“Mind the gap” is a common audio and visual warning to railway passengers in the U.K., reminding them to pay attention before boarding to avoid having a limb caught in the gap between the platform and the train.
Churches would do well to appropriate this warning as they seek to minister to their congregations. In many congregations today, a harmful gap exists in discipleship and ministry for those between the ages of 36-59.
Even though the 2020 U.S. Census found “258.3 million people are over the age of 18 – a 10.1% increase from 2010” – and current life expectancy, according to the CDC, is 74 for men and 79 for women. Yet, most churches still concentrate the majority of their ministry efforts towards children and youth, with a senior ministry (ages 60 to 65 and over) thrown in for good measure occasionally.
Aging in our culture is seen as being less vital, “easier” than previous life stages, filled with extra time and something to avoid. Sadly, many churches are simply repackaging these ideas as well.
Those who have “aged out” of core ministries aimed at children, youth or young families are expected to then support those ministries. Women, in particular, are asked to serve even more, as Sarah Bessey wrote in her 2013 article “The Invisible Generation.”
Ten years later, not much has changed. Those of us in the middle years are told to usher, bake, teach Sunday School and sing in the choir, while also supporting other ministries. All good things to be sure, but what about continued discipleship for those individuals in the middle years?
After 25 years in women’s ministry leadership, I mentioned concerns about older women being marginalized instead of utilized. I was told point blank the sole focus needed to be on younger women with small children.
At the same time, a friend was chastised for being unwilling to work in childcare. Never mind the fact she was mentoring young women outside of ministry time, teaching Bible study, launching young adult children and dealing with an aging parent with dementia.
More recently, I have struggled to find a Sunday school class where I feel like I fit. A space to ask tough questions, discuss real issues rather than the same stories out of the Bible study quarterly again, and find support for the many challenges of this age.
Middle age is a time of tremendous upheaval. A time of tremendous transition. Raising children, or grandchildren, launching young adults, navigating job and financial changes, moves, partial or full retirement, aging parents, friendship changes, changing marital roles and health issues abound.
Spiritually, most median agers are no longer happy with pat answers for these issues. This is a time for revaluating, asking who am I now? What do I really believe? Where do I fit in? How can my skills and experiences enrich the kingdom?
Churches need to be willing to have different kinds of conversations surrounding middle age/median adult ministry. Rather than simply relegating 36- to 60-year-olds to committees, we need to recognize that maturity is a beautiful thing.
If we say we believe Proverbs 16:31 and Ecclesiastes 3, then we need to act like we do. This can start by acknowledging aging as a part of life rather than only being about declining, and that the ages of birth to 18 are not the peak of service to Christ.
Middle age is not the start of a long, downhill slide with nothing left to offer. Some authors posit that the quiet exodus of midlife congregants is every bit as critical as youth choosing not to remain, leaving a large gap in the very heart of the church.
The church needs to stop buying into the worldly value which says that eternal youth is the goal and that there is no power in an “ordinary” life. Scripture is replete with examples to the contrary! Jesus himself was ordinary by today’s standards – an itinerant preacher with a motley crew of followers who did not even start ministry until age 33.
We can and should do better. Youth ministry would be wise to pair teens with adult ministries across the spectrum.Stop segregating people into age boxes – we are meant to be in community together.
Do not assume that those in midlife in your congregations are fine or satisfied with the same curriculum or programs repackaged for them. Provide space to ask challenging questions and wrestle with the meaning of life and God’s call for them in this stage.
Congregants in their middle years need discipleship and community every bit as much as other age groups within the church and should not be marginalized into only “giving back” to others within the body.
As Michelle Van Loon says in Becoming Sage: “If we in the church are called to be a countercultural community, expanding our discipleship focus to include and embrace every life stage just might be one of the most countercultural things we can do in our youth-obsessed society.”
God desires fruitfulness in all stages of life – we cannot be a complete body that represents Christ without every stage represented. We need each other.
“Mind the gap,” indeed.
Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing series focused on engaging the emerging generations of faith leaders. If you know anyone who might be interested, encourage them to submit an article for consideration to email@example.com.
With over 25 years in ministry leadership, Massie is currently pursuing her Master of Divinity at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas.