “I know that’s not their intent. But in today’s world, everything is going this way. There are webinars for learning. You can take graduate courses online. Even in church, there are more options for access, and we’re taking advantage of them.”
Today they might pop into a Sunday school class and see a few old friends, then skip worship altogether.
Like Andrew and Stephanie, Patrice hasn’t abandoned her faith or particular service opportunities within her church. But the “fit” doesn’t feel as right as it once did.
“I still work with mission groups and focus on serving in specific ways,” she says. “I’m just not attending in person. I read my Bible and have private devotions. Not going to church hasn’t changed my focus on loving and serving God the best way I know how.”
While Patrice hasn’t cut the congregational cord completely either, she seems to regret the single adult/married couple divide that once suited her lifestyle well. “What I would love now,” she says, “would be a class where it didn’t matter if you were married or single. If you’ve never married, as you get older the church ‘singles group’ doesn’t always feel like the safest place.”
As for me, 15 years ago I left the church where I met Andrew, Stephanie, and Patrice. The church I joined a year later was as different from my former one as it could be. It was small—less than 300 members—and very racially, economically, and culturally diverse. Not everyone looked like me or thought like me—a fact I welcomed, as did many others who joined its membership.
There I met Mac and Renee, who, like me, were drawn to our congregation chiefly because of its diversity, blended worship, and Bible teaching. We had come of age in “monochromatic” Baptist churches—theirs black and mine white—where we rarely encountered a person of a different race or socio-economic background.
Mac was an elder in our church. Renee, a school teacher, was involved in children’s and women’s ministry. Along with others our age, we participated in small groups and informally mentored younger believers. I taught a Sunday morning Bible study class for several years until the study hour morphed into an “equipping and sending” academy with classes on parenting, budgeting, neighboring, and other practical skills. The church got younger and younger, and as couples my age began fleeing, I found myself in what felt like a solidly upper-middle-class, multi-cultural hub for social activism with a matching gospel I hardly recognized. I’d left a church that sought to meet every need for one that became focused on only a few.
We were doing good things, but things any small non-profit agency could probably have done just as well. I felt like a dinosaur. When I had to ask to teach a Sunday school class using Scripture as our guide instead of one on how to start a blog, I knew my time was up.
Mac and Renee left before I did and again joined a predominantly black church. “That’s not my ideal,” says Renee, “or Mac’s.” The new church is larger in attendance, they say, with more people their age—but fewer members are deeply involved.
“There’s no perfect church,” Mac says. And of course, he’s right. Maybe in our younger years we were more willing to overlook any church’s less-than-desirable particulars because our needs were largely being met.
I’m convinced most of my generation of once-committed churchgoers are still willing to offer time, money, and skills for the sake of the kingdom. But we are holding our hearts in reserve where the church is concerned. We’ve been burned by the fire we once stoked, and we aren’t sure how to warm ourselves by it again. If pressed to stay engaged in a congregation—even if it means feeling oddly out of step—or to leave for a new place of worship and service, many of us are choosing not to choose at all. Instead we’re settling for a cobbled experience that we sense is not nearly enough.
“The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord,” the old hymn claims. “She is His new creation by water and the Word: from heav’n He came and sought her to be His holy bride; with His own blood He bought her, and for her life He died.”
If we belong to Jesus, can we ever sidestep commitment to His church and be truly satisfied?
Once, years ago, a merchant marine friend of mine, hearing my frustration with some now-forgotten episode of church politics, shrugged at me and said with his palms up, “My sister, drunk or sober.” I immediately understood. The bonds of family are meant to bear any indignity or injustice with a settled, forbearing grace. The way Jesus bears us up as His brothers and sisters before the Father’s fully righteous face.
If we belong to Jesus, can we ever sidestep commitment to His church and be truly satisfied?
We can long for simpler days and easier ways, or, scarred and all too aware of our own flawed hearts and the flawed hearts of others, we can risk involvement in the church again. Not with a feel-good sense of expectant romance—but with a solid sense of determined devotion. Not for what she has for us, but for what—by God’s grace—we may still have for her.
We can choose to love who’s there, not lament who isn’t.
We can open ourselves to new relationships, even when we prefer the comfort of familiarity.
We can challenge the idea that “seniors” don’t do relevant ministry—and can refuse to be sidelined or coddled.
We can use our accrued years of life experience to create, sustain, innovate, and encourage others.
We can pray with both a sense of urgency and a full measure of faith. We’ve seen what God can do.
As for me, after nine months of searching, I’ve begun the third “new member” class of my adult life. At 60 I’ll be a stranger again in church, but I’ll be in church. Not because the fit feels perfect or because I thrive on change, but because Jesus loves His bride, and so do I.
*All the names of persons in this article have been changed for reasons of confidentiality.
Illustrations by Grafilu