Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Why empty-nesters are leaving the church

I know, I know. Everyone wants to talk about why millenials are leaving the church. Not that there's anything wrong with that. The church needs the millenials, just like it needs every demographic group that lives and breathes and walks the earth.

Straight talk about why millenials are leaving the church is indispensable.

But the virality of posts about young adults leaving the church leaves me wondering: 

What is so attractive about the millenial conversation? Not that it's a contest (again, all generations matter to the church and to God), but can you imagine a post on why the elderly are leaving the church gaining the same kind of viral energy that Rachel Held Evans recent excellent post did via CNN?

Poked and Prodded

If I were a millennial, I would be tired of all the poking and prodding. I'm Gen X. We're comfortable with the low level fuzzy interest the Zeitgeist sends our way. We don't need the anxiety or fascination. 

Watching our cultural conversations about the millenials, and our zealous information gathering about them, I wonder, "Do they tire of all the attention?" Between Pew, and Barna, and PRRI, almost everyone seems to be studying them. 

If nothing else, our manic attention to millenials and the church illustrates Thomas Bergler's point in The Juvenilization of American Christianitythat the church's focus on youth culture (which began approximately in the 1930s) has both vitalized and juvenilized the church at the same time. We learn from the group we study; we also tend to become myopically focused on meeting their needs. 

The empty-nester phenomenon

Which leaves me wondering, has anyone noticed how many empty-nesters are leaving the church, never to return? Are there studies on this? A quick google search turned up very little. Certainly nothing as viral as the multitude of posts on millenials leaving the church.

I did find this one post from James K. Honig. CNN, Huffington Post and Patheos have yet to pick it up. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

But I happen to know a few empty-nesters, even more than a few. And I find they often leave the church for many of the reasons millenials leave the church. In fact, although empty-nesting is a different life transition than the 20s, the way these two demographics respond spiritually to their life transitions is remarkably similar.

Riffing on Rachel Held Evans a bit, they do want an end to the culture wars. They want a truce between science and faith. They want to ask questions that don't have predetermined answers.

They are tired of church that ties itself too closely to one political party or another. They want their LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in church.

They want the church to be holy, and make a difference, serving the poor and oppressed, working for reconciliation, committed to creation care.

In addition, they often leave the church for reasons similar to, but also different from, millenials. Like millenials, they are going through a significant life transition. Their kids have left home, and their connection to church had been, for quite a while, tied to their children's participation. 

Like youth who leave the home and engage faith for the first time as independent adults, empty-nesters step out into new territory, discovering what church is for them when they aren't a driver for lock-ins, chaperone for mission trips, and enforcer of the household rule, In our house, we go to church on Sundays.

With the kids away from home, they try involvement in church for their own reasons. They are elected to church council, or volunteer to coordinate a neighborhood feeding program. 

Often older adults drift away, but not immediately after their children leave home. There is this interim period. Then something happens; they start traveling to college and university events or begin care-giving for older parents; they become disillusioned with church; they get tired, etc. -- and then they're gone. What begins as frequent absence slowly becomes a permanent one.

I have never seen this phenomenon analyzed anywhere in writing. Certainly I have never seen it go viral on an internet meme.

Rachel Held Evans gets this in her post, even if her post is still given a title more likely to ensure its virality. She writes:
You can’t hand us [millenials/empty-nesters] a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around. We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there. 
Like every generation before ours and every generation after, deep down, we long for Jesus. 
Now these trends are obviously true not only for millennials but also for many folks from other generations. Whenever I write about this topic, I hear from forty-somethings and grandmothers, Generation Xers and retirees, who send me messages in all caps that read “ME TOO!” So I don’t want to portray the divide as wider than it is.
Great point, Rachel. Absolutely. But the divide is wider than it should be (not that Rachel is causing it), and all the anxious attention we give to millenials sometimes increases the divide.

It might make us feel better to know that some millenials are finding comfort in the traditions of mainline Protestantism or more traditional faiths. Overall, however, the generations are much more fluid than this. There simply is no single fix. As many empty-nesters come back to church for contemporary forms of worship as for traditional ones. This is true also of millenials.

What empty-nesters need from the church is precisely what millenials need from the church. It is the only thing every generation needs, the only thing anyone distant from the church needs. It is the only silver bullet.

They need us to listen. 

Clearly, we are listening to the millenials.  Not that there's anything wrong with that. But we can't listen to the millenials for the wrong reasons, and we can't allow our juvenilizing tendencies to blind us to the times when we listen to one generation at the expense of many others.

And deep down, we all do really long for Jesus.

And deep down, all of us who are in our 40s kind of wish we were in our late 20s again.

p.s. Blogging is great because you can edit on the fly. Some notes from conversations happening around this post right now:

1) The title of this post (and maybe Rachel's?) could be, "Why empty-nesters are joining the church." This is because, as some readers point out, we focus a lot of energy worrying about who is leaving, and not as much time celebrating who is joining.

2) I have the sneaking suspicion that the people who say they are leaving the church because they don't find Jesus there may have a hyper-spiritualized understanding of who Jesus actually is.

3) The transitions that happen during the empty-nest stage are even more momentous than I've mentioned above. Often, there are issues like divorce, bankruptcy, job loss, decreased quality of life, less energy.

4) I remember at some point in college I made the transition from being externally motivated to study (to make grades, etc.) to being internally motivated (spending time in the library reading books discovered in the footnotes of other books simply because I was interested). Church is similar. Internal motivations can keep us strongly connected even when external circumstances sometimes push us away.

5) More than one person has recommended Richard Rohr's Falling Upward (link below) as one resource for this stage of life and spiritual journey. I've also blogged about it recently: http://lutheranconfessions.blogspot.com/2013/07/faith-hitting-wall-and-gaining-focus.html


  1. Maybe we like to read all these commentaries about why millennials are leaving church because, the reasons that are given resonate with why we want to leave church too.

    1. I think the millenials get more internet coverage as they are more active / comfortable. Within my peer group, you don't get anywhere near the intense soul sharing that exists within the younger folks online... and in my experience, very few if any of any generation really talk about leaving in 3d.

  2. Solid point. Because those of us who are 40 also wish we were 20 again... :)

  3. I don't understand how you can tell us on one hand that there are no studies, and then on the other hand list all the reasons we are leaving the church. How do you know? Listening, as you say, is a good start. So is not telling me how I feel.

    Which "flavor" of Lutheranism do you represent?

  4. It's the Chuck-E-Cheese effect. You will suffer through the indigestible pizza, the loud video games and the animatronic singers because you're attending the birthday party of a child you care a lot about. Without that kid? Why on earth would anyone eat there! Congregations with amazing program breadth don't always have the depth of faith life to offer to folks who are tired of kid-food.

  5. Some thoughts and observations from this sociologist:

    1) The "empty nest" isn't really emptying these days as the economy drives Millennials back home to live with their parents.I mention this because the term "empty nest" evokes a set of assumptions that may simply not apply.

    2) Really old data but could be useful for...something? Extrapolation? Roozen's mid-1990s work, Empty Nest; Empty Pew.http://bit.ly/19vBYDD

    3) More recently from Pew: Sandwich Generation Report: http://bit.ly/19vBYDD. Again, data that might help generate theoretical propositions.

    Last but not least, speaking as someone from that generation: Many of us are simply tired -- physically as well as tired of church politics; of committees that meet in person and at night (as if technology couldn't help us avoid all that); of noise in any form!

  6. One thing becomes clear as I think of this group of parents and kids. They were in church for the sake of others not for themselves. The parents were there for the sake of the kids-to give their kids a foundation. The kids were there for their parents to keep them happy.
    What's clear is neither the parents or the kids were part of the church because they needed to be in the company of the body of believers.

  7. Thanks for the timely post...

    It seems that both groups lack tangible options to participate in meaningful community at many of our churches. I do think people are looking for Jesus, but hopefully we are introducing them to living relationship and a close walk with him that leads to healing, purpose and connection to others. Ways of being the church that help people understand their calling to be both a person of faith and part of living community are essential. As a pastor who has served for almost 20 years I am not sure we have the best structures for this in our churches. We need to prayerfully work through ways of being together that allow people be the people really are they at any point at time, but lead them to something (or someone) deeper.

    This will obviously require a firm proclamation of the Gospel, but also a bit of law... Perhaps both those who fret those leaving the church and those who leave, ask the same question"what's in it for me?" a bit too much.

  8. Thanks Clint for articulating some things I've been wondering lately (especially after reading Rachel's article). We have a bumper crop of empty-nesters in our congregation and are going through the mega-demographic shift it has brought. Some things are encouraging though: namely folks starting fellowship/relational groups that don't look quite like the 'women's circles' of the past, but are filling the same need for community--gatherings at our local coffeehouse and exploring ethnic restaurants; theater trips as well as mission trips. We still have some challenges to address, such as keeping our empty-nest or early-retiree guys engaged; but overall feeling hopeful.

    And greetings by the way, from our Riverside camp days!

  9. Hey, thanks. And thanks to all for the conversation!