Tuesday, July 4, 2023

The Future Church and the Aging

I've been writing a whole bunch over the last several months, as I reflect on faith and aging.  But in all of it, I'm not sure which church I'm writing for.  

There's no question that my particular denomination is dying.  The Presbyterian Church USA is aging out, and not replacing ourselves.  Within my lifetime, the broader denomination cannot continue its current form.  We'll fragment, or restructure, or collapse, but we're likely already past the inflection point for collective viability.  

This is part of a larger challenge for the oldline denominations, those manifestations of early modern era Protestantism.  Methodists and Baptists, Lutherans and Episcopalians, all of us are growing old.   While some individual churches are pressing back against that tide, they're outliers.

This poses something of a conundrum, because there are younger churches out there.  They have young families and middle aged folks, kids programs and They're not structured on the denominational model, but on the "nondenominational" franchise/corporate model.  They're evangelical and contemporary, continually adapting and finding relevance, shifting worship and music and community life to mirror the expectations of culture.  

That's not my preference, of course, but that doesn't matter.  Those communities are going to continue, even in the face of shifting social norms about faith.  When I've attended worships in the big mega corporate congregations, they've been diverse and vibrant and materially successful.  The one demographic that's been missing: the old.  Old folks just aren't there, because the worship style and the music have moved on.  Contemporary Christianity has left the saints behind.  

The church is segregating as our culture is segregating, with the elderly continuing to be faithful in churches that aren't societally resonant, that are dying off as they die off.

What happens, then, to those saints who have worked to maintain their churches and communities?  The prayerful souls who run the food pantries and clothing drives, who provide material resources to those in need?  What happens to those who've spent their whole lives being faithful, but now find the congregations they've been a part of for decades drying out in the sun as the tide recedes?

It goes deeper, though, beyond simply caring for other Christians.  

There will be millions of Americans who find themselves without supportive family structures, without communities around them that can manage their care, and without the material resources to sustain themselves as they lose the ability to work.  The "safety net" of Social Security will have frayed through neglect, and we'll all be struggling to adapt to a harsher, hotter planet.  It "ain't for sissies" now, but our future shows every sign of being a harder time to be old.

It is possible, of course, that our society will change course, and realize that the future we've created for ourselves isn't one we want to inhabit.  This is possible, but improbable.

As our broader culture ages, he churches that have adapted and remain standing need to see seniors for what they are: human beings who are a field for mission, Christian care, and evangelism.