“Preparing for the Graying of the Flock”

Written by: James L. Knapp, Ph.D.

Would you like to see the future?  If so, visit a typical Protestant church and the demographic reality of America in 2030 will be visible.  While 13% of the American population is currently 65 years of age or older, in many Protestant churches more than 20% of the members have already reached or passed the age of 65.  The “graying of the flock” is a precursor to the aging of society as a whole.  It is challenging religious leaders and laypersons to set aside their stereotypical views of senior adults and think outside of the box as they consider whether the demographics of their church are an obstacle or opportunity.

In my book, The Graying of the Flock:  A New Model for Ministry, I encourage church leaders and members to adopt a new way of thinking about senior adults built on the idea that older members are a wonderful resource for a church if they are engaged in meaningful forms of ministry.  At the heart of the new approach is an emphasis on ministry WITH senior adults rather than just ministry TO them.  While an effective senior adult ministry will continue to provide care for its older members who are in need, the new model seeks to move beyond traditional boundaries by empowering senior adults and allowing them to take ownership of the ministry.  This can be accomplished in a number of ways but the key component must be that the senior adults are actively involved in the decision-making and implementation of the group’s activities.              A second characteristic of the new model is its multi-faceted nature consisting of social, service, and spiritual components.  A quick overview of most senior adult ministries reveals that the calendar of events is full of social activities. To an outside observer, the abundance of social events is often interpreted as an indication that senior adults just want to “play.” However, social interaction in the later stages of life is extremely important in order to offset the risk of social isolation.  In combination with the social activities, churches must also work to more fully utilize the talents of their senior adult members in meaningful service to other seniors, members of the entire church, or even to the community at large. One of the key functions of the senior adult ministry is to help match senior adults who want to serve with individuals or projects that are in need of assistance.Social events and service projects may abound but without a strong spiritual emphasis the senior adult ministry will not serve its ultimate purpose. As is the case with all believers, senior adults need the opportunity to nourish their faith and grow in their knowledge of the Lord. As a result, the spiritual component is the foundation upon which the social and service activities are based.  In its absