During the last thirty years the median age of the population in the United States has come to a place where there are more people over the age of fifty than there are those in their teen years. These demographics have placed an urgent need upon the church in general to develop ways to utilize the resources that these people can provide to the development of the church and the community at large.
The situation has also made it an imperative that the church makes an exhorted effort to communicate the Gospel to those people who are outside of the church. Without this spreading of the Gospel to these people, many churches will cease to exist, as there will be no younger people to continue as the older people leave the scene. It has been and is an imperative the church live up to its primary responsibility to carry the Great Commission to the unsaved.
The seniors can be a great help in this area because most of them have been in the church for many years and have a vital part to play in God’s mission of reconciliation. They can make a significant contribution to the influx of the younger generation into the church as their witness of the Lord’s grace and love is demonstrated to them. Their life experiences can narrow the widening contrast between churches that are perceived by many Americans as having no relevance to the issues and challenges that confront them from day to day.
To many people the in-action of the church to make any real difference in their neighborhoods have cause them to believe that the church is out of date, ineffective and irrelevant.
Many churches have become stagnant and others have become obsolete because they have failed to develop the treasure trove of wisdom and knowledge that resides in the seniors who are members in their congregations. This failure has caused many a church body to fail to confront the issues of their changing society even though they have retained their basic theological truths.
If the church as a whole would began to appreciate these senior saints, I believe that the paradigms would shift in a dramatic way and cause the increasing senior population in this country to become a much greater influence in the effectiveness of church ministry. This would come about because at least twenty-five percent of most congregations are seniors. Yet, the senior adult ministry is woefully inadequate now and unless major changes are made to correct this disproportion it will become even more so. This will occur only to the detriment of the entire congregation.
“The new senior is so different from what most church leaders have grown up thinking older adults to be that an old approach to this new group will be as fruitless as fishing with a net full of holes.”
There are many concerns of seniors that have to be addressed as the church begins to utilize the talents of these members. These include comfort, for many are inclined to and desire to be in stress-free situations and are willing to be active in the many programs that the church sponsors including teaching in the classrooms. Then there are leisure activities that are important to reach the seniors and provide an outlet for some of their pent up energy. These could include field trips that are goal oriented. These trips could provide the church with creative and opportunities to match these interests with the mission and overall purpose and direction of the church.
Then there is health maintenance, which becomes a greater concern as we become older. Nutrition and exercise classes as well as Wellness Seminars would be helpful in maintaining and increasing the interest not only in the seniors but also in the baby boomers that are increasing in age.
Since many are retired and no longer have to deals with parenting, these seniors could use their retirement years to greatly use their experiences and skills in the church.
Because of the demographics and the so-called generation gap, it is often difficult for seniors to make and keep relationships with those who are in a younger age bracket. However, the church can help them to focus outside of this situation and encourage them to learn and practice agape love. Showing and giving love can be a great help in self-development in that it causes us to grow into each other. Without it we are empty, incomplete and without meaning. It causes us to grow into a great spiritual maturity. It also gives us a sense of progress as we grow in our spiritual lives. Many seniors are invested in the life of the church and give their time because of the personal and spiritual benefit they receive when they know they are loved. They make many of the contributions of their time and talents because they are appreciated and they know it.
For many seniors real life begins at retirement. They see aging as an ascending process toward new horizons. I guess it could be said that the Apostle Paul put it best when he wrote in Philippians 3:12-15, “Not as though I had already attained, either were I already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which I also am apprehended of Christ Jesus. Brethren I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth for those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.”
In this understanding, seniors don’t yearn for what used to be. Likewise the church should seek to find ways to harvest the experiences that the seniors bring forth through a lifetime in a heightened sense of contribution and worth. At this stage of their lives most seniors have passed the midlife crisis and begin to define themselves in the sense of purpose.
I have found that this group attends Bible study and Sunday school in a great number then those who are yet in their thirties and forties. They have in a way become a great cloud of witnesses to the younger generation. This spiritual vanguard is leading us into a new understanding of what it truly means to service Christ. This trend has shown us the increasing need to focus on the spiritual needs of our seniors. As we develop these relationships with our seniors, we see them from perspective that is different from what the church has seen before.
There should be a willingness to share leadership roles with the senior members of the church. A quality for being a leader of a seniors’ group is the willingness to learn. There may be times when a younger person may be appointed to head a group, but it must be understood that this person is to help organize and coordinate the activities of the group. If the senior adults are to respond positively it should also be understood that they have ownership of the agenda. Many seniors can qualify as leaders. Some may even view this as a way to maximize their ministry and life. This gives them the recognition they need to voice their concerns and to provide advice in the making of church decisions and priorities. This also challenges them to an even higher commitment to Christ and the church.
The Importance Of Seniors Ministry
As I stated at the beginning of this essay, more than fifty percent of the population in this country are over fifty years old. Two-thirds of all persons sixty-five or older who have ever lived are alive today. This group of people represents an enormous opportunity for the church as population is expected to continue to increase in this age group over the next decade. However, as we view the American church, we see the absence of congregational ministries that effectively focus on the spiritual needs and life experiences of their congregants over the age of fifty-five. These individuals have few opportunities presented to them by the church in which they can devote greater portions of their time serving others.
Basically seniors are distinguished from their peers according to their outlook on life and their implementation of activities and attitudes as they approach this outlook. Today, seniors don’t see themselves and old. We see them serving as hospital volunteers, scout leaders, in college classrooms and in a variety of other settings.
Many view this time as a time of restoration. They value to free time they now have as an opportunity to learn, to grow, to serve and just to enjoy life. Many see this as a time to contribute their time, talent, skills, energy and knowledge to improve the life of others.
The church should be the first place to provide these opportunities to help fulfill the dreams and goals of these men and women. It is these people who hold the key to a change in the way the church views aging.
These are the people who have sat under many a thousand church sermons and participated in many more programs and activities. Even the older adults who are un-churched have had varying experiences and exposure to church and spiritual teaching.
If the church is to change the secularization of society it must develop programs and concepts that increase the spiritual growth among the population. This is a great challenge and one in which the seniors’ ministry can place a vital part.
They were born and grew up in a time with vastly different values from those of today’s society. Yet, their influence is such that they can make un-tolled inroads in the changing of viewpoints that are held by many in society today. This can be done through mission groups, service projects in the community, and other activities that are recognizable in worth and benefit that are clearly visible. The seniors must own these projects and although serving seniors in the congregation is mutually beneficial, there should also be an outreach to those in the community.
The Churches’ Role
Many churches are better prepared to handle this influx of new seniors and are well on their way to implementing a senior’s ministry as to get ahead of this ‘age wave’. They have placed themselves in a position where these ministries will be leading the church the rest of the church. Other churches which have failed to take advantage of this opportunity will be seen as out of step with the times and will have failed in this great opportunity for service and in making a positive impact in this area of ministry.
So what about the church? First of all the church has to realize that the lifestyles of older adults and their influence is making a greater impact on the moral as well as the societies cultural standards. The average congregation consists of from thirty to fifty percent of members who are over the age of fifty-five. Many of these churches do not have the foresight to recognize the changing tide and will miss the wave because they fail to rise to its challenge. When and if the church responds to this challenge it will find itself in the midst of a surge that will give them the thrill of reaching the older generation as never before and will know what it means to meet human needs through the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God as never before.
It Depends On Your Point Of View
(Christian or Secular)
In today’s world there are two views to the aging process. The Christian view looks forward with anticipation for tomorrow while it yet provides hope for today. We are taught how to experience life as it answers the basic questions concerning our identity. This view helps us to develop an appropriate perspective on life and as we grow older we develop an appreciation that we somehow missed during the years of our youth. It helps another or us to answer three basic questions that we all have asked at one time. These questions are: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? For the Christian the answer to each of these questions is found the God’s word, the Bible.
Christopher Lasch, a sociologist, gave a secular view when he wrote, “Men and women begin to fear growing old before they even arrive at middle age. The so-called mid-life crisis presents itself as a realization that old age looms just around the corner. Americans experience the fortieth birthday as the beginning of the end. Even the prime of life thus comes to be overshadowed by the fear of what lies ahead.”
This pessimistic view of aging has had a destructive and discriminatory effect on older adults. It can be said of those who hold this secular view, that life’s final years are a cruel joke and they merely prolong and delay what they call the inevitable or death. They give the impression that growing old is something to be feared and that it would be better to die young. However, we as Christians look forward to an old age as another promise kept by God.
We understand that all that has gone before was the preliminaries and the best is yet to come. Our past experiences have shown us how to live and be better than we ever thought we could be and that we should enjoy the contributions we can make to those who have yet to travel this path of life. We understand that we have been called to a purpose and we strive to reach the conclusion of that purpose.
People with the pessimistic secular view see man as living unto himself. From the Christian view, man lives unto God with the belief in immortality. We don’t allow our philosophy to be affected by age. Aging does not affect us except to deepen our understanding of life and its issues. This understanding gives us the fortitude needed to face the challenges of life as they are presented to us. As we grow older we continue to move toward that goal that the Lord has placed in each of us.
With this in mind, we should honor and respect older adults for the abundance of wisdom they have accumulated through life’s experiences. Yet, in today’s society and at times even in the church, they are not as respected and honored as they have been in the past. In fact in many ways they are devalued and often discriminated against because of their age.
This rationalization, if you want to call it that, is due in part to the self-centered life style that is pervasive in the Western culture. We live in a culture that values looks, social status, material possessions and power. Not withstanding that each of these things diminishes with time. The value of accumulated wisdom however is often overlooked in what is known today as ‘ageism’. Its proponents have instilled in many the fear of growing old. They have come to believe that this life is all there is and once it’s over, it’s over.
This fear or vanity, if you want to call it that, is seen in all areas our society. These areas include trying to look and act younger than we really are by a nip and a tuck here and there, hair transplants, the clothing we choose and a myriad of other things we do, just so that we can appear to be young.
All of these things are done in a major part because we have lost our self-esteem and forget that we are created in the image of God. We will but bring that back to mind, we will see that it is the inner man that will continue to grow and develop. That is the part of us that is most useful in the long run.
Yet most of the American society deems the older or senior members to be insignificant. Instead of using their capacity for productive endeavors, they are forced to retire and thus the country and the workforce is drained of all that knowledge.
The sad thing about this is that the church has been guilty of these same practices. Instead of building up the seniors in its congregations literally brought itself almost to a point of stagnation by failing to use the resources that are available to it through the talents and knowledge exists in its senior members. This failure also diminishes the church’s supply of available workers in the promotion of its agenda. It also has the effect or the potential of destroying the church’s inter-generational relationships.
The Church’s Response
The church has not been responding to this surge of older members in the church. Many churches are not aware of the potential for ministry opportunities that are available in this senior surge. The church’s facilities are empty for most of the week when they could be creatively used for ministry to these seniors. In order for this to happen the church must have a vision and a desire to enhance the growth of its senior members. Many of these ministries don’t grow because of inertia. That is, there are psychological barriers that keep these ministries from growing and expanding. Oftentimes this is due to a reluctance to break with tradition or to maintain the status quo.
Then there is the attitude that some seniors have about themselves. The attitude that says, “I have served, now it’s time that I be served.” I am not of that attitude because I understand that I am the same person that I have always been. I’m just older and a great deal wiser than I used to be.
Many times the church has not given a positive response in this area because its leaders and sometimes even the pastors don’t understand the problems associated with seniors. This situation exists in part due to the seminaries lack of instruction for pastors dealing with seniors in the congregation. This lack of understanding has caused many seniors to feel ignored or taken for granted.
Most pastors in today’s church are much younger than most members of the congregation. Thus the church continues to welcome the young and middle-aged adult while at the same time discounting the seniors. This has caused an atmosphere in which seniors feel ignored.
In order to counteract this situation the church needs to and should greatly increase its efforts to involve the seniors in the business of the church and provide greater opportunities for them to serve in various capacities. In doing so the church gives them the opportunity to contribute their experience, knowledge, wisdom as well as their financial support.
Today there is much growth in the church, yet this growth process seems to have placed the seniors participation on the back burner. That is, many seniors groups have remained small or become stagnant in the roles they serve in the membership of the local church. The church for the most part has become focused on the younger members. The situation is such that the seniors have been relegated to minor roles in the ministry. The church as a whole has forgotten that these seniors many of them have been walking with the Lord for many years and are or should be a vital part of the evangelistic ministry. Due to the experiences that they have had during their lifetime, they are the very source that is needed to bear a clear testimony to God’s mercy and grace through Jesus Christ.. The senior should be preeminent in this area because it gives them purpose. It gives them the avenue that is needed for them to display the true meaning of Matthew 28:19-20.
Christ’s entire life was centered on the reconciliation of mankind to God. This commission was given to his disciples was not based on age but rather on purpose. To be performed to the best of our ability, it requires commitment. Today, many senior citizens have proven their ability and are ready to communicate God’s love to others.
Aligning their purpose with Christ’s purpose is crucial. When this alignment is as it should be, it will the determinate factor in how successful the church is in reaching the un-churched senior adults. Seniors should be encouraged to participate in these groups because it not only provides a refuge for fellowship with other Christians, but it also opens up the opportunity for personal and spiritual growth. This activity benefits each member and gives him or her support in times of need.
Growing churches believe that their best days are yet ahead. This optimism is demonstrated best in its senior members. Every church has pockets of older adults who want to and should be allowed to use the gifts and abilities that God has instilled in them for the growth and maturation of the body at large. There is no good reason why the church should not grow if these members are allowed to spread the Gospel in a focused fashion. Too many senior groups have settles for too little, therefore it behooves the church as a whole to build them up and support their efforts in this great work.
When the church gives such support, it will find that its evangelistic efforts are paying off in increased membership growth. It will have become effective at identifying, focusing on and communicating with the segment of society that is receptive to its message. Its nature and size offers it the unusual opportunity to minister and effect growth in any church.
This growth takes place as the people of God prepare and focus evangelistic strategies in the direction of this segment. As this strategy unfolds and is exercised it has the tendency to change peoples viewpoints. This transition then moves them from being un-churched and into the Christian lifestyle. As a result their traditional points of reference change and so does their inclination to change their lives as well.
The conclusion is that people tend to become church members more often during times of transition. These events provide windows of opportunity more readily because it reduces the resistance and indifference to the Gospel that would ordinarily occur. This opens the way to instill this message because receptivity is greatly increased in the time of need or uncertainty. The Gospel fills that need with a message of hope and salvation. It could be said that it is a means by which the Holy Spirit opens people’s eyes to the source by which their needs are met that cannot be met in human terms.
This means that the church realizes its responsibility to outward evangelism and the seniors are to be a vital part it its efforts to those who are still unsaved as well as to existing Christians. The highest priority should be placed on reaching and teaching those people who are still outside of the church. As this mission is accomplished we will see church growth as the Lord will add to the church such as would be saved and the truth is: Seniors have a vital role to play in ministry.
Dr.Franklyn T. Johnson is called to not only speak, but to testify about God’s Word and challenge you to apply God’s truths in every area of your life. The Lord has clearly called him to minister time and talents in building relationships with churches where he speaks and with those to whom he ministers.