Why empty-nesters are leaving the church

ClintSchnekloth
08/06/2013

Why empty-nesters are leaving the church

I know, I know. Everyone wants to talk about why millennials are leaving the church. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The church needs the millennials, 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 millennial 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?

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 the Public Religion Research Institute, almost everyone seems to be studying them.

If nothing else, our manic attention to millennials and the church illustrates Thomas Bergler’s point in “The Juvenilization of American Christianity” that 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 millennials leaving the church.

I did find 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 millennials 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, millennials. Like millennials, 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 the congregation 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 [millennials/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 millennials sometimes increases the divide.

It might make us feel better to know that some millennials 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 millennials.

What empty-nesters need from the church is precisely what millennials 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 millennials. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But we can’t listen to the millennials 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.

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Originally posted July 30, 2013, at Lutheran Confessions. Republished with permission of the author. Find a link to Clint Schnekloth’s blog Lutheran Confessions at Lutheran Blogs.

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