Where Do the Empty-Nesters Go?

While running errands this week, I ran into a member of our church who I haven’t seen for a while. He and his wife are new empty nesters and have gradually dropped out of participation at church. What’s surprising about this couple is that they were heavily involved for several years as their children progressed through elementary school, middle school, and high school. Mrs. Member served on our church council and was active on one of our worship teams. Mr. Member served on a couple of short-term task forces. Their children were not active in our youth ministry, but attended consistently with their parents, at least through confirmation age.

What I see in this couple is a pattern that is not unusual. In the church, we lament the trend of our youth dropping out of church after they graduate from high school and go off to college, and then upon college graduation, begin to find their own place in the world. But what about their parents? Over and over again I see parents who were regular in worship attendance, even participating in church leadership, drift away when their children graduate from high school and go off to college.

What gives? Was it always only about the kids and providing them with some background in religion and spirituality? Was there nothing in their church participation that fed them and which they found meaningful? Is there something missing in our congregation’s ministry, or was this inevitable?

I often ask myself the question, “Would I be actively involved in the life of a congregation if I was not a pastor?” I try to get beyond my professional investment in this congregation to consider my personal connection to the faith and to congregational life. Do I find meaning beyond my vocation as pastor?

For me, the answer is unequivocally “yes.” My connection to congregational life is far deeper than the fact that I have been called to this life as my vocation. Especially in worship, I find something deeply meaningful in allowing ancient texts and ancient liturgy and hymns both new and old help me to interpret my life and experiences and thrust me forward in this mystery we call life. I think I would be one of those every Sunday attenders, and I would find a way to use the gifts that I have as a volunteer. Church life is meaningful to me beyond my vocation. I have never been involved in the church for the sake of my kids. I have instead wanted to invite them into a life that I have found very meaningful.

So, that’s me. But my experience is obviously not universal. And so the question remains: what’s the difference?

4 thoughts on “Where Do the Empty-Nesters Go?

  1. chris vahrenhorst

    Bluntly: Not enough “good” pastors / Too many options online

    I suspect one day I will be tempted to follow the unfortunate path of your Mrs. and Mr. Member. Yes, the fault and the loss–if I succumb to the temptation–would be primarily mine.
    You’re suspicion is mostly the reason: trying to instill a habit in our children is, frankly, the biggest pull to attend. In my unique circumstance (which is thousands of miles from your church), nothing within driving distance is anything more than deeply unsatisfying for me–near the point of actually weakening my faith. And I mean almost every aspect of the experience (not enough space here to explain), except perhaps on Christmas and Easter. Frankly, for me I believe it comes down to the church leadership–yes, the pastor(s). Perhaps I’m hyper-critical. And yes, I know church membership is more than me just getting satisfaction out of a sermon and a well-planned liturgy. But the fact is I can actually get excited about listening to other services I can find online each Sunday (or any day….). Yes, this is sans fellowship. And perhaps then this doesn’t even qualify as “worship,” let alone fellowship.
    Well, you asked; so there it is.

  2. loislynn

    Some Sunday worship services impact me more than others and I don’t feel a sense of guilt if I miss a Sunday, but most times something speaks to me either in music or Scripture, that I would otherwise miss.Sometimes it is another person who does that for me and that is what keeps me going. I hope that I am that voice for others as well.

  3. Patrick Watters

    An area that has troubled my wife and i are the “conditions” or restrictions of man placed on disciples of Christ –
    Churches and denominations can and do provide a measure of accountability and safety to congregations, and to the people in those congregations. However, the artificial “rules” and “by-laws” of man can often “quench” the work of the Holy Spirit. It takes discerning pastors and leadership teams to identify and recognize those people and their gifts which should be empowered as “priests”, shepherds within the assembly for whom God has plans to benefit all.
    Regimental adherence to denominational or local doctrine and rules can and does deprive whole congregations from experiencing all God has for them. Be prudent, yes, but do not quench the Spirit, lest you foster spiritual death rather than transformation.
    We ARE the Church!

  4. Done Forever

    60yo empty-nester grandpa, long history of heavy church involvement for 40 years. Burned badly by internal church politics and became empty-nester about the same time, in 2011. My wife and I finally walked away a couple years ago, because there was simply nothing there for us at this stage in our life. Many of our long-time friends found themselves in the same exact situation – marginalized and left out. Churches today only want the empty-nest generation for funding. We are DONE.

    Angry much? Ubet.


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