The Old, Gray Church, She Ain’t What She Used to Be


When your church grows elderly...A month or so ago, I remarked to our worship leader that I realized that, at nearly 49 years of age, I’m now the eldest worship team member. He replied that I was certainly reflective of the rest of the congregation.

As the drummer, I have a nice vantage point from center stage. That morning, it hit me that he was right. The amount of gray hair now visible among those heads out in the pews was never before so obvious.

The week afterward, I mentioned this to a friend in his early 40s. He concurred: The average age of folks in our church was creeping upward.

Our church is planning to add two elders, with neither candidate under 50. The existing elders asked for commentary. Alarmed by this sudden realization of advancing years in our congregation, I wrote that I thought perhaps we should investigate having younger elders, if for no other reason than the “elder” elders could shepherd a few younger men as part of a torch pass. Having a younger face on leadership would certainly prove us to be at least semi-open to the input of the nonarthritic.

Over the years, I’ve been a part of several churches, each coming from a different denominational slant. My current church of the past seven years traces its lineage back to the Azusa Street revival of the early 20th century. One thing I have noticed about churches with Azusa Street ancestry is that the young people who grow up in those churches bolt the second they graduate from high school. Gone. Vamoose. A few of them marry, settle down, and then get nostalgic after their children are born and return to the fold. But for the most part, they take off and are never heard from again.

We live in a mobile society. College forces young people out of the “suffocations” of their youth and into the world. We know all the reasons why people leave a church.

But the questions of a church going increasingly gray loom large.

When I was in college back in the early 1980s, I remember trying to find a church home while at school. Every church I walked into was packed—with old people. And by old, I mean retired. I remember visiting one Lutheran church where the youngest person, other than me, was the pastor. And he had to be 60.

I’ll let you guess whether I settled at that church or not.

In my younger years, I used to think I had all the answers when it came to “fixing” churches, yet reversing an aging trend is pretty darned difficult, and I’m no longer convinced the usual “tricks” work.

So I open this one to you, readers. Other than Grecian Formula and Miss Clairol, what’s the secret to increasing the number of gray-free heads in a church that seems more and more like its filled with candidates for Geritol?

13 thoughts on “The Old, Gray Church, She Ain’t What She Used to Be

  1. David

    Discipleship, discipleship, discipleship. We have forgotten our calling: To make diciples. Instead we are often trying “to make believers”, or worse, “followers”. We also tend to bring unbelievers to church and hope the church does something with them. We’re supposed to be out in the World, spending time with people and making disciples, THEN we bring them into the church, a church which is made up of healthy, mature disciples of Christ. Instead what often happens is that we grab someone who shows an interest in Christ, and shove him into the nursery, when he either stays with the rest of the babies, or bolts for freedom as soon an the opportunity presents itself. He only returns when a sense of duty overwhelms the desire for a free Sunday, or when mortality makes him question what will happen when he dies.

    • Ack, David. I think your reply is making me depressed! 😉 Still, the problem remains that if we make disciples in the “outer” world, will they want to come to a place filled with graybeards? Or will they look for a church that is more their demographic? And should we even care where they attend? Part of me says no, but part of me says yes (simply because you never know what some other church is feeding its disciples).

  2. The first thing I would say about that is there’s got to be a way to do it without sanctifying whatever’s hip, and simply updating your program to make it entertaining to the Justin Bieber/Twilight crowd. If you want to attract a new generation, don’t simply pander to its shallowest, most entertaining elements.

    I ask the question of education sometimes, and I wonder if it’s not related: how do you get kids, or young adults for that matter, interested in learning and growing?

    The answer, I’m convinced, is that young people have a built in thirst for discovery, and though it often gets muddled, confused, and squashed by institutional expectations and irrational demands that society puts on people, you can foster that curiosity among people just by exposure. Sometimes it just takes a nudge in the right direction. Does she have interest in literature? Gage her ability level and then throw some Dickens her way, or some Mark Twain if she hasn’t made it that far. Is he showing an affinity in engineering? Give him problems to solve, things to fix. Broken TV’s and whatnot. Don’t underestimate a kid’s ability. That could go for someone who’s entering the job world as well.

