Bear with me, this article is a departure from what I usually write. I don't mean to discourage anyone by writing it. I simply want to share my own personal experience and dilemma about my midlife empty-nest church attendance.
I read an article the other day about empty nest couples backing away from church attendance. It even suggested not much has been written on this phenomenon, but the phenomenon certainly exists.
And it is problematic. For one, empty nesters are often big tithers. For another, the Bible teaches us to not forsake assembling together. Christians are better together. They need each other. So what is the church to do to retain empty-nesters?
I have to admit, I was relieved to read this article about the migration of this crowd, because I thought my husband and I were the only "sinners" of this nature. We had already backed off church attendance going only every other week, and lately, even less. It was interesting to read that is a common thread amongst this age group.
A Little History
I was raised in a church-going family. I became ministry-minded. I had great passion and held a number of volunteer church roles over the years.
I was happy to find a church I loved--the church we were married in. But things turned bad. The church split, splintered, and eventually dissolved. My husband and I were so let down, disappointed, disenchanted.
That event wielded long-term wounds causing us to be tepid going forward. Perhaps that adds to our disenchantment now.
But we didn't give up on church. We were involved in church plants. I worked hard at every Sunday School class I taught. I worked hard at every ministry endeavor I tried. The list was long. And now I am weary.
Changing Churches out of Necessity
We changed churches twice after the dissolution, never finding the same wonderful feeling in a church.
We job transferred several times always finding a new church--always being the new people.
Since our marriage, we have been in 8 churches--never again becoming members (oh, yes, we did once just before we job transferred again).
We gasped that each church wanted new people to start over with a 101 class and front-of-the-church confession should they choose to become members. How off-putting for some like us. It didn't seem to matter where we'd been, our level of spiritual maturity, the number of roles we'd held in other churches. It felt insulting to have to go through church kindergarten again--to prove ourselves.
There was no membership letter transfer protocol any longer even though such is biblical and I think that is a shame.
Once the Children Leave
Let me not get bogged down in details. Let me get to the point of our current empty-nest 50-plus church going dilemma.
We took our children to church until they became adults and became responsible for their own choices. My daughter moved out and my university-aged son just wouldn't get up in time when he was home. So my husband and I shuffled along to church ourselves.
Navigating how to handle our children's choices added yet another stress to our lives. Our entire parenting role was changing.
We were pleased to fall into a small group of empty-nesters which helped fill a gap for three years. We were able to share with each other many of our struggles.
Illness, Tiredness, Boredom
Then I came down with physical issues interfering with life enjoyment. I had tinnitus and anxiety and, for a time, the loud worship music added to my anxiety.
I have chronic fatigue and lately dealing with recovery from a mild concussion. I am hypothyroid and am always tired.
Working from home and not having to be anywhere in the mornings once my children moved out, I made all my appointments in the afternoon. Church became the only thing I had to get dressed to get out to in the morning.
One church started a 1 pm service which was perfect for me. But it didn't last. I haven't been able to find any churches in my area with more interesting service/gathering times. It seems appalling. The big buildings sit empty during the week. They all copy each other and do the same thing. I don't get it!
My husband changed jobs at age 57 and is tired too. He needs his weekends to de-stress. It is more pleasurable to sleep in and enjoy a leisurely breakfast together than it is to go to church where we might doze off. It's become quite a dilemma.
We made a point to get to church at least every second week and found doing so was more guilt-driven than desire. We want to please God and we wanted to stay accountable to our small group.
Then my husband's mom was hospitalized and regular visits to see her was added to our schedule. Our attendance dropped even more.
During the nest-emptying phase, we felt in demand.
I have a large home and yard to look after which is harder at our age. My husband holds a high-level engineering role. His expertise is always sought. He grows weary.
Added onto our stress was moving our university-aged children in and out of their dorms. We moved my daughter 13 times!
We picked our children up every couple of weeks so they could come home for weekend breaks. We grocery shopped for them or with them. We delivered them back to their dorms Sunday nights, hauling bags of groceries to their rooms.
Our energy isn't what it used to be. Church feels like one more demand.
Until I read the article, I didn't know what was going on with us. I now see I'm not the only one struggling.
We want to be good examples for our children, so we set to figure this thing out. Either I had to start getting up and dressed and get there, or we needed to find another solution.
We wondered if our new disillusionment was because our church had changed pastors--one more change to adapt to. We wondered if it was because the focus of the new pastor was different than that of our heart's desire for a church. We wondered if we could find what was missing in another church, so have looked into other churches.
But the idea of starting over again seems energy-draining.
We visited one church that was warm and small. But the pastor made a point to put a guilt trip on the audience saying Jesus died for us, the least we can do is show up every Sunday. (That wouldn't work for me.)
Another church was obviously geared to the younger set and the message was delivered by satellite. My husband didn't like that idea.
A local couple wants to start a church, but their "flavor" is vastly different from ours. They're into having a church where you just let the spirit lead--no prepared message. They are prophetic-minded. We are not.
There are churches where they love to worship 45 minutes to music. My husband despises that length of music worship time. We get tired standing that long. We don't get into the (ever-changing) lyrics the same way. Our voices aren't practiced enough to sing for that long without getting sore.
There are churches designed for the under 40 crowd and even for the under 30 crowd. Though we have nothing against them, we know we don't fit.
There are many young families in churches. Again, we no longer fit. We've done our time as nursery workers and SS teachers.
Then there are churches that are like senior's centers. At 58 & 60, we are still young at heart. We aren't interested in spending our time with 75 yr olds. Admit it--those already retired and who qualify as seniors in Canada (65) think differently.
I looked for a church that started at a different time of day thinking that may help. But there is nothing at the right time, the right style, the right distance, the right flavor, etc. It's too complicated. Or is it just me, excuses, or even the enemy?
What's In it For Us?
I despised a comment on the article I read that suggested too many of us ask what's in it for us. The Bible tells us to weigh the costs. There needs to be something in it for us, otherwise church going is just legalism, isn't it?
So the dilemma becomes what is there out there for us? Where are empty nesters to end up? What do we want? What do we need?
Have we just been around the block too many times? Are we just too tired of the politics, the demands, the routine?
Do we need to give ourselves permission to lay low and recuperate?
In my search for another church I got a little excited. The church had an empty-nesters group on a weekday evening. Included were snacks or dinner and discussions relevant to their life stage whether it be caring for aging parents, reaching out in ministry, parenting adult children, or the like. It sounded like the church being the church--ministering to each other. Isn't that what church should be?
But my excitement fizzled when I realized this group was in a location in the US, not in my vicinity.
I think that's what I want, though, to go somewhere where we minister and encourage each other. Not just a social group, not listening to lectures and leaving. Not listening to the loud music of a worship band and feigning glorious rapture. Sunday afternoon would be a good time for us.
Perhaps the time will come when the Lord will lead us to this something new. Perhaps for now we will lay down guilt and striving and be satisfied with resting in God's love and grace.
God is still active within us. We are trying to discern what he is saying. I hope he creates something spectacular for us and all midlife empty nest couples in the days ahead.
Are Empty Nesters Leaving the Church?
So I want to end this by pointing out it isn't so much that empty nesters are leaving the church because they don't need it any longer or because they've changed their beliefs. They are just not going for all the reasons listed above. That is very different from "leaving the church."