Episode 57: “Is the Church Ignoring the Spiritual Needs of Adults in Midlife?” featuring Michelle Van Loon

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 57: “Is the Church Ignoring the Spiritual Needs of Adults in Midlife?” featuring Michelle Van Loon

Churches often put a lot of emphasis on nurturing families, children, and those at the start of their faith journey. But what about others? In this episode we speak with Michelle Van Loon about how churches can better help people in midlife continue to grow in faith as they navigate their unique life challenges.

Listen on Apple PodcastsListen on StitcherListen on Google Play MusicListen on SpotifyListen to more Leading Ideas Talks episodes


Announcer: Leading Ideas Talks is brought to you by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. Subscribe free to our weekly newsletter, Leading Ideas, at churchleadership.com/leadingideas.

Leading Ideas Talks is also brought to you by Changes Congregations Face. This adult leadership study curriculum from the Lewis Center is an ideal conversation starter for your small groups, especially for congregations evaluating their own ministries or engaging in planning for the future. Changes Congregations Face is only $3.99 at churchleadership.com/studies.

Churches often put a lot of emphasis on nurturing families, children, and those at the start of their faith journey. But what about others? In this episode we speak with Michelle Van Loon about how churches can better help people in midlife continue to grow in faith as they navigate their unique life challenges.

Ann Michel: I’m Ann Michel, associate director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and I’m host of this episode of Leading Ideas Talks. I’m visiting today with Michelle Van Loon who’s the author of a new book entitled Becoming Sage. And it addresses spirituality and discipleship in midlife. Michelle is a prolific author who’s authored several other books on subjects related to personal spirituality and spiritual formation. She’s a blogger and a women’s ministry leader. And Michelle, we’re just so excited that you’re taking time to talk with us today on this important subject of discipling people in midlife. So welcome, Michelle. 

Michelle Van Loon: I’m super honored to be with you guys. Thanks for having me. 

Ann Michel: Just to start our conversation so our readers can understand the parameters of the discussion, I want to first ask, how do you define midlife? 

Michelle Van Loon: Yeah, that’s a good one! It depends who’s doing the measuring and who’s doing the asking, in some ways. Statisticians put the brackets around particular age groups. It can be 40 to 65. Sometimes there’s a little wiggle room on either side of those margins. But there are people that find themselves kind of pushed into the business of midlife earlier than that, particularly if there’s a lot of losses in their life  loss of parents that are dying or other big life transitions can kind of hasten people in. And some people, you know, kind of meander into the developmental tasks of midlife when they are older than that. 

Ann Michel: I appreciate you framing it that way. Because I did notice in the book you never talk in terms of numerical ages, that you tend to focus more on the experiences  life transitions that relate to different passages in life. And that midlife is more defined by those maturational markers or developmental milestones that it is by a particular age bracket. 

Michelle Van Loon: Yeah, that’s it. In part because if there is something that’s super prescriptive  like this will happen to you when you’re 40 and if it doesn’t  then the conversation gets shut down. It’s really more appropriate to kind of notice what’s happening in life, what’s going on. And that is different for every person. 

Ann Michel: So why do you think there’s a need for churches to focus more attention on the spiritual needs of people in midlife? 

Michelle Van Loon: I noticed when I started paying attention to this 10ish years ago, it was born in part out of my own experience and challenges as I was hitting midlife. And I started looking for information, or somebody at least to be able to tell me “this is normal and this maybe is not normal.” You know, I just had no idea. And I didn’t find a ton in popular literature in the church. I was working at a seminary bookstore at the time. So I had access to lots and lots of scholarly and popular work. And I didn’t find much conversation going on in most local churches either  with the church leaders that I was working with or just with the people I knew and fellowshipped with. We are very good  well, we’re better I should say  at early stage discipleship. We have a lot of focus on discipling children or helping new believers get grounded in the basics of the Christian faith. But then the silence about what comes next in many circles tends to kind of communicate to people that you just keep doing what you learned when you were young. You practice it through the rest of your life and hopefully you’ll get better at it. And discipleship is so much more than that. The challenges and the tasks that we need as we age and change require different questions and different kinds of engagement. 