    Jesus is the most interesting person that’s ever lived, and the world he designed for us to live in is full of wonder upon wonder. Churches ought to ask themselves (no matter what their age range) “are we demonstrably finding Jesus Christ to be fascinating, delightful, sufficient, talented, (insert your own superlatives here)?” And by extension, are we sharing life in a way that that sense of discovery and love for him spills over into everyday life- jobs, hobbies, problems, etc.

    As for specifics and methods, I don’t have a whole lot to offer. I find that a lot of young people long for a sense of shared life- of community. They also seem to prioritize enjoyment of things like the arts and the outdoors over climbing the social ladder or accumulation.

    It’s really a question that probably doesn’t have one answer. I’ve spent quite a bit of time now in primarily “young” churches, and I can say that they’re not going for the cheesy, canned, airbrushed, super-pious platitudes in loopy lettering. The felt banners and fake plants decor. What the last generation found to be counter-cultural and engaging actually bores the daylights out of young people much of the time. And if it sounds like you’re selling something, they’re going to check out (and they ought to, if you ask me). I don’t often use all caps, but THE CULTURE WAR RHETORIC REALLY TURNS THEM OFF. (see the Coral Ridge Presbyterian story with Tullian Tchividjan). They really don’t need to hear another bit on “the gay agenda.” Nobody really does, imho. Also, churches that seem to do well with young people often leave behind the notion that Sunday morning is “the big show,” and give evidence that people are intimately involved with one another in daily life. In my opinion, the Gospel renewal that has taken place in some current movements did so because of the thorough ongoing connectedness to the knowing of the Gospel and its excellencies(ie, not just “get saved, be good”), and to quitting the program of trying to make people shift culturally to accommodate their church-program and style. They simply affirmed and celebrated the stylistic elements that the wider culture had already naturally come to(i.e mission/contextualization). That’s a really broad statement, and doesn’t go unqualified, but you get the point.

    Still, any healthy church/movement is going to have a diversity of cultural expressions, and I would be just as skeptical of a church that insisted everyone “get hip” or something, and had no interest in accommodating other generations and genuinely affirming what they had to offer. There’s plenty of that going on too.

    Really, the secret is Jesus Christ. He’s just as interesting and redeeming to gray-hairs with walkers as he is to under-30 anti-corporation hipsters! Are we making him LOOK that way?

    • Lots of great stuff in that comment, Nate. Thanks so much for taking the time to share it. I think I needed to hear it, so I want you to know I was blessed!

      Once the worship is over, I find myself daydreaming in church. The sermons are all beginning to sound the same: Do this Christian activity better, work at your faith harder, oppose this ungodly thing more, give more and you’ll get more…well, you know what I mean. Meanwhile, the guts of the Gospel are simply assumed and not much discussed. Honestly, anymore I feel like I’m there on Sunday simply because I like the people and want to talk about life with others. How sad that small groups are going on hiatus or folding entirely.

      Do churches really talk about the person of Jesus anymore? I hear many talk around Him, but I wonder sometimes if anyone really knows Him at all. If we did, wouldn’t He always be the focus, the sufficiency, the reason for everything? I’d love for a church, any church, to do a yearlong sermon series on the person of Jesus. My fear is that the series would peter out slowly because so few of us are deep enough in the Lord to generate a year’s worth of intimate sharing about our own intimacy with Christ.

      • Dan, you’re welcome- I found myself writing a lot more than I intended. I guess I’ve been marinating in this stuff for awhile!

        I feel your pain as to the sermons about doing such and such better, etc. I just went through a long, drawn out period in my church of 4 years in which I began questioning the focus(inwardly). That turned into raising explicit concerns with the congregation during services, and finally ended in my leaving the church. I too found myself going only because I liked the people. And I still do. But for me it became a waste of time on Sunday mornings to go to a special building and be expected to support a mechanism that didn’t display any lasting interest in Jesus Christ. I’ve been hopping around a bit since, but I’ve found at least one that, in terms of the pastor’s hope and the sermon’s content at least, seems to be consistently lifting Jesus up and getting to know him more. The difference in my attitude after a service compared to the other church is palpable.

        Here’s to the year-long sermon series on the person of Jesus! I’ll stick around for it, even if I’m the only one…

  3. Clint

    I think some of it has to do with the stand-offishness and insecurity of older men and women. My wife and I have prayed for an older couple to sit under and learn from but haven’t found anyone who is really willing or not too busy. One of the big reasons we joined this church was because of the amount of older couples.

    The cultural shift in the last two decades is intimidating for older generations. So, it seems that brotherly love and hospitality may have taken a hit with many churches in how they interact with the young bucks. The younger generation has plenty of responsibility too. Just my thoughts.

  4. Year ago I realized that churches do not attract younger members because the older ones do not want to change. They do not want to changes the music, the liturgy or the length of the sermons. They like what they like and have no vision for the future. Sad but often true.

    • Mr. Poet

      I agree that that can be true. However, now that I’m getting older, I can see the other side of the argument. I’ve been promised most of my life that certain changes will change everything, and while things do change, everything most certainly does not change. I’m getting to the age where I’m tired of people trying to change what I do while telling me it’s going to make my life so much better. It usually doesn’t make my life much better. In some cases, my life gets noticeably worse, but I only notice after a few years have gone by, and the road the repair the damage looks long, and I don’t feel like the hike anymore. Anyway…

  5. My little suggestions are two: prayer and outreach to local colleges and universities, if you have any.

    My husband and I started at our church several months ago, at the same time that they brought in a new pastor (we followed the pastor to his new church). The existing congregation was almost entirely elderly and hiring this pastor was their last attempt to keep the church open. They had dwindled down to I think about 30 members. Within a few months the church is near capacity every Sunday and to my surprise there are quite a few college students attending. When I asked them what brought them to our church, it was the outreach of just a few who had ties to the university.

    I also know that reaching the student population of our community was on our pastor’s heart for some time and the subject of much prayer, and that the elderly parishioners desperately wanted to see young life in their church again. Many of them have expressed to me their delight at seeing all the younger faces.

    Speaking for my 47 year old self, and my 35 year old husband, we were thrilled to be finally attending a church with some grey heads. Here in CA, and particularly in this college town where we live, there is a strong youth culture. At the church we last attended I was the “older woman”. I want to be near people who have walked with Jesus a very long time. I want to hear their testimonies and how they persevered. They fill us with hope and they often have a lot of wisdom to offer.

  6. Swithun

    Clear thought on the essential functions of the church and its contingent applications. Write the former in tablets of stone and the former on scrap paper to allow constant revision. This way the church will always be a faithful and, importantly in this context, a wise witness.

  7. Bee J Strickland

    Thanks for such an interesting subject to ponder and talk about!

    I was raised in the Baptist Church — walked the aisle and accepted Jesus at 11 years of age.

    First act of independence after I got married was to sleep late on Sunday mornings. Still loved God, still believed in Him, and as a barmaid in my early 30’s, was willing to discuss Him at every turn.

    The church I attend now is lead by a younger pastor. I only started going to the church because my dear DIL got saved and decided to go there. I wanted to make sure no one lead or taught her wrong — so I went with her. If she went down for prayer, I was two steps behind her, as I wanted to hear everything anyone said to her concerning the Lord. Suspicious aren’t I?

    Two years later, I am still attending that church, and I have to say I have watched that young pastor grow in the Lord by leaps and bounds. That excites me.

    Yes, the songs they sing — are not my songs. BUT since I have an old Baptist hymnal, I can sing the hymns I love to my heart’s content. I do get blessed when watching these younger folks sing unto God!

    The other thing that really bothered me was the Bible verses on the overhead. It is still unbelievable that people go to church without a Bible. But I had to realize that they Holy Spirit will lead and guide them, as He did me, into the paths they need to go.

    My DIL loves the Lord, listens to teaching tapes as she does her paperwork, and I have watched her change before my eyes — as the Spirit leads her. Sometimes she hears something she may think isn’t right, and she calls, we get out the Word, and do a study..

    Today, I am the elder, back in the fold for almost 35 years. But I do have to say that when I first returned to church, I am sure there were some elders and some elderly saints, who just figured I did none of it right. And they were probably right. But the leading of the Holy Spirit, has with every step I took drawn me closer and closer in my relationship with the Godhead, and for that I am very thankful.

    Thanks for such a subject ….

    • Local Yokel: “All them Yuro-peen guys with the wigs and frizzy hair? They’z dead. Now ‘scuse me while I goes back to my radio and some REAL artistes. {Singing along} ‘I’ve got friends in low places….'”

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