This weekend I was with the Congregational Studies Project Team and Fellows on Cape Cod for our June meeting. We are a group of scholars and researchers who study congregations and other religious assemblies/organizations, and create resources for persons (especially congregational leaders) interested in engaging in disciplined reflection on their own congregational contexts. When the Congregational Studies Project Team meets, we typically visit and discuss a local congregation to see what we can learn about American religions more generally, and about congregations in particular. We think together about questions such as what factors contribute to the apparent vitality of some congregations, and to the decline of others.
On Sunday we had the pleasure of visiting St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Barnstable, Massachusetts, where VTS alumna and adjunct faculty member Libby Gibson is the rector. This parish, located in a picturesque small town on the Cape, has incredible resources: an active and engaged membership base with strong lay and clergy leadership; a lovely location and physical plant including beautiful gardens (complete with a memorial garden for pets!); and a commitment to local mission. The church also boasts some 75 new members this year, about half of whom are 40 years old and younger, with the others being in the 60-and-above age group that matches this area’s demographic as a retirement destination. Indeed, sitting in the congregation, while there were some younger worshipers, the dominant hair color was gray. And the primary “tone” was vitality! The energy and warmth of the community were palpable during worship and beyond it. People lingered in the pews after worship to talk to their neighbors, and then lingered some more over lemonade in the fellowship time outside. We heard about vibrant ministries with the parish and beyond it, out in the community.
Can a congregation with a large proportion of older adult members be a vital church? Common stereotypes about both “vital church” and “older adults” seem to say no, posing these two terms as opposites. But I see such stereotypes to be based on some myths about older adulthood that just don’t hold up well under scrutiny. The first of these myths is that older adulthood is automatically synonymous with poor health. While it is the case that older adults experience increasing health issues across time, there exist significant differences between individuals, as is the case during other points along the life cycle. But in addition, there also are huge differences between older adults in their sixties and those in their nineties. Gerontologists note that with the increasing lifespan of persons, it is no longer even possible to automatically speak of older adults as a single homogenous group with shared characteristics. Most of these scholars distinguish between the “young-old,” the “older” and the “old-old.” The young-old are older adults who are active, mobile, and perhaps with retirement or transition out of full time employment, may even have increased time and energy to offer toward things about which they care such as church involvements. We spoke with many such people in the church we visited today. The middle “older” group, gerontologists note, also are active and engaged, but perhaps experiencing some problems with mobility that begin to place some limits on their engagements. Among those classified as the “old-old,” generally octogenarians and above, the fuller impact of emerging health issues becomes more widely visible, and yet still it cannot be taken for granted that all adults in this life phase are the so-called frail elderly. Writer and researcher George Vaillant suggests that as human lifespans increase, the actual length of time older adults experience acute disability is decreasing.
What this means is that congregations populated with a preponderance of older adults like the church we visited today may well evidence a lot of energy and vitality, particularly when many of those older adults are in the active “young-old” phase of older adulthood.
A second myth that makes it hard for some people to equate older adulthood with congregational vitality is the notion that older adults as a group are primarily “receivers” rather than contributors to congregational life. This simply is not the case. Older adults contribute in a variety of ways to the vitality of their congregations. Financially, they support the church with their stewardship at a rate of $46/1 compared with younger adults. In terms of hands-on ministries, many older adults are active in service, teaching, and justice ministries of their congregations. Older adults provide a large amount of congregational pastoral care through their formal and informal visits, phone calls, and prayer ministries. They are important story-bearers for faith communities where mobility and other factors can create a dirth of long-term narratives for understanding a congregation’s walk of faith across time.
Vitality is not merely a synonym for youth. It refers instead to a person or community’s ability to engage life fully. It is about participating in and sharing the abundant life of God in the world. We did hear stories at St. Mary’s celebrating the presence of younger members among their many newcomers. But we also heard stories about how various church members (including older members) are able to create initiatives within this church around the things about which they have passion, such as environmentalism and the celebration of animal companions; education and the importance of church members sharing their gifts with children in less privileged communities elsewhere on Cape Cod; and again and again, the importance of intentionally choosing to be a welcoming, inclusive faith community. Against the commonly heard story that the mainline church in the U.S. is in decline in part because of its aging demographic, the story of St. Mary’s suggests that such a narrative is too simplistic. It seems to me that the vitality of this congregation is less about age demographics and more about a critical balance between the nurture of internal community (stressing welcome, warmth, and celebrating the gifts of church members) with that of external community (extending God’s grace into the world by taking their gifts and commitments outside of themselves in mission), all fed by an expertly led and joyfully celebrated liturgical life. What do you think makes congregations vital?