Ann Michel: Yeah. I really appreciate you framing that, because I think that is so true. And I agree with you that there’s very little literature on this subject. I also have not seen anything written on discipleship in midlife which is one reason I’m so appreciative of the fact that you’ve written this book. You talk about a “quiet exodus” in churches. So can you elaborate a bit on what you mean by that? 

Michelle Van Loon: Absolutely. If we’re thinking about the changing nature of who’s going to church and who’s not, there’s been a great focus particularly on the exodus of the millennials. In previous generations a lot of times young adults would wander from the church but they would come back once they married and had families. But those rules aren’t applying the same way. Those expectations aren’t applying the same way in this millennium, in this generation. But, what I learned when I started digging into some data as I was researching this book, was that the exodus matches and, in some cases, depending on who’s doing the measuring, exceeds that of the millennials, of people at midlife and beyond who are either downshifting their involvement in church or just opting out entirely and just dipping in and out, you know, at big holidays or if there is a felt need. 

Ann Michel: Yeah. We use the word “dones”  the “dones.” People who just think they’re kind of done with church either because their families are grown, or maybe they’ve moved to a new community and they just don’t reengage. Or people who are fed up. You talk in the book about people who are fed up with church politics and whatever. Yeah, we’re not paying attention. We think of churches as a sort of enclave of stable older members, and often don’t think about the fact that they’re probably leaving the church it just the same rate. So it’s a frightening thing to think about. So a large portion of your book is devoted to describing some of the transitions and challenges that are typical in midlife. So I wondered if you could name just a few of the needs and issues that people in midlife typically struggle with. 

Michelle Van Loon: Certainly. And these will be familiar to anybody who is at midlife or beyond. There’s issues like changing families and family responsibilities, changing relationships within families, marriages that don’t survive the transitions of midlife, aging parents, dying parents, grandchildren that appear on the scene. Some of those changes are happy changes. For sure, a grandchild is a joy and a delight. But it changes the dynamics in a family. Other key points of stress and change can be friendships and relationships beyond the family. We’re also dealing with changing church relationships, particularly important in a church that’s been hyper focused on family life and building a family culture. Once you kind of age out of that and the nest empties, then it may end up feeling like a very lonely place. So church comes with its challenges and burnout points. And, you know, people change and grow. And sometimes there isn’t always language, or a hospitable environment to work through some of those challenges. Vocation, finances, all of these things are big things. And they’re as big as the questions that hit us when we were young adults. What are we going to do with our life? And who are we going to be? And who are we going to be with? And where are we going to live? All of those big questions and tasks of young adulthood often get reshuffled and changed. And we kind of have to reengage with some big questions again as we hit this point of our lives. 

Ann Michel: That’s helpful to think about the comparison between young adulthood and older adults. I do think for people who are poised on the precipice of retirement there are so many wide open questions. What life is going to be like? And what you’re going to do? And where you’re going to live? And how you’re going to spend your time? And what’s going to give your life meaning when you step away from work? Yeah, I think it is very much like young adulthood in that sense. So one of the things that I found very insightful and helpful about your book was the underlying assumption that the process of growing in faith and maturing as a disciple is a lifelong task. It’s not just a box that gets checked off when you’re confirmed, or when you complete the new members class, or sometime early in your time as a church member. And there’s so much conversation in my denomination, United Methodist Church, about what it means to be a disciple and how we help people grow in discipleship. So I wondered, what do you see as some of the markers and milestones as someone continues to grow in faith. Even if they’ve been in the church all their life, if they’re going to continue to grow in faith through their mature years, what does that look like? 

Michelle Van Loon: Well, I can best refer to an academic work that was super important for me as I was starting to research these things for my own life and my own spiritual health. And there’s also a popular book. Both of these are about a generation old, but they are key ways of describing spiritual growth through a lifetime in a way that mirrors our physical growth or our emotional growth. James Fowler and the pair of authors Janet Hagburg and Robert Guelich applied those kind of developmental stages to faith development. And, for me, that was a really, really helpful kind of model to be able to look and understand that at the beginning we believe in God. And it’s simple, whether it’s the faith that is in our household or as a new faith through conversion. It’s just, “There you are God. And I’m here, too. And this is amazing.” And as people work through that beginnings stage they move into a belonging stage. “God I belong to you.” And that includes usually belonging to a group, a church, a Bible study, a youth group, something that helps us see what the Christian life looks like, and teaches us both the written rules and then kind of coaches us in some of those unwritten rules and expectations of the group. And, if we get good at that stage, then we often may lead or just get stronger. So we work for God next. And so there’s a progression. And it makes sense, particularly, as we’re looking at first half of life stuff. It matches sometimes the ambitions that drive us and the goal setting that drives us. And that’s wonderful and exciting, But at some point, we end up in the dark. The “dark night of the soul” as Saint John of the Cross called it. The desert. This place in our lives. There’s no prescription to get to it. And there’s certainly no sevenweek Bible study program that’s going to get us out of it. But being able to understand what it is can be very helpful in that stage. That “God where are you? I’m alone in the dark” kind of stage can come because there’s been big losses and changes in our lives. We’re also dealing with physiological changes at midlife. Menopause for women. Men also experience hormonal and physical changes. So we’re dealing with often a lot of stuff that all kind of coalesces around this phase in our lives. And it can feel like the dark. It’s also a time of pruning. Sometimes those ambitions that served us well  getting us to belong to God, and to work for God, and to be in our church connected, and leading, and involved  need some dismantling so that what can grow there can be a fruitful second half of life. And so as that happens  it’s scary being in the dark. And some people just kind of double down and try to go back to Egypt, to use the phrase 

Ann Michel: So from what you’ve been describing a mature faith is one that weathers the storm. 

Michelle Van Loon: Weathers the storm and creates legacy and meaning. Not necessarily accomplishment. As a matter of fact, accomplishment becomes less of a question. But creates meaning and legacy for the people around you, the people that you want to pass it on to. 

Online summer courses from Wesley Theological Seminary are available for academic and CEU credit. Courses in July include Church Finances by Lovett H. Weems Jr.; Howard Thurman: Mystic, Prophetic, Theologian by Tony Hunt; Theological Foundations for Youth Ministry; Teaching and Learning in Christian Education; and more. Registration is now open. See the full list of online summer and fall courses and register at wesleyseminary.edu/WesleyOnline2020. At Wesley, we pray that you keep safe, keep learning, and keep leading.

Ann Michel: You use the language of “becoming sage,” which is the title of the book. But I think that phrase “becoming sage” is also a way that you’re describing what spiritual maturity is, what it looks like. So how did you settle on that term and that metaphor? 

Michelle Van Loon: Well, I think as I looked in Scripture, the goal, when it comes to trials, when it comes to maturity, wisdom is often linked with that. And so being able to find a word that kind of captured that. The notion of sage is somebody that is older  it’s also a delicious cooking herb  but that is older and has wisdom and value and gravitas to pass on to a community. 

Ann Michel: Thank you for that. The question that I most wanted to put to you is, what’s the church to do? You make the case so effectively that there is a need to better meet the spiritual needs and to better minister to people in midlife. So I wanted to ask you, what are some of the ways that congregations can more effectively engage people in midlife? 

Michelle Van Loon: Well, I created in this book, at the end of every chapter, there’s individual reflection questions that can be helpful for selfexamination, for journaling. But there’s also group discussion questions that I hope will prompt some good conversation among church leaders and groups that might want to study the book. Because it’s definitely written for a popular audience. It’s very, it’s meant to be super userfriendly. But for church leaders to recognize a program isn’t going to fix this. It’s going to require a change of orientation that includes praying for people who, the older people who are committed to the congregation. I’ve never heard a church leader pray for people that are involved in caregiving, for example. Not that it’s not happening. But there’s a lot of people that are caring for aging parents, or spouses, or grandchildren. And being able to find ways to support and put them back in the center of the church community, to recognize that what they’re doing is an extension of the church’s ministry, for example, is one thing. But also to be able to talk and think beyond just how do we get young people into the church. Absolutely those are really important questions. You want to be able to capture a family and give them a good foundation and help them to grow. But family includes all of us  from first breath to last and beyond. And so being able to think about how we’re doing intergenerational ministry is another consideration. And to consider, also, how the culture of the church might be burning out some of those longterm members. That requires some self reflection and being willing to listen to some of the people who once were involved, who may not be involved, or who even had left. 

Ann Michel: So I’m hearing you say there’s not necessarily a programmatic response, which I think would be people’s first instinct. I mean we need to start a new ministry team, or a new group, or something like that. So knowing that it’s not that, setting that aside, are there other resources or examples of congregations that are doing a good job with this? 

Michelle Van Loon: I have found some. Now it’s interesting that we’re speaking as we’re in the coronavirus era and almost everything is being pushed and challenged when it comes to church life right now. And this is actually a really interesting opportunity for church leaders to begin to think “what is our congregation going to look like on the far side of this?” I have a friend who is a pastor in rural Indiana. And he said “We usually get 200 people on a Sunday morning. But we’re having 1200 tune in for our live stream, our broadcast that we’re doing.” So he said “There’s a big disconnect for me. I don’t know who these people are. Maybe some of them are people that have moved away or whatever.” But he said, “It tells me that there’s a hunger and that I’m going to have to think more creatively about how to engage these people as we’re going forward even as we begin gathering.” Does that mean, maybe, that we continue to find some ways to connect with some of some of these people? You know, it’s those kinds of questions that our current environment may be cultivating that will lead to some lasting change that looks different than what we were doing before. 

Ann Michel: Yeah, I am hearing that everywhere. It’s certainly been the experience in my own church as well  that the changes that have been made out of necessity as a result of this crisis are opening our eyes to the fact that there are people that are hungry to connect with us who will probably never come in the doors of our church. And how are we going to continue to be in ministry with those people as just, hopefully, we get to a different phase? I think it’s one of the most important questions. And some of those are probably these burned out, maybe midlife people who no longer feel that coming to church meets their needs, but still have a spiritual hunger. So if a church or if an individual wanted to start giving more attention to midlife discipleship, is there a simple first step that you would recommend? 

Michelle Van Loon: Well, I would say that probably the logical first step is that once you’re aware of something, you can’t become unaware of it. So if someone is listening right now, and they’re thinking “oh yeah, we’re probably not doing this very well,” don’t just put that question away. Let it begin to spark conversation and prayer with the people around you. You know, your leadership team, ministry leaders, people in a small group or Bible study. Just beginning to have conversations coupled with prayer, recognizing that scripture puts a great emphasis on aging and maturity as something of value is a good starting place. 

Ann Michel: I think maybe just, even in hearing this, or reading your book, if someone in midlife is feeling a sense of spiritual disconnect, or spiritual dissatisfaction, that they’re not alone and maybe being able to put a name to the fact that this is a normal experience. But there still is the opportunity to continue, and the need to continue, to find ways to mature and grow in faith. And that sort of opens their eyes to that need and that response, which, I think, in and of itself is really helpful. It helped me in reading the book to name the problem, really. Well, Michelle, I want to thank you for taking the time to talk with me and our listeners today. And again to applaud you on this book because I think it is really a helpful perspective and a novel one. Because, as we’ve already said, I haven’t seen a lot else written on this subject. So I want to thank you for talking with us today, and thank you for your work, and for drawing our attention to this really important issue. 

Michelle Van Loon: Thank you. It’s been an honor to hang out with you. 

Thank you for joining us and don’t forget to subscribe free to our weekly newsletter, Leading Ideas, at churchleadership.com/leadingideas.

Related ResourcesBecoming Sage: Cultivating Meaning, Purpose, and Spirituality in Midlife


About Author

Michelle Van Loon

Michelle Van Loon is a blogger and a women's ministry leader. She is the author of several books on personal spirituality and spiritual formation, most recently Translating Your Past: Finding Meaning in Family Ancestry, Genetic Clues, and Generational Trauma (Herald Press, 2022), available on Amazon.

Ann A. Michel has served on the staff of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership since early 2005. She currently serves as a Senior Consultant and is co-editor of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. She also teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary in the areas of stewardship and leadership. She is the co-author with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Generosity, Stewardship, and Abundance: A Transformational Guide to Church Finance (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) available at Cokesbury and Amazon. She is also the author of Synergy: A Leadership Guide for Church Staff and Volunteers (Abingdon, 2017), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.