No one wants to feel excluded or unimportant. In recent years that feeling of exclusion seems to be on the rise among many of the older folks in many American churches. The music has changed. The decor has changed. The clothing that is worn to church has changed. Even the schedules of activities has changed. None of these changes were instituted with the purpose of getting rid of the old folks or making them feel alienated. Unfortunately, a result of the changes in church practices have led older folks to believe the church has forsaken them. Here are a few insights on why this may be the case.
The Pace of Change. For the current generation of 60-80 year olds, change has come very rapidly after a long spell of consistency. Nearly every aspect of life is experiencing a greater rate of change, from medicine to college educations to entertainment. The pace of change in our society can leave anyone’s head spinning. The pace has also influenced churches. As phone trees give way to texting services and Sunday School gives way to small groups, churches that have been slow to evolve are suddenly struggling to catch up with the pace of change that society has been experiencing.
Many people would prefer that their churches stick with what worked for the past 30 years, but those same folks will soon face danger of irrelevance in society. What is lost as the changes rush over us is that church practices are what are changing, not the nature of the church itself. The music is evolving, but worship is still a priority. Sunday morning Sunday School from a quarterly may be dissipating, but discipleship is still a priority. Churches may not meet in the same ways and at the same times, but fellowship among believers is still a priority.
Denominational Reliance. In denominationally invested churches, change rarely happened because churches ran with the plan provided by the denomination. The tendency was to use the system that the denominational publishing houses created for discipleship, children’s ministry, and a plethora of other programs. The denomination was a trusted resource, and great faith was placed in the products and strategies created there. Churches ran with the programs and annual emphases of the denominations, leaving very little room for creative programming or deviation from the system.
As churches have begun to move away from denominational ventures and have begun thinking for themselves, the new programs lack the denominational stamp of approval that was so important to past generations. This can lead to mistrust or suspicion towards the new way of doing things.
The Lack of Reverence.
People do not hold the same beliefs today about revering the church building, but that is not what I have in mind here. What I am referencing is the lack of reverence for older folks by the younger folks. Our society has become one in which the young and the new are valued and the old is put aside. Whereas in the past younger folks may have looked to the older folks for advice or wisdom, our culture today simply does not place a significant value on this. In a culture where some of the most life changing products are invented by 19 year olds, there is simply less emphasis on the older generation.
Many older folks looked forward to a time when they would take their turn serving as the sages for young people just as their elders had. Unfortunately, the culture shifted and they find themselves feeling excluded rather than embraced. In churches, this feeling of exclusion sometimes manifests itself as anger or complaints which further alienate the older folks from the younger folks who are moving forward with their ideas.
A Focus on The Next Generation.
If you ask any church consultant what a church needs to grow, near the top of his or her list would be a vibrant children/student ministry. If you want people to come and stay at your church in most parts of America, you need to provide a dynamic experience for their kids. Because many people who join churches are typically younger families, a great deal of effort, resources, and focus has moved to programming for the next generation. This focus on the younger people and families has also led to changes such as modernizing worship, making sermons more relevant, and changing the scheduling of church activities. (I am not here arguing the virtue of this. I am simply observing what has objectively happened.)
With all of this attention on the younger families, it is easy for the older folks to feel excluded. What about their preferences? Do we not need to reach 60 year olds? Churches then struggle to find the balance. Some churches do a great job in bringing in older folks to be a part of the church’s mission. Other churches operate with the expectation that older believers should simply be mature enough to incorporate themselves into the church.