Recently, I ran across a story of a 45-year-old software developer spending upwards of $2 million a year to reverse the aging process to attain the health of an 18-year-old. A team of over 30 doctors monitors his body and helps shape a rigorous diet, exercise regimen, and other treatments. As you can imagine, the story has elicited curiosity, judgment and even horror, even as there is some evidence that his expensive efforts are working.
For as long as I’ve been a United Methodist, we’ve also had an obsession with age. As someone who has spent decades in, or tangentially connected to, young people’s ministries, I’ve most often experienced it in the form of congregational agonizing over the lack of younger people in the pews. “We need a praise band.” “If only our youth group were bigger/better…” Changes and new programs sometimes help, but the efforts to woo younger members in many congregations often only leave frustration in their wake.
But this is simply one way our age “problem” presents itself. Buildings that are too large for existing membership bring expenses that cut into mission and outreach efforts; eventually, they fall apart around us as we are forced to defer essential maintenance. Some congregations find themselves increasingly out of touch without trusted cultural interpreters – or worse, divided – when confronted with social issues and questions that challenge long-held assumptions.
Aging with grace is an art we seem to have lost in a culture too often obsessed with youth. The same can be said for the church, yet scripture tells us something different where gray hair is a mark of blessing (Proverbs 20:29), and wisdom is something reserved for those who have earned it with years (Job 12:12).
Over the years, I’ve grown to appreciate attempts to understand the state of faith communities using the language and shared experiences of life cycles. While not perfect, using this lens asks us to imagine whether a specific change, learning initiative, or revitalization effort makes sense for the congregation in question. When we consider the vitality of a congregation in tandem with where it is in its lifecycle, different pastoral leaders and the gifts they bring can emerge as better matches.
The difficulty of and lack of willingness to do the essential work of adaptive change for others different from us can be one of the best indicators that we have moved into our congregational twilight years. This is a point when we should ask, “Can we do more by releasing the energy required to keep our ministry fresh and vital to bless our communities in different ways?” After all, few of us can afford 30 doctors to monitor our progress or tolerate a rigid diet and exercise routine.
Even though reaching new generations and new people with the message of God’s transformative love is essential, it doesn’t have to be the work of every faithful group of Christians. Sometimes there is deep wisdom in knowing when it is our time to start to slow down and wrap things up. In doing so, we can remain faithful in creating space and providing resources for other churches in a different stage of congregational life. With acceptance and absent shame, we can also better love those entering their golden years by accepting where they are and listening deeply to the wisdom they have gleaned.
Our realization of entering the last stages of a church’s lifecycle cannot be one-sided. To everything, there is a season, and denial can leave our communities insular, frustrated and sometimes even toxic. For faithful disciples of Jesus, when we stop considering how we can meet, learn and adapt to be in ministry with others, we must start to talk about how we will end our ministry well, even if that end is still years away.
May God give us all the wisdom to recognize where we are in life – both personally and corporately – and the comfort in knowing that we are loved deeply by our creator even when we pivot toward ending well.
Thank you, Patrick, for another great article. Roger
Thanks for reading, Roger!
With so many of our congregations aging, discussions on how to end well should be high on the priority list for guidance from the district. i would be interested in seeing examples of churches that ended well.
On my Facebook wall, Rev. Julia Price shared Trinity UMC in East Wenatchee as an example. Another I would put Epworth LeSourd UMC in Tacoma. In both cases, the congregations had agency and, because they didn’t wait too long, the opportunity to bless other ministries there were passionate about as they closed.
Sue, I can give one example of a church that ended as well as it could, but was premature and unnecessary due to neglect and malpractice by the Conference.
Thank you again, Patrick. I thoroughly enjoy reading your articles and learning more about the church and the world. At our last vacation bible school, two elderly men told stories to the kids everyday. These were not Jolly Santa type men but they were phenomenal storytellers. The connection made between the young and the old was beautiful to watch. There’s so much wisdom and knowledge in an older congregation. Being able to share some of that wisdom and knowledge to the children through stories, is a beautiful way to end a church or a life. Both storytellers passed away shortly thereafter. However, those kids will not forget those storytellers. I can’t think of a better way to wind down in a church or reach the end of the life. Children are our future.
Thanks for sharing this story Sylvia (and for reading). There really are a lot of amazing things that can come out of the intergenerational opportunities a healthy church can provide!