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?