LIFECYCLE & Should aging churches be euthanized? #No (what I learned by consulting them)

by Bob Whitesel, D.Min., Ph.D., 12/7/17.

Recently a student commented, “Last week (national name) was advocating that we put a ‘Sun Set Clause’ in all our churches. He said less than 1% of churches in the country are older than 100 years old. There are no churches that trace their heritage as a congregation to the first century church. He says that churches have a life cycle and instead of fighting it we should work with it. He said the most fruit years of most churches ministry is in the first 30 years. He is advocating that all decisions made in the church be based on the idea that we have 30 years of ministry left. He believes that if we did this we would place more emphasis on people and less on buildings. Instead of building monuments that will last for ever we would make disciples and release them to be missionaries. I would be interested in your prospective on this?”

I responded:

Thanks for the question. My view on this comes out of interviews I have conducted over the past 25+ years with hundreds of older members of churches in my consulting practice. I discovered that as people age they need the church more, rather than less. However as they age they have less ability to volunteer as well as less ability to support the church. Therefore, Like Social Security I believe we should provide a spiritual security in our congregations. So rather than closing a congregation down you can revitalize a congregation into a new lifecycle.

I discovered that as people age they need the church more, rather than less. However as they age they have less ability to volunteer as well as less ability to support the church.

Also as older congregants age I believe they have more insecurity in their lives. They have financial insecurity as they live on a fixed income. And they have relational insecurity as their friends move away and/or die. In addition they have health insecurity. Therefore it is been my experience that they look to the church to provide needed security and a worship culture they can relate to. Without an influx of younger generations the church becomes organizationally insecure it only adds to their insecurity.

Here is where I’ve written more about this and answered more questions:

Finally, as I said above I came to this viewpoint after interviewing hundreds of aging members. Over and over again these dear hard-working saints worry that their church will not survive. Usually they’ve seen exit behavior occur as the result of change implemented too quickly or without consensus (see Bruno Dyke and Frederick A. Starke, “The Formation of Breakaway Organizations: Observations and a Process Model,” Administrative Science Quarterly 44 [Ithaca, NY: Johnson Graduate School of Management, Cornell University, 1999], 792-822.).

Thus, older congregants fear (rightly so) being left behind and marginalized. And many of these dear saints ran the church and supported it through the years as young families.

But I want to agree with (national name) that we put too much emphasis on facilities. In fact, I wrote a chapter in the book Growth by accident, death by planning: How not to kill a growing congregation (Abingdon Press, 2004) that “Missteps with facilities” was one of the quickest ways to kill a growing congregation. You can find more info on that here:

I believe people like (national name) are not as familiar with the needs of aging congregants because they don’t consult aging churches. Most of them have been involved in church plants. In fact that’s how I started out: overseeing a network of church plants and then planting a church myself. And in hindsight I found I had a jaded view. I tended to not understand the needs of aging congregants and rather dismissed them.

And in hindsight I found I had a jaded view. I tended to not understand the needs of aging congregants and rather dismissed them.

After having consulted for so many years and conducted numerous focus groups with aging congregants I have found them to be dear, committed saints who now suffer insecurity in their lives” an insecurity the next-generation can address … if the next gen doesn’t abandon and instead respects the senior saints’ culture.

The result has been that some churches, like Trinity Wesleyan Church in Indianapolis has reached out to senior centers. They just don’t go into senior centers and put on a Sunday service. But they actually organize the seniors to lead the services. It gives aging Christians an opportunity to still be involved in worship and leadership. (As a preacher, worship leader and pastor I hope one day that opportunity will be afforded me 🙂

SENIOR WORKERS & work activities will become increasingly “age agnostic” & age stereotypes will look increasingly outdated

“Our Assumptions About Old and Young Workers Are Wrong”

by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, Harvard Business Review, 11/14/16.

… To understand how people are responding to this transformation in their working lives, we developed a survey completed by more than 10,000 people from across the world aged 24 to 80.

We found far fewer differences between the age groups than we might have imagined. In fact, many of the traits and desires commonly attributed to younger people are shared by the whole workforce. Why might this be the case?

…For our recent book The 100 Year Life we calculated how long people will work. Whilst we cannot be precise, it is clear that in order to finance retirement many people currently in their fifties will work into their seventies; whilst those in their twenties could well be working into their eighties. That means that inevitably people of very different ages are increasingly working together.

This long working life, coupled with profound technological changes, dismantles the traditional three-stage life of full-time education, full-time work, and full-time retirement. In its place is coming – for all employees regardless of their age – a multi-stage life that blends education, exploration, and learning, as well as corporate jobs, freelance gigs, and time spent out of the workforce. Inevitably the variety of these stages and their possible sequencing will result in both greater variety within age cohorts, whilst also providing opportunities for different ages to engage in similar activities. In other words, work activities will become increasingly “age agnostic” and these age stereotypes will look increasingly outdated.

…The people in our study overturned these stereotypes:

  • It is not just the young who are investing in new skills…Certainly a higher proportion of those aged 18-30 (91%) and 31-45 (72%) felt they were investing in new skills but after the age of 45 almost 60% of all ages said they were actively investing…
  • It is not just the young who are positive and excited by their workWhat was striking was that whatever their age, those feeling positive about their work was a constant at just over 50%. Just as striking is the proportion of people of all ages who don’t feel positive about their work…
  • Older people are working harder to keep fit. We know that vitality is central to a long productive life and it is easy to imagine that it’s only the young who really care about their fitness. Yet we discovered that it is the older who are working hardest to try to keep fit. About half of those under 45 actively try to keep fit, rising continuously across the ages with a peak of 71% for those aged over 70.

Read more at …

AGING & Increasing Insecurity: Why Older Adults Don’t Welcome Change

by Bob Whitesel, D.Min., Ph.D., 10/25/15.

(Note: “They’re looking for someplace where they can have some degree security.”)

The student replied that she was fed up with the older generation “not wanting to change.” She stated “They never want the church to change anything, even if it means closing the doors of the church.”

I responded that I was not sure I could completely agree with her conclusions.

Insecurity: The Reason Older Congregants in My Client Churches Resist Change.

I explained thus is because I conduct focus groups of older people at every church I consult, literally hundreds of churches. One result is that I’ve found it’s not that they don’t want to change, but it’s that they have increased insecurity in their life. Let me explain by citing here my response to her.  I stated the following:

Older congregants have increasing insecurity in;

  • their health,
  • their friendships (because friends are moving away),
  • and their finances (as they struggle with mounting bills as they live on s fixed income.)

Security:  Looking for Security and Familiarity in Their Church

Therefore in my client churches they’re looking for someplace where they can have some degree of security. Someplace with things can remain the same. Someplace where their friends can gather and reminisce and enjoy the old old and good days.

This often is in what we call the third space. The first space is our family. The second space is where we work. And the third space is where we hang out with friends. For younger generations this could be a Starbucks or Café.  But for me the older generation this is often their church. (See my articles on Odenberg’s theory of “third space.”)

Thus seniors are afraid of losing the community they enjoy and that gathers in the third space. And that third space is usually the worship service as well as the time they meet before and after.

Let Them Have Their Worship Service (along with its styles, traditions, etc.)

I found in my case-study research that churches grow faster when they let the old traditional service alone. Let them have their third space and worship community… in the style they like .

But, add something new too!

But, add  something new at a different time or different place to reach other generations and/or cultures.

Just remember, the older members are seeking security and I believe God has provided the church to provide that security. And it is often at church where they  feel secure in the predictability of the worship service,  it’s liturgy and structure.

Speaking Hashtags:  #BreakForth16

AGING & How to Reinvent Yourself After 50 #WesleySem @WesleySeminary #HBR

Commentary by Dr. Whitesel: “Dorie Clark’s best-seller book Reinventing You is filled with stories of people who after the age of 50 – had the most successful periods in their lives. I wonder how many people out there over the age of 50 don’t think they can reinvent themselves, while we at Wesley Seminary are just waiting to help them.”

Read more at …

GENERATIONS: More seniors own tablets or e-readers than smartphones

Pew: More seniors own tablets or e-readers than smartphones

by Sam KirklandPublished Apr. 3, 2014, Pew Research Center

“About 27 percent of U.S. adults age 65 or older own a tablet or e-reader device while just 18 percent of seniors own a smartphone, according to Pew’s new report on seniors’ digital habits.

That’s the opposite of the pattern seen in all U.S. adults, who own smartphones at a higher rate (55 percent) than tablets or e-readers (43 percent).

All such device use among older adults follows the “elite” patterns seen in the overall adult population, Pew found: More education and higher household income are correlated with higher rates of ownership.

Read more at …


What makes older people happy, by Judith Graham, New York Times, Feb. 11, 2014

Important research on why we should preserve traditional services.

“A recent study … scheduled for publication this year in The Journal of Consumer Research, finds that the kinds of experiences that make people happy tend to change over time.”