Ask anyone who's hit midlife, and they'll tell you: this stage is no joke for us.
The emotional, spiritual, physical, and relational shifts that occur at midlife can lead to disconnection from old social networks and a profound sense of loneliness, which brings with it serious health risks. At this point, many also feel drained by the increasingly common occurrence of death, disease, divorce, and the changes that redefine old friendships.
And yet, rather than engage these important but uncomfortable issues that come with aging, our culture—including, at times, the church—would rather laugh it off. We see midlife as a caricature: the man with a bad comb over buying a red convertible or a thick-waisted woman drenched with sweat after her internal thermostat cranks itself up to the "temporary inferno" setting. We make the middle-aged into a punchline:
- Midlife crisis is that moment you realize your children and your clothes are about the same age. (Insert rimshot here.)
- The good news about midlife is that the glass is still half-full. The bad news is that it won't be long before your teeth are floating in it.
- Don't think of them as hot flashes. Think of it as your inner child playing with matches.
Sure, the jokes are funny in a late-night TV monologue kind of way, but for Christians, midlife needs to be more than merely a punchline.
Church should be a place of meaningful connection with God and others at every stage of our lives, but nearly half of more than 450 people who participated in an informal and completely unscientific survey I hosted on my blog last year told me that their local church had in some painful ways exacerbated the challenges they faced at midlife. As a result, they'd downshifted their involvement in the local church from what it had been a decade ago.
George Barna's far more precise 2011 State Of The Church survey highlighted that Boomers are leaving the church in numbers that we usually think of when we talk about the exodus of the Millennial generation: "…during the past 20 years the percentage of unchurched Boomers has risen dramatically, jumping up 18 points! At 41 percent, they are now the generation most likely to be unchurched, surpassing the 39 percent level among Busters."
Some "downshifters" who took my survey told me they felt they'd spiritually outgrown their churches. Others who'd become less involved explained that time factored into their commitment level. Launching adult kids, caring for aging parents, dealing with personal or spousal health issues, or increased work responsibilities cut into time they had to commit to church activities.
Others at midlife noted that they weren't interested in investing their time and energy into busywork church projects that appeared to have little lasting spiritual impact. Many others (too many!) noted that they'd become less involved because they'd been burned by bad church experiences.
The crisis of midlife invites us to reevaluate how we're using our remaining time on earth. "I thought the more I did, the better Christian I was," said one respondent to my survey. "Because I was good and gifted at the things I did so people – especially the senior pastor – took advantage of me." Another person noted that burned out leaders ended up burning out congregants, then drew her line in the sand: "I refuse to keep serving someone else's burnout."
Many of those who've downshifted their involvement with the church – or left the church entirely – suggest that this reevaluation has led them to strengthen their faith. By moving the "talents" of time, gifts, service, and experience they'd once given to their local church into other areas of their lives, they hope to find a more lasting return on their investment. While the impulse makes sense, we all miss out when seasoned Christians leave our congregations. We need to start asking hard questions about why this is happening and what the trend means for our church communities.
A number of female respondents noted that they felt they became increasingly invisible in their churches as they grew older. Once they'd cycled through years of running or supporting the church programs created for their children, planned and attended women's events, and perhaps had even moved into mentoring a younger woman or two, a number of midlife women told me they felt there were few meaningful opportunities for growth and service in their congregations. One respondent put it this way: "I'm tired of same programs year after year. I want deeper relationships with fewer people, more spiritual exercises like prayer and meditation than the canned studies my church offered."
When we in the church ape (awkwardly!) our culture's obsession with all things young and cool, when we focus our energies on creating ministries targeted at the same desirable demographic groups targeted by savvy advertisers, we communicate to those who don't fit those specs that they are less desirable to us than the ones we really want in our church family.
A while ago, my husband and I attended a small newcomers luncheon at a congregation we were considering attending. We watched as the church staffers, almost all in their early- to mid-30s, schmoozed with the young families in attendance. In fact, we had some pleasant conversations with a couple of these young families as well. While I recognize the demands made on staffers at events like this to meet and greet new people, we realized that not one person from the church staff made an effort to connect with the new people who were also obviously the oldest people in the room. We left the gathering feeling as though we'd become an anachronistic punchline.
Jesus made a habit of fellowshipping with the marginalized and told his followers this kind of fellowship was a mark of his kingdom. In light of what I heard from those who took my survey, a contemporary paraphrase of Galatians 3:28 might go something like this: There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither Millennial nor Boomer, neither married nor single, neither flourishing nor suffering, neither male nor female, for you really, truly are all one in King Jesus.
No one is a punchline around here.