Michelle Van Loon on Spirituality in Midlife

Since coming to faith in Christ at the tail end of the Jesus Movement, Michelle Van Loon’s Jewish heritage, spiritual hunger, and storyteller’s sensibilities have shaped her faith journey and informed her writing. She is the author of Becoming Sage: Cultivating Meaning, Purpose, and Spirituality in Midlife and shared with us about spiritual growth at midlife and beyond.

You write that midlife holds the invitation to “become sage.” What do you mean by that?

Midlife holds for each one of us the invitation to become sage—a way of life in which a person expresses experience, knowledge, insight, and self-mastery. That invitation to grow in wisdom can be well-disguised in the often-disorienting shifts that characterize this life stage.

Tell us about the spiritual growth themes and disorienting challenges that are specific to those at midlife and beyond (family, friends, finances, bodies, mental health, etc.).

Just about every area of our lives are being re-calibrated at this life stage – church, family, friends, our bodies, work, emotional and spiritual health, and more. There are one-size-fits-all formulas or prepackaged curriculum that will decode the challenges we’re facing. I wrote Becoming Sage in order to identify and begin to clarify the unique gifts and challenges of midlife discipleship, recognizing that there are no easy answers.

Why is it essential for Christians in midlife and beyond to commit to the task of nurturing their emotional and spiritual health?

For more than a decade, I’ve written and spoken about spiritual formation at midlife and beyond. As a result, I’ve heard a similar, sad refrain from hundreds of people all over the country: a high percentage of our churches tend to approach the task of discipleship with a strong focus on early-stage faith training. We pour lots of energy and money into ministry focused on children and families. And many congregations are deeply committed to equipping new believers with the basics of the faith. This is beautiful and important work.

But the lack of emphasis on ongoing disciple-making among those further along in their journey with Jesus leads many to assume that simply repeating the same patterns they learned as new believers will sustain them throughout their days. While the practice of classic spiritual disciplines are foundational to spiritual growth, it is equally true that the questions, transitions, and shifts that take place at midlife and beyond call for different kinds of conversation, prayer, reflection, and response to God in order to cultivate maturity in our lives. 

The questions, transitions, and shifts that take place at midlife and beyond call for different kinds of conversation, prayer, reflection, and response to God in order to cultivate maturity in our lives.

You describe the decrease of church involvement in older adults as a “quiet exodus.” What are the contributing factors to this?

Many have focused on church leavers who are Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) and older members of Gen Z (those born from 1996 to about 2015). But there is a quiet exodus from the church at nearly the same rate of people at midlife and beyond: Boomers and members of Gen Z.  

There are many reasons for this. Some report they’ve “aged out” of congregations that focus entirely on the faith lives of families with children under the age of 18. They feel there’s no meaningful place for them to grow, learn, or serve as they move into the tasks and challenges of their second half of life. 

Others report that it is increasingly difficult to maintain or deepen a connection with a local church in light of increased care-giving responsibilities for aging parents or young grandchildren (or both!). Some are also dealing with health challenges, and find that if they’re out of sight for too many Sunday mornings, they’re not given much attention for ongoing pastoral care by church leaders. 

Some in this group are also juggling workplace responsibilities, as they tend to be at the peak of their careers during these years. Many who were once involved also report burnout from church dysfunction and toxic congregational politics as a reason they’ve stepped back from involvement. The church becomes a place of pain for some, instead of the life-giving community they know it can and should be. 

What are meaningful ways that church leaders can cultivate fresh growth and ongoing fruitfulness for people growing through the latter season of life?

Honoring and valuing older members can’t happen with a quick-fix program. It comes from developing and deepening a culture that honors every member’s contributions and presence. To this end, here are a few things church leaders can do on an ongoing basis to be culture-makers in their congregation: 

• Pray regularly and publicly for the deepening of the ministry of those already committed to your congregation.

• Pray regularly and publicly for those who are committed to care-giving or workplace duties. Reach out to caregivers regularly to find out what kind of support they may need from the congregation (visits, help with practical tasks such as small household repairs, rides to doctor visits, meals).

• Engage in frank self-evaluation about the focus of the church’s ministry: Are you emphasizing reaching out and caring only for families with children under 18 to the exclusion of other demographic groups? Consider why this might be and what steps you might take to change this.

• Ask if you are willing to bless those who have left your church in search of a congregation that might be a better fit for them.

• Consider how the culture of your church may be burning out committed members.

Learn more about Michelle’s latest release, Becoming Sage: Cultivating Meaning, Purpose, and Spirituality in Midlife.