two elderly men playing chess

One weekday noon I found myself eating lunch with about a dozen or so men who were on the sidelines as far as church involvement was concerned. At one time, all had been heavily involved in a leadership capacity in their church. Some belonged to my former church — others belonged to churches where I knew their pastor. All of these were what we would call “mainline” or “moderate” Protestant churches. So, I asked a question: “How many of you attend church more than 1 time per month?” Answer: Zero.

Next question: “How many of you once attended church 3 Sundays or more a month and were active on boards, committees, etc.? Answer:  all 12.

Final question: “Why do you not attend church like you once did?” I asked them to be honest — they would not hurt my feelings.

The answers I received were interesting and informative. Basically, they centered around three categories:

  1. I usually go out on Saturday evening; I am just too tired/lazy to get up and go.
  2. I don’t have children/young people at home to take to church.
  3. I’ve been there, done that… and don’t need it anymore.

In other words, church attendance did nothing to vitally alter their life in any significant way. Their sense of community/belonging was found no longer at church, but other places such as golf, family, etc.

I had developed other theories about why senior men drop out. As a rule, they were all wrong. These men were not angry or upset at church. They had heard nothing politically that had pushed them away. The women-in-leadership issue was a non-starter — they were glad that women were fully involved in leadership positions. Music choice did not bother them, though they admitted they enjoyed the old hymns more than the newer songs. Each professed admiration for their pastor save one who said that his pastor had failed him in a time when he was hospitalized. (I think all of us have someone who could say that at one time or another.)

What was striking to me was the reality that church provided little or no meaning to their lives. They were glad the church existed and felt that churches helped children, youth and families — but had nothing to offer them in their lives. Their life of faith and church attendance had become separate issues. Several attended a weekly Men’s Bible study — which was their de facto church. However, as far as they were concerned, institutional church added little or no purpose for their lives.

Later in private, follow-up conversations I asked some of these men what a church would need to do in order for them to be involved on a more regular basis. Their response: engage me with a meaning and purpose beyond just showing up, paying tithes, listening and going home. When I asked if they had turned down serving on boards or committees they laughed:  “That’s not for me any longer and furthermore, that’s not what I’m talking about.”

I’ve given this a lot of thought over this last year — and while I don’t have a final answer, I do have some suggestions for churches facing this same situation:

Refocus on the purpose of church:

The purpose of church is not institutional perpetuation, but the sharing of the gospel in word and deed. The purpose of church is not to be “a place where,” but “a people who” — a people who worship and grow together in their life of faith in Christ. While we may “know” these things, I often believe our goals and objectives do not exemplify this purpose. Keeping “the main thing the main thing” is much harder than we can ever dream. Rarely did I ever have someone criticize me for a lack of baptisms, but let us fall short on the budget, and the hawks came out!

Make engaging older males (over 65) a definable goal/objective of the church:

Measure how many un-engaged (inactive) men versus engaged (active) men you have. Then see how many you can move from the former to the latter category in one year. Try handing over a worthwhile project to them and then stepping out of the way and letting them do it. Let them see that they are a valuable and necessary resource to the Kingdom of God — and not just the program of a local church. Start a mentoring program where they walk alongside youth and young adult males. Staff a soup kitchen once a week or month — and get them to do that.

Understand that meaning and purpose in life wane for men who are no longer engaged in full-time employment:

As I worked through this I realized that other than regular golf or bridge games, reading, walking the dog or eating out, these men had no reason other than family to get up in the morning. All their lives they have been defined by what they did, not who they are. Now, try as they could, they could not duplicate that feeling anywhere else in their lives. They are living out the cynicism of Qoheleth (the Preacher of Ecclesiastes) all over again.

Why do I believe this?  Immediately after retirement I spent 5 months away from church other than occasional worship attendance and helping at a few funerals. This was by deliberate choice — I needed the space to gain perspective. I played as much golf as humanly possible (though never on Sunday morning). I read,  relaxed and enjoyed life with my spouse while visiting family much more often.

Then along came a boutique congregation asking me to help them — and I am. No, we’ve not seen the Kingdom come in… we’re still quite small in numbers. What I have realized is that being “on the sidelines” is not a place any of us need to be — at any time in our lives.  These men, whether they know it or not, need to be involved in serving and helping others in the name of Christ — as does the church need them. The church that helps them understand that need and engages them in meaningful ways (not just ushering or taking up the offering) is the church where I believe they will flourish.

Maybe, just maybe, this is a prescription for all persons of all ages in the church: meaningful and purposeful service to our Lord through our church. Not just marking time, but changing lives… even our own.

From Senior Adults to Young Adults, Click Here for More on Reaching the Younger Generation.