A Response To “An Open Letter To Everyone Over 40 Who Has Left The Church”

Author Margaret Feinberg has penned a kind and genuine expression of concern for those who have left the institutional church at midlife. (Click here to read it.) She affirms the types of issues that typically push some empty-nesters out of the spiritual roost, then pleads with leavers to return in order to nurture the next generation. “Your own children may be out of the house, but your spiritual children are still inside–waiting for you to come in and offer your wisdom, your guidance and your friendship. We need you as mentors, encouragers and people who have our backs in prayer. We need you in our life.”

Feinberg gets it wrong in this post – and she gets it right.

I admire Feinberg’s ministry and her body of work. I’ve been a Feinberg fangirl for a long time. She has devoted herself to encouraging others in the faith with her writing and speaking ministry. Because she is a regular on the church and conference circuit, she has a good pulse on what’s happening in Evangelical World, American Version. Her blog post targets the group making the biggest exodus out the back door of their churches – mid-lifers. For all the usual alarm about young people leaving the church, those who study such things note that Boomers are the largest segment of unchurched in our culture. Her observation that older people drifting away from church once their years of active childrearing are done is the other side of the story told by the Barna stats.

Feinberg’s list of things that push older members out the door tags the usual suspects (changing worship styles, lame small groups, politics, communicators in the pulpit instead of pastors), though I believe that some items on her list torque those over 65 differently than they might if a person was in his or her early 40’s. For instance, Boomers developed church services heavy on entertainment and light on organ music and choirs; older Gen X-ers, now in their forties, came of age in an era when worship style wars had already been fought in many corners of Protestantism. For instance, I appreciate some hymns, but prefer thoughtful, organic modern worship music. I have a long history of breaking into highly inappropriate giggles if I visit a church and find my sung worship accompanied by bombastic organ music (and is there any other kind?). Though senior citizens may ask, “Where is my comforting, traditional church service?”, I believe that those closer to 40 are not typically questioning worship style as much as they are fluffy service content, busywork masquerading as church programming, flaming leadership failures and toxic church politics.

Many of us in that post-40 demographic signed our children to the Sunday School/VBS/Youth Group farm team. When our kids left the nest, a shocking percentage of them chose not to join the majors, leaving the church instead. If we discover that our church is little more than a faith-based community center for families with children – and we usually make that discovery once we’re not in the target demographic any longer – we have to figure out what our relationship with this institution will look like as we move into the future. My heart tears a bit typing that sentence: When I committed my life to Christ, I didn’t sign up to become an institutional booster. I wanted to follow him. Period.

Feinberg said, “One final issue will push you out. Maybe it already has. The issue doesn’t even have to be significant at this point–any one will do. A sermon that sounds more like a story than an exposition of Scripture. Another series of skits or video productions that once again transform church into a place of entertainment. Another gathering where food and fellowship are the main courses, and Jesus, well, He’s not invited at all. You may find your breaking point over the new building fund, a change in leadership, a moral failing of your leadership and/or secretary, or the brand of car/size of house/style of clothing your pastor chooses to buy.”

In spite of this, she urges post-40 leavers to return. My paraphrase of her argument: Yes, the institution is lame, and there’s nothing here to nurture you post-40 people…maybe there hasn’t been for years…but come back and keep the cycle going for the sake of the younger people still attending; the farm team folks who made the leap to the majors. Keep them in the game. Silence your past hurt and keep.showing.up.

I disagree with this logic. Do we pour our lives into a religious rec center or a congregation that has no place for our gifts and no interest in our experience? In some cases, I believe the answer may be yes, because we’ve formed meaningful relationships of the kind Feinberg describes in her piece. But no is an equally valid, God-honoring answer for many other people. If the institution is draining us of life due to its issues, we simply may not have the resources to give much of anything to younger friends.  And is propping up a church with our presence the wisest use of our time? Turning 40 often brings a deep awareness that our time is limited and is passing quickly.

That said, those in the second half of life simply can’t freestyle their spiritual lives. God calls us to community, though our relationship with that community can and should change as we mature. (Wouldn’t it be wonderful if church leaders were willing to consider how to better facilitate spiritual growth for those in the second half of life?) Illness, the needs of aging parents and travel change our relationship with regular Sunday morning church attendance. Others find what they have to offer is better received in contexts (non-profits, missions organizations) different than that of their local church.

So though I disagree with Feinberg on one hand, I agree with her on the other. She’s right: those of us who are older are called to mentor those younger than us, and to give ourselves away in generous, selfless service. She misses the mark when she attempts to motivate us to do so by calling us to action by telling us we need to suck it up in terms of our own church woes and just do it. False guilt can not empower or sustain soul generosity long-term. Only a life connected to the Source can empower us to be the kind of people those younger than us need, and the kind of people we want to be.