“Even after several years, I’m still a guest here.” It wasn’t the first time I’d had this thought on a Sunday morning at church.
God knows I’d tried to plug into the life of the nondenominational church my husband and I had attended for more than three years. But one Sunday I had an epiphany about why I felt like a perpetual visitor. The insight came as I read the announcements for coming events. These included:
- A Mothers of Preschoolers year-end luncheon
- Information about a family campout
- A plea for Vacation Bible School helpers
- A plug for a men’s summer kick-off barbeque
I knew I was welcome to lend a helping hand. But the list underscored the fact that I was not in the target demographic for any of the upcoming church events. Families with children under eighteen were the primary focus of almost every church event beyond Sunday-morning services. The barbeque was a way to reach out to the men whose wives were the engine that powers most of the programming. I, on the other hand, was a fifty-something woman with young-adult children who had flown the nest several years earlier.
There were a couple of small women’s Bible studies. But the announcements told me that in this fairly conservative evangelical church, programming reflects certain assumptions about what older women can contribute. Here’s the list I put together after considering three years’ worth of announcements, as well as conversations with other “older women” in the church:
- Food prep, serving, and clean up
- Childcare help during church events for young parents
- One-on-one mentoring with a younger woman if we were able to form a connection with her by regular participation in church events targeting younger women
- Occasional secretarial and collating help
Was it just me? I kept having essentially the same conversation with many of my age peers. They had the same sour sense of midlife disenfranchisement. So I began asking new questions. Why were so many of us feeling—or acting on—this sense of disconnection from churches in which we’d once been so involved?
Father Richard Rohr’s essential book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (Jossey-Bass, 2013) offers a helpful explanation:
Almost all of culture, and even most of religious history, has been invested in the creation and maintenance of first-half-of-life issues: the big three concerns of identity, security, and sexuality and gender. They don’t just preoccupy us; they totally take over. That is where history has been up to now, I am afraid… Much of organized religion is itself living inside of first-half-of-life issues, which usually coincides with where most people are in any culture.
We in the church haven’t had much practice with issues related to aging. For most of human history, people weren’t living long into their second half of life. Around one hundred years ago, the average life expectancy in the U.S. was 51.5 years.
Last spring I did an informal survey on my personal blog, asking those over age forty about their relationship with their local church. Nearly half of more than four hundred fifty respondents reported downshifting their involvement from what it had been ten years earlier. Those who had maintained or increased their involvement in the last decade reported they have more time and energy at this stage of life and desire to leave a spiritual legacy by investing in the next generation. Interestingly, I heard those same sentiments echoed by some who had disengaged from active involvement in their churches. They simply had found other venues where they felt they wouldn’t have to fight layers of church politics for a place at the table.
I also heard a catalog of other reasons for a decrease or a ceasing of involvement, including ministry burnout, wounding from intramural politics in the congregation, health issues (theirs or those of a spouse or parent), changing/growing beliefs about God that put them out of sync with the party line at church, and lack of opportunity for them to use their gifts if the gifts didn’t meld with the focus of the congregation on programming designed to attract young families.
Those over forty are part of the generation that turned the development of demographically targeted church programs into a science. The well-reported exodus of Millennials (and the less-reported but just as significant departure of Boomers) from our churches should tell us that we have come to the end of this sort of spiritual pragmatism. This approach to church has defined too many of us as “guests”—and the rest as nervous, socially-awkward hosts.
Though my survey’s respondents included both genders, a number of women also noted that if they had teaching or leadership gifts, there was no place to use them if they didn’t want to run their congregation’s Vacation Bible School, again. While these conversations reflect the ongoing complementarian/egalitarian debate in the church at large, I’d like to suggest that this conversation becomes even more complicated when age seems to diminish the value of a woman’s voice in our faith communities.
A.A.R.P. messages about midlife empowerment and self-actualization aside, women at midlife are bombarded with cultural messaging that tells us we are less beautiful, less desirable, and consequently, of less value than those in their twenties and thirties. That older women hear this message at church may reflect yet another way in which we’ve mirrored our culture’s values instead of living as citizens of the kingdom, a kingdom where every member is valued, and there is no such thing as a guest.