In 2007, Chicago Tribune columnist Ross Werland raised a provocative rhetorical question in the title of an editorial: “A pew or a canoe: Not a tough choice.” He cited statistics from the Barna Group, a Christian research firm, indicating that fewer and fewer men are attending their local churches, and he made an argument for skipping church altogether. “My other choice,” Werland wrote: “I can hop in my canoe and paddle up the White River in southern Wisconsin and within minutes find an unspoiled spot that looks like it’s right out of the original Garden, precisely as its creator intended it. For me, the better option is to savor the peace-giving, faith-inducing wonders of nature, the official art form of the deity.”
Werland made me think. Not long after, I was fly fishing on the Eau Claire River in central Wisconsin, and it was, well, inspiring. When I turned 60 (about Werland’s age), I noticed that my perception of what transpires at church had changed and had been evolving since I was about 50. I have a hunch that a few thousand other men and women are where I am.
The Black Hole
As someone who has attended church since I was born, I’ve clocked quite a few hours in the pew. If we only count Sundays since I was 18, by the time I was 55, averaging 50 Sundays per year, I’d heard at least 1,900 sermons. But I find that the church and its work have increasingly begun to miss the mark for many of us looking to the rivers of Wisconsin or Michigan.
First, the local church rarely knows what to do with us. Ministries abound for children, teens, and college students, and young married groups are a staple of congregational life. If you have children and are between, say, 25 and 35, immediately you are an active part of the kids’ program. Even parents of high school students have a place. Every youth minister knows that a well-networked parent group is an invaluable asset.
But something noticeable happens when the kids leave home and you’re an empty nester. You’re about 50 to 60, active in the peak of your career, and you have an entirely new set of questions (more on that later). But the church really doesn’t find you again until you retire or spend some time in the hospital. It’s the 50-something “black hole.” You’re not young, but neither are you elderly, and the natural bridge to the church’s children and youth ministries has disappeared.
Second, I often find myself attending church simply because I always have. Sixty years make for some pretty firm habits. But on occasion I think back to the sermons I can catalog that have repeated the same themes time and again—the evangelical staples of personal piety, evangelism, raising kids, world mission, prayer, and sin. I wonder how many times I’ve heard sermons on the parables of the sower or the prodigal son.
Simply put, I yearn for something other than reruns. I yearn for depth, for ideas that will make me think harder about life and about God. I yearn for Christian speakers and writers who will think ahead of where I am and challenge me to follow. I recognize that these sermons about basic discipleship are important for the church, particularly for younger Christians. But increasingly I find myself wandering outside the fold to look for thoughtful voices.
Third, I am asking new questions now. There once was a day when I had a binary theology. I believed every question had an answer, and most answers were black and white. But today I see more of the complexities, ambiguities, and uncertainties of life. I’ve seen a fair bit of suffering by now—even a couple of church splits—and a good number of unanswered prayers. I’ve seen too many lapsed Christians, including a former student who recently told me he’s abandoning the faith altogether.
I’ve also noticed there are fewer theological hills on which I’m willing to die. This doesn’t mean that I’ve stopped believing. It simply means that I might believe less today, but I believe it more firmly. And rather than debating those who want all the t’s crossed, I simply look at them with amazement. Not long ago I was at a party where an intelligent and passionate evangelical layperson argued that support for the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment was a Christian spiritual duty. I remember thinking that I must be at the wrong house. Someone else recently told me that “not all Republicans are Christians, but all Christians ought to be Republican.” I’m not devoted to either party, but I’m less drawn to such formulas.
What I am looking for instead is someone to help me address deeper questions about life and its meaning—standard fare for 50-something adults. Is life simply about the accumulation of prestige, wealth, influence, or knowledge? How do I evaluate a “good life” when I see it?
How would I know if my life had any meaning? I’m no longer satisfied with the usual resources I find at Christian bookstores, especially those popular books promoted like The Prayer of Jabez once was. For the most part, I have found satisfying reflections among such non-Christian fiction writers as Wallace Stegner, Geraldine Brooks, and Barbara Kingsolver. The great voices of the church—Augustine, the medieval mystics, Luther, Barth, Bonhoeffer—have now found a new hearing too. But a long list of contemporary books are now gathering dust.
Filling the Black Hole
This is the point where my inner editor cautions: Don’t just whine; offer some solutions. And there it is—the reflexive thought that every problem has a solution, that we can’t simply leave the paradox or dilemma because it might create tension. But I’ve found that adults who are headed toward 60 are willing to live with fewer quick fixes.
It doesn’t take long for the 50-something, “black hole” pilgrim to hear the usual solutions. The answer the church often gives is “leadership.” We’ll put you on a committee, or elect you to the council, or have you coordinate the church’s programs. And if you now have disposable income, you can become some of the church’s most important financial supporters. In other words, this is a time to give, not take; to teach, not be taught; to lead, not follow.
To a degree, this is true. If I have heard 1,900 sermons, I’d darned well better be able to teach something in church school or have something to say on the church council.
Thirty-plus years of voluntary church attendance does accrue some debt to the church, some obligation to give something back. And if I find myself with increasing wealth, instead of building a million-dollar home in a suburb, perhaps I should offset the limited ability of 20-somethings to give money to the church. The logic is flawless. But the usual solution fails to address the reason this spiritual black hole of upper middle age exists in the first place. The truth is that 37 years of sermons also included 37 years of giving. The 50-something pilgrim is looking for something more.
First, we need connection. Having children is a lot like having pets: They give you a natural bridge to your neighbors, both next door and in the next pew. Without them—without school sporting events, high school plays, or debate teams to cheer for—it might be difficult to find like-minded adults. I recently volunteered to be a character actor at vacation Bible school just to remind myself how it was to be with little kids. I ended up meeting 30-something parents. It was a good move.
Ideally this connection happens when adults age together within the same congregational cohort. They share experiences with other adults through every stage of life, and if they remain in the same church, they live in a gathering of 50-somethings who have long memories of life experiences together. But these days we see a lot of transience. Adults at age 45 or 50 often change jobs or towns, and those who don’t sometimes change churches. How can they enter such well-established cohorts? One mid-40s friend who moved with her family to a new town five years ago recently told me that entering an intimate cohort as an outsider is almost impossible.
Many churches do not have such age-based cohorts. In that case, what structures are in place to help this age group meet other people who are in the same place in life and asking the same questions? Evenings with young married couples are nice, but older adults tend to slip into a parental role. Many mature adults are lonely but embarrassed to admit it. It takes energy to meet new people—just look how younger people gush at each other when they meet or how they have so many connections. (I once mentioned this need at a church and the answer came quickly: Why don’t you head up a committee to organize this? Perfect.)
Second, many of us have likely reached the near-apex of our careers. Some may still be competing for professional positions or social leverage, but others have begun to ease off the throttle of life. We are learning descent and deceleration as new Christian virtues. To put it another way, many are looking for significance instead of success.
How, then, can the life of faith contribute to this new life quest? Here is one key: our contribution must in some manner match our capabilities. A 57-year-old executive may not find significance in organizing the coffee hour on Sunday, but she might find it when she mentors a young person going for his first interview, when she offers a business suit to a young woman who has never owned one, or when she travels to Tanzania and organizes microbusiness loans for women. She needs a way to use her tremendous abilities not just in her career, but in her giving.
Third, I hear from my fellow pilgrims a hunger and thirst for complexity—for a satisfying theological diet that targets some of our own life issues. We’ve had enough exhortations about quiet times, enough stories about witnessing on airplanes. Most 50-somethings want to explore life’s meaning, service, suffering, loss, wealth, and hope without the usual clichés.
Last, I find myself increasingly interested in social justice. When I hear others engaging in doctrinal debates—and I’m happy they do—my mind wanders to themes such as universal health care, poverty, the environment, immigration, war, and the obligation of the church to speak truth to power in a way that might flirt with politics. This makes many of my evangelical friends nervous. It sounds like a “liberal agenda,” and evangelicals tend to emphasize personal piety as the mainstay of faith. But for others like me, asking what the church has to say about global topics or how we might leverage the truth of the gospel in response to those who would corrupt or exploit our society is vital.
There is hope for the church to engage the 50-something. These pilgrims don’t have to run to the rivers of Wisconsin or Michigan. While the Eau Claire or the Au Sable are inspiring rivers, they should not become a replacement for the church and its life. But it will require thoughtful pastoral leadership and innovative strategies to keep many maturing Christians off the northern rivers.
About the Author
Gary M. Burge joined the faculty of Calvin Theological Seminary in 2017 after teaching at Wheaton College for 25 years. He worships at Church of the Servant in Grand Rapids, Mich.