One of the things that gnaws at a pastor is wondering why people stop coming to church. Yes, there always are people who hop from one church to another for this reason or that; and we grieve those losses. And there are people who move away or die or become physically unable to attend; and we grieve those losses. But what about people who seemingly “age out” of church?
By “age out,” I’m referring to other organizations or groups in society where you can only participate up to a certain age or stage of life. One of my sons, for example, will “age out” of Drum Corps International this summer when he turns 21. He won’t be eligible to march with these touring brass and percussion bands after this year. Older children may “age out” of coverage on their parents’ health insurance. And in certain sports leagues, you can’t play past a certain age.
As a pastor, I’m saddened when once-active members disappear from sight after they reach a certain age or stage of life.
There’s the family that was deeply involved in the church while their children were growing up, but now that the last kid is off to college, the parents are nowhere to be seen. What really changed? Were you only coming to church for the sake of your children? Do you not have spiritual fellowship and worship needs yourself?
Or there are those who have served on all manner of committees, given leadership throughout the church and then decide one day that it’s time for someone else to step up. They’ve punched their card all around and are ready to coast. Not because of a health crisis. Not because of family issues. Not because of retirement. Just because. And now we see them once a quarter or so.
I’m forever meeting members of our congregation on pastoral care visits in hospitals who are people I’ve never seen at church in my 15 years there. In their minds, they are regular members of the church, even though they’ll admit they haven’t been there recently. “We used to come every Sunday,” some will confess. But it’s obvious the current hospitalization is not the reason they don’t attend church. Something else happened along the way. But what was it?
Some new research that crossed my computer screen this week reported that churches are the most vital source of social interaction of any organization in America. People make connections and find support at church in ways no other group can duplicate. That alone ought to be a reason to stay involved.
But the spiritual reasons should be more compelling. The New Testament is full of metaphors and parables and teachings about running the race with perseverance, not forsaking the assembling together of believers, being faithful to the end, finishing well. And there’s Jesus’ parable of the seeds. Remember that one? The sower goes out and casts seed on rocky soil, amid thorns and on fertile soil. We understand the rocky soil where the seed never takes root and dies. And we understand the fertile soil where the seed takes root and flourishes. But the saddest case is the seed cast among the thorns that takes root and flourishes for a while, but later is overtaken by the thorns.
In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus gives this interpretation to the seed cast among the thorns: “This is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.”
One of the best ways to insulate yourself against the cares of the world and the lure of wealth is to attend church regularly. There’s no age limit to being part of the community of faith.