written by: Keith Drury
QUESTION: I am frustrated with the traditional service at my church. It is filled with people in their 50’s and 60’s and the service is dead and there is little response. When I go from that service to our more contemporary service it is like leaving a funeral home and entering an electric atmosphere. I’ve come to dread the traditional service and increasingly see it as mere practice for the “real” worshippers in the contemporary service. We’ve tried everything from a worship band to a motivating song leader to get some life into that funeral but we’ve failed. Any ideas?
ANSWER: You’ve got the right word…”funeral.” Yep, that’s the right word. If you want to understand this age group, start with the word “funeral.”
I’ll address “funeral” later, but first let me point out that few people really try to understand people in their 50’s and 60’s. Go look in your local Christian bookstore or Christian college library and count the books on youth, or generation X, or the millennial generation, or the emerging post modern generation. You’ll lose count. Then go searching for books to help you understand and adapt ministry to people in their 50’s and 60’s and you’ll be able to count them on one hand–two at the most if you’re in a great Christian library. But even if they are there–nobody buys them or signs them out. Face it, we are keen to discover the interests and preferences of the emerging generations but have little interest in people over 50, even though they comprise a significant component/majority of many congregations.
Well that’s not completely true. The church is interested in this generation’s money. This is the generation expected to pick up the tab, or at least lots of the tab. However the church is not interested in their preferences or needs. They are overlooked except when it comes to paying the bill. When people in their 50’s and 60’s express a preference they are often told “this service is not for you–it is for others–don’t be selfish.” Emerging generations are not told this, of course. Many older Christians are taking this message seriously and have quit coming so regularly–in fact most statistics show this is the most sporadically attending group in the church. Why not? They’ve heard the message: “it isn’t for you–pay the bill and be quiet.”
They’ve seen lots of death and destruction. Perhaps these folk in your contemporary service act like they are in a funeral because they are! Even the externally cheerful ones carry a deep sense of grief. They are not new gung-ho recruits fresh from boot camp–they’ve seen plenty of warfare and plenty of dead bodies littering the battlefield of life. They grieve–so perhaps your traditional service is mournful because they are grieving. They’ve been through some of life’s tough battles. They gotten wounded. They’ve seen their compatriots fall. They know all about divorce–perhaps their own or maybe their children’s. It pains them. They know about fallen leaders too–most have seen several “Great-men-of-vision” who captivated them with preaching and personality yet they discovered later that all the time they were leading these “great leaders” were committing adultery or lying to the congregation. They have been burned several times like this-so they aren’t too quick to join the cheerleading staff for the next captivating preacher-personality arriving on the scene.
They’ve done their share of giving. They’ve been through several “Not equal giving but equal sacrifice” capital campaigns and they anted up their sacrificial gifts to the church–gifts the present pastor knows nothing about nor recognizes as anything but “that was your duty.” Many feel their giving was taken for granted or even wasted by their church through frivolous decisions or indecision. Perhaps they committed sacrificially to the church’s “new vision” only to discover after they gave the money the church changed their mind and spent it for something else. The “new vision” they are hearing from you is the fifth one they’ve heard in their life so far–from the seventh pastor they’ve had. They were excited when the first Moses went up the mountain and got God’s vision for them-then “cast the vision” to the congregation. But by now they’ve had a dozen Moses’ getting different visions from God casting it their way-the are not quick to cheer for every new “Vision from God.” They have seldom been thanked for giving-other than a once-a-year computer generated receipt. They sometimes feel used. Like a spouse who is taken for granted they are tempted to get resentful. And all those promises about God taking care of them and rewarding their generosity? How does that square with a stock portfolio that just halved, a social security program that seems in trouble, and an economy heading south at breakneck speed? They still believe it but losing half your net worth is a few years might make help them be a bit melancholy don’t you think?
They are wounded physically. They or their friend have had a hysterectomy, a mastectomy, or double mastectomy or prostate cancer. They have a friend right now going through chemotherapy. Their back hurts and they took pain medicine before church today and standing longer than ten minutes brings tears to their eyes–but they don’t want to cave in and look decrepit and old by sitting down. Their sex drive has gradually diminished over the years, in fact they don’t feel any sort of energy in any area like they once did. They sleep less than ever, but they wake feeling weary. While they are not sleepy they are tired.
They think about death and dying. Women have passed childbearing age, men can’t do push ups and knock the softball over the fence anymore. Every new ache and pain suggests two funerals that they dread more than all the others put together-their spouses and their own. Many in this generation actually read the obituaries every day–they really do-every day. They often do it secretly and tell nobody. There they see a friend’s name from time to time reminding them their generation is beginning to die off. They check the birth dates of the rest comparing it with own birth date, keeping a mental scoreboard on how many people die each week younger than them. Their own demise looms. Their mother died recently, or father. Or perhaps worse, a parent is still living and requires demanding care from them. They watch their parent die slowly in a nursing home with few people or pastors from the church ever visiting. They die forgotten. Here the see the ghost of Christmas future-a person who has given their whole life to the church–but is now forgotten and dies in a lonely room with few visitors. Old people no longer are viable contributors to the church. They wonder if this is their own final exit–an ignoble dribbling away of life in loneliness with few caring. The bell tolls for them.
They are wounded emotionally. Most of them have experienced at least one violation of trust-spouse, child, business partner, pastor-probably more than one. They were ripped off. They were violated. They are wounded. They’ve been told to be loving an forgiving of others (especially of the younger generation who has run roughshod over their feelings) but they see no reciprocal tolerance and forgiveness for their own shortcomings. They may smile broadly, but they hurt deeply.
They’ve been burned. Burned by preachers and the church too–so they don’t respond with flag-waving enthusiasm to every new idea or new minister. Face it, they’ve had a sequence of preachers tell them truths that later preachers told them weren’t true. Their life has been a series of hearing truth from ministers which is later reversed by other ministers. They are tired of “You may have always thought…however” style preaching. They are on their fourth or fifth iteration of truth since young adulthood. They wonder if the first one was right, or the second…or even this one. What can they believe? Is it any wonder that they seem so skeptical when a thirty-something pastor delivers the latest truth as if he or she has discovered something the church has totally been misunderstanding for decades?
They are disillusioned spiritually. This generation grew up singing “Every day with Jesus is Sweeter than the Day Before” and now they know it isn’t. There are days that are bitter and they no longer deny it. Many coupled youthful idealism with spiritual goals and really thought they had the “victory that overcomes the world.” And now they see many battles, both in themselves and in the broader arena of society that have been lost. They haven’t reached the holiness they expected would come with time and age. The church is not a holier and better church in spite of what they were promised by umpteen programs and campaigns. Many have experienced unanswered prayers for decades -for healing, salvation for their children, good spouses for their kids. They believe but not with the effusive excitement they once did.
They are politically pessimistic. Growing up the sixties, they wanted to “give peace a chance.” They witnessed social protest bringing an end to segregation and the war in Viet Nam. But with (official) segregation gone they see racial prejudice lurking yet in every community, and even their own hearts. Viet Nam ended but their life has been a series of little wars ever since and the world is not that less dangerous. They suspect that their generation is leaving the world in worse shape than when they got it…and inwardly blame themselves.
They sense regret. They’ve made mistakes. They had dreams they never achieved. Every time you preach a relevant sermon on child-rearing they have no chance of implementing it–they can sense regret they didn’t do it right back then, and hope they can make up some with grandchildren. They hurt every day for their lost daughter, or son who has rejected the faith. They wonder if they caused this by being too strict, or by being to lenient. They’ve made mistakes. They past opportunities that may have made a brighter life for them now if they’d grabbed them. They still mourn the sins of their youth. They wish they could take back some of their decisions or actions but they can’t. They regret it.
They have doubt. With the shifting sands of truth some launch a desperate attempt to believe something… anything–some settle on one particular iteration of the truth they’ve been told–and younger pastors consider them stuck-in-the-mud traditionalists for doing it. Many appear they have their faith-act together, but they don’t. They have doubts. Sometimes they wonder if all they’ve lived their life for is even true. They ask, “Have I wasted my life?” They recite their beliefs automatically–but they aren’t always sure of them. They desperately want someone to preach on things that have always been true and that are still true-things people used to die for-the core thing, the essentials. They agree that Evolution is untrue yet they watch Discovery channel and quietly wonder to themselves if the church has been wrong about that. Of course, you will seldom hear them express these doubts–they are tucked deep within their souls. But doubt is their constant companion. A thirty-something preacher whose gospel is mostly focused on being delivered from lust or giving practical tips on child-rearing doesn’t help their doubts. In fact they are tired of sermons on change and hunger for sermons on God. They are desperate to know what is certifiably true and always has always been true. What can they bet their life on? What can they die for, or at least with. They hunger for truth about God and doctrine they can cling to.
So, perhaps your “Traditional service” is like a funeral because it is like a funeral. Of course being in your 50’s and 60’s isn’t as bad as I’m portraying it-there are bright sides too. But I’m trying to show why this group may be “dead” in your service. It is like a funeral because it is what they have experienced. Those attending it are far nearer their own funeral than the younger folk in the contemporary service? Maybe that is why your peppy songs and band don’t work at bringing an ecstatic response… after all a peppy song and a band at a funeral might even be out of place?
So, here is the question for you to think about:
Does the gospel I preach have anything to say to people like this?
©2004 Keith Drury
Keith Drury served The Wesleyan Church headquarters in Christian Education and Youth leadership for 24 years before becoming a professor of religion at Indiana Wesleyan University. He is the author of more than a dozen books of practical spirituality, including Holiness for Ordinary People, Common Ground and Ageless Faith. Keith Drury wrote the Tuesday Column for 17 years (1995-2012), and many articles can be found on his blog “Drury Writing.”
Keith Drury retired from full time teaching in 2012. Keith is married to Sharon and has two adult sons and several grandchildren. He is retired in Florida with Sharon and enjoys cycling.