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.

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

  1. You make some clear-sighted and accurate points here. Being part of the over-40 demographic, I have felt this tension myself. Though my husband and I never left the church, we did explore the possibility that maybe we were at the wrong church. Thankfully, after some time seriously seeking God’s will for us, he showed us how we can be part of something dynamic at our original church. All told, this took a little over a year to sort out. It is not an easy place to find yourself!

  2. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it as a Christian writer, but I haven’t been to church in years and don’t take my kids. I feel like I should, but I’m afraid of my kids absorbing the toxicity. And I don’t want them to think that going to church is the same thing as having a real faith life. There are some church groups doing interesting things in my area – coffee shop followships and such, but the denominations involved teach things I also don’t want my kids taught (and I don’t want to deal with myself). Like the unique subordination of women to male leadership or those churches which feel the need to list “non-believers go on to eternal conscious torment” in their faith statements. I kind of think that the problem is getting to a point somewhat akin to in Jesus’ day. The leaders read scripture with a view towards order, rule following and hierarchy while the people’s real needs go unmet. I figure all I can do is use my little corner of the internet to preach a different vision for those who want to hear. I wish I had a better plan, but for now, that just seems to be the way it is.

  3. I haven’t read her letter, and I don’t intend to, but I think you have hit several long-ignored nails on the head. I’m in a somewhat different position. I’m at the lower end of her target demographic (42) and I agree that she largely misinterprets many of us born after 1965 or so. (And don’t try to define me and write me off as “Generation X”. A strong generational identity is largely a Boomer construct.) I’m tired of hearing about how great the “Me Generation” is, and how everyone older or younger ought to serve it. The few people I admire born between 1945 and 1965 went against the current.

    I’m also further behind the child-rearing curve than my age would indicate, because I listened to the voices of those who said, “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” even though by then, they were over 30, and they all said, “Put off having children as long as possible, so you could establish your career, serve in the church, etc., etc.”

    So I spent my 20s serving the church, put off having children until I was nearly 30, and then found that most churches would not welcome my son because he was disabled. He has autism, so he’ll need me longer than most children need their parents. I don’t know how much time and energy I’ll be able to contribute to the church once he’s as independent as he eventually gets, but right now, I have very little.

    We have found a church that not only welcomes him, they actively look for ways to serve him, encourage him to serve, and are patient and kind when he struggles to act appropriately. I can’t do much for the church right now, but without their support, he could not attend at all, and the rest of our family would find it very difficult.

    Sunday’s sermon was about Bartimaeus. I feel like I, too, am standing on the sidelines, at the edge of the crowd, shouting, “Hey! HEY! Jesus! Over here! I need help!” Most churches I’ve visited (and this experience is common to virtually every family touched by disability I’ve talked with) try to put the disabled where they will be neither seen nor heard (except maybe in a carefully-posed publicity photo) and when they cry out, they are rebuked, and told to keep silent. If they are not silent, their families are rebuked and shunned.

    Our church does a lot of other things right, including a good blending of old and new music. But musical style, like most of the last straws she mentions, has long ceased to be an issue for me, if it ever were. The real thing that pushes people of any age, ability, or other demographic status away from the church is too much church, and not enough Jesus.

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  5. Jonnia, that sorting period may not have been easy, but I am certain God was in it. You had an opportunity to clarify your purpose and recommit to the part you’ll be playing at your original church. Not one second of that confusing year was wasted. 🙂

  6. Rebecca, I’m so glad to meet you. It sounds like you’ve had some tough past experiences with toxic churches. Do you gather with other believers outside of your family for prayer, worship, study and/or service?

    Years ago, we home-churched with a couple of other families, for some of the reasons you listed in your comment above. Two of the three families (including us) went back into the institutional church after a time, but the experience changed us all and caused us to question some of the practices and ideas we’d previously taken for granted.

  7. Too much church and not enough Jesus. THAT hits the nail on the head for me, and summarizes my frustration and my prayer.

    I’m so glad you’ve found a place that welcomes your whole family. That sort of welcome can’t be programmed or invented. It is in the DNA of your church community. You may not be able to lead a Bible study or serve on the worship team or whatever, but something tells me that your congregation believes that your parenting is what you offer not only your family, but to the entire church community.

  8. So much here. I truly believe that the sour economy has led to many boomer sorts re-thinking what they’d always thought of God, the church, etc. Many of us who followed the rules as presented believed that our giving of ourselves and participating in church, worshipping and praising would lead us to peace and, if we are honest, some bit of prosperity. With the financial crash, we discovered that we had neither peace nor prosperity and, in far too many churches, that is seen as a sure sign of unbelief and failure.
    It seems to me, too, that in their later years, our parents became more rigid in their lives and beliefs. We (oh, us children of the 60s!) didn’t. Many of us are doing just the opposite and opening ourselves up to new ideas and seeing other faiths in a new, less harsh light. There is also not a lot of room in most churches for that kind of thinking!

  9. Tammy, I’ve never thought about the difference between the calcification of views in those from The Greatest Generation as they aged, and the way many of their kids (people like you and I!) are moving in the opposite direction. And you’re right – too many churches don’t quite know what to do with that.

    Great observation, friend.

  10. Thanks for broaching this hard subject, Michelle. I’m 35. I recall two years ago my husband looking around at church and saying, “Where are all the older people? Where are my parents’ friends–where are the men I used to see and look up to when I was in the youth group?” And they had almost all left. I don’t know all the reasons why, but I know that they are missed. Their absense is noticed. I think too, of my grandmother’s church, and when I visit it, an elderly congregation, I notice the absence of younger generations. I miss the noise of babies in the pews. I don’t know if it’s a foul lie we are all believing that we aren’t of value to the body, or that we won’t be missed, or that we’re irreplaceable. But we can’t say: “I’m so glad you’re here.” and “You’ve been missed” often enough. At the heart of it is, IMO, a belief that we can fade out and nobody will be too affected by it {both in the church and out of it}.

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