Tuesday, June 9, 2009
Old-Time Religion: The Aging Local Church
Scribbled by Jailer
The local church is getting grayer.
I remember during my time in Germany how the neighborhood churches seemed to be filled with seniors (especially compared with our abnormally young military chapels). At the time, I attributed this to Europe's modern, secular culture--young Europeans were increasingly rejecting their parents' religion. Now that my family has moved back to a "normal" suburban American neighborhood, however, it's clear that this isn't merely a European phenomenon.
Why is the local church aging, and what are the implications?
First, populations across the developed world have steadily aged over the past several decades. Moreover, we are clearly becoming a more secular society, and increasingly anti-institutional in terms of our spirituality. We are also more mobile than ever before, so that young people grow up and move out of their parents' neighborhoods. When we do move away, we tend to look for churches that match our demographic station in life, so that our young churches stay young, and our old churches age further.
The effect of this on the neighborhood church is really rather discouraging: large buildings sparsely populated with a dwindling number of senior saints. While these elders ought to be passing along their years of accumulated wisdom to the next generations, instead they are often left to keep one another company through their twilight years. They look fondly backwards, remembering glory days gone by, and unable to recreate the effect moving forward.
The younger people who remain in these churches are often overworked, as they supply much of the physical energy on which the church depends. I recently had a conversation with a couple of such members. Their frustration bubbled to the surface as they observed how some of their seniors seemed detached from the need to reach out, but instead attached a creepy fascination with maintaining memorial rooms, commemorative plaques, and portraits of departed members. As they put it, "This is a church, not a mausoleum!"
My first church was a neighborhood church after a similar mold. I was one of the group of teen-agers who came of age at about the same time, and the church enjoyed a brief surge of energy before we all moved away. The church folded shortly thereafter, while those who remained--including many wise, spiritually mature elders with much to teach--were left to talk wistfully about the by-gone "time of the young people".
Is the local church an endangered species?