Are aging churches a bad thing?

December 10th, 2019

Our churches need to be younger. It is an engrained truth, repeated so much that one halfway expects those words to be found somewhere in a footnote in a letter from Paul. Like many church-growth strategies, this particular “truth” is rooted, tested, and verified in the experiences and realities of suburban and metropolitan America, where the fastest growing populations (and where we find the fastest growing and largest churches) are young families. Over the years, the adage has become a tirelessly repeated indicator of church vitality and church health, a boiler plate answer for anyone looking to grow their congregation: Want to grow? Attract young people.

For many rural communities, though, this familiar truth is actually plain old, bad advice.

A few months ago, I was in a meeting with a pastor in a rural part of Tennessee, who shared their frustration at the aging population of the congregation. The leadership of the church was faithfully trying various tactics to lower the average age of the church by attracting young families and young adults. After all, they repeated to me, young families are a sure sign of healthy and vital churches.

The problem? The fastest growing demographic of their community is retirees, who move to the area for the scenic views and affordable property. In this particular county, the growth in population of those over the age of 65 had outpaced that of the under the age of 18 demographic by almost 300%. These weren’t just people aging in place: Almost half of that growth came from new people moving into the community.

For many rural communities, retirees are proving to be a huge boon to the local economies, so much so that some rural community development experts are emphasizing the importance of supporting senior-citizen entrepreneurs. Recent retirees provide a wealth of assets to the communities where they end up: They are capable volunteers, they tend to have higher discretionary incomes, and they have the insight and knowledge of an entire career that can lend itself to the community and the church.

Focusing on attracting young families in many of these communities is well intentioned, but such effort can run counter to the mission of these churches, which are ostensibly focused on discipling the community in which the churches are located. How can we claim to be incarnational if we are willing to ignore the fastest growing segments of our population?

Rather than risk burnout by trying to attract populations that might not exist in their communities, rural churches in communities where recent retirees are the fastest growing population have a significant opportunity to lead. In doing so, they can help reframe the rural narrative and breathe new life into their towns.

First, rural churches can help recent retirees engage with the broader community. Rural communities are often places with long social memories. For newcomers, finding a way to join into the existing community can be difficult without an existing family or friend connection. Rural churches are often some of the few organizations that draw together people with a variety of backgrounds and professions. Congregations can help ensure that newcomers are connected to the whole community, as well as the congregation.

Second, rural churches can help recent retirees discern their vocation in the second half of life. As Richard Rohr has shared, the second half of life has its share of volatility, as people transition away from being focused on their professional success. Still, lingering questions about purpose remain. In this new phase, retirees come to the church with talents built over their lifetime and often have no obvious outlet to use them.

Rural churches might consider themselves vocational discernment centers. How might their faith shape what they do with their gifts and talents in this next stage of life? What is their new vocation, post-career? How can they continue to partner with God in ways that strengthens and grows their faith, and that strengthen and support the church and the community?

Lastly, rural churches can help recent retirees form intergenerational bridges. Recently, I wrote about the dynamic between baby-boomers and younger generations, where I advocated that there needs to be a natural air of mentorship and openness to new ideas. As millennials are increasingly finding their way back to rural communities and as youth grow up in the church and community, rural churches can help foster meaningful intergenerational relationships, promoting the institutional memory and new ideas necessary for new growth.

To be clear, I am not advocating that rural churches abandon their call to work with youth and young adults. Rural, small-membership churches can be exceptionally talented at forming youth and young adults, in large part because there are so many opportunities for youth to serve in meaningful leadership roles. The ability to be mentors can be beneficial both to those who are discerning their second half of life vocation and for those younger generations who are beginning to live out their call to leadership.

I am also not suggesting that aging rural churches are always healthy and vital. Churches need to be actively seeking new ways to form disciples of whatever stage of life. If they are not deepening the faith of the members and announcing the reign of God to the surrounding community, they are not fulfilling the primary mission of the church.

Cultivating a healthy and vital church in a rural community might look different than the popular techniques of suburbia. That’s okay. In the many rural communities where retirees are the fastest and largest demographic, rural churches can find new avenues towards mission and vitality. By embracing the community surrounding them, these churches show that they are aware of and connected to the unique opportunities of their contexts. When they do so, they will be able to demonstrate their commitment to making disciples and leading meaningful community transformation.

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