In late July, I turned 66.
When I was a kid, being 66 was like having one foot in the grave. When I was in my 20s and 30s, being 66 made someone elderly. In my 40s and 50s, being 66 meant getting older. Now being 66 is, well, just being 66.
A couple of people asked me how it felt to be 66. To be honest, it doesn’t feel like anything. I’m in good health, I’m not drooling (that I know of), and despite a few aches and pains that I didn’t have 25 years ago, I feel good. My outlook is that when I’m 70 in four years, I’ll just be entering mid-life.
This all may sound like I’m in a bit of denial, and maybe I am. But the fact is that being 66 today is not what being 66 was like fifty years ago. People are living longer, and they are generally much more healthy and mobile. That has several implications for our society. But it also has implications for our churches.
I don’t know the particular demographics of your church, but unless you have “targeted” younger people (and I’ll ask you to rethink any strategy that emphasizes one age group over another), you probably have a good percentage of older people in your church. They may even be the dominant age group.
I work with older people now. I work for a large retirement community and I drive older people (and I mean older people – those in their 80s and 90s) to medical appointments. Some of them have substantial physical limitations, but many are still active and vibrant. Here are some characteristics of the older generation and what they mean for our churches.
Older people don’t have the same energy they did when they were younger, so consider that when you plan your worship service. Having people stand for four songs or having them stand up and sit down repeatedly is not always easy. While you may say “Stand if you are able,” some of our older saints don’t want to look like they’re being uncooperative. Or they’d rather endure the pain than look frail. If that last bit sounds weird to you, just wait. You’ll see. Someday.
Older people see a world that is changing fast, and their ability to grasp change is not what it was when they were young. As you plan changes in your church, make sure you take plenty of time to explain the purpose behind them. Give them time to think about what those changes mean to them. A few weeks ago, our church announced that they would be changing the times of the worship services and Sunday School – in December. Bravo! They are giving people four months to think through how they’ll need to adjust.
Older people can easily feel left by the wayside as the church does new things. Older people spent decades coming to church in their “Sunday best,” singing a familiar set of songs from a hymnal. Those songs were accompanied by an organ and/or piano and led by a man who directed the congregation like a choir, often with great enthusiasm. Their worship services had soloists and choirs and periodic concerts on Sunday night. Their pastor wore a suit and tie and would never wear jeans. In fact, no one wore jeans.
Whether changes to our worship styles are for the better is not the point. What matters is that we’ve asked our older people to worship in a way that they are not used to, and it should be obvious that many have taken a long time to get used to it. They take longer to learn the songs and sometimes don’t like the volume of the instruments or the group leading the singing. Right or wrong, older people miss a style of worship was both familiar and very meaningful to them and as a result feel passed by as if they don’t matter.
Let me suggest some ways that younger pastors can minister to older saints:
Remember that you’re young and they are older.
That’s kind of obvious, but it’s important. You may have seminary training, you may have read a lot of books, you may even have several years of experience. But you haven’t lived as long as they have.
Youth is energetic, visionary, and moves fast. Youth wants to change the world now. That’s all cool. But older people have “done church” for decades, and their experience has to count for something. Some older people are definitely limping toward geezerhood. But many senior adults have a wealth of wisdom and experience, and it’s foolish to ignore them. Psalm 92:12-14 says, “The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God. They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green” (ESV). In other words, they’re not dead yet.
Get to know them.
There was a group of widowed or single older ladies that met often in our church. I teased them mercilessly, even when I announced their activities, and they gave it right back. I loved that group and I know they loved me. When they met, I always stopped in to say hi. If your church has special programs or lunches for seniors, stop by and say hello.
Consider having programs geared to issues they face that may also serve as outreach opportunities to other seniors.
When I say outreach, I don’t necessarily mean full-blown evangelistic programs (though of course that would be fine). Seniors want help understanding social security and retirement investments. They are easy victims of telephone or computer scams. Having experts speak on these subjects can be very helpful to your own people and a way of introducing others to your church.
Listen to them when they express discontent.
Their complaints may not always be packaged in the most appropriate ways, but maybe there are good (or at least understandable) reasons why they are resistant or feel unsettled. Many of our churches have asked our seniors to accept change for the sake of reaching younger people. But let’s remember that their acceptance of what’s new and different means that they are giving up much that they treasured, and sometimes they come to church and feel they are in a different country. Accept how they feel and show respect for their memories of the past.
Recruit them for ministry.
Encourage them to be involved where they can. I used to remind our people that the opportunity and responsibility to serve God is present until God takes them home. Enlist them to pray. Enlist them to reach out to other seniors. Encourage them to welcome and get to know younger people in the church. Don’t plan too many activities that fragment the church family by age group. Take an older person with you when you visit one of their peers in the hospital. Many can still hold a baby and change a diaper in the church nursery. They are still useful, so find ways for them to be used.
Find a few trustworthy seniors and ask them to pray for you in particular.
If you are new in the church, you’ll have to learn who can (and can’t) keep a confidence. And even then, be careful what you share. But why not start by enlisting some of your seniors to pray for your sermon preparation during the week? I don’t have the stats to prove this, but I heard “I pray for you every day” more from seniors than any other group in the church.
Remember that their worlds are changing and sorrows increase.
As they get older, their spouses and friends die. Their adult children may or may not be attentive. Their “circle” shrinks. They can be depressed, lonely, and fearful. If you see a senior withdraw, reach out to them. Enlist your elders or deacons and their wives to help with this. If they need rides to church, find someone who will bring them and take them home again.
Keep them in the loop.
Have church bulletins sent to those who are shut-ins. The senior population is becoming more and more computer literate. You might send a summary of your sermon to them to read, either by mail or email. But don’t forget them. And don’t send them a letter only when you’re talking about money! Some of your seniors have spent their whole lives as participants and members in your church, and it’s just not right to forget them.
Encourage them to keep growing spiritually.
We had a network of small groups in our church, and one day one of our leaders had an idea. He proposed that a small group for seniors – many of whom had a growing reluctance to drive at night – meet one morning a week at church. I thought it was brilliant! It became a meaningful way for our seniors to continue studying God’s word and be together.
Let’s face it, too often senior citizen ministry is a series of social activities. There’s nothing wrong with trips and special lunches. But our purpose as churches is not to entertain. What opportunities present themselves in your context for word-based ministry to seniors during the day?
You can’t do all of this by yourself. I hope you realize that. You may need a team of seniors to help you, you may assign senior care to specific church leaders, or you might even have younger moms plan an activity that includes women of all ages. But you have to set the pace.
Seniors can be a challenge. They can be grumpy, they can complain, they can fuss and fume over very insignificant things. But you know what? So can younger people. A younger pastor engages the older people in his congregation because they are part of his flock – and, more importantly, they belong to the Chief Shepherd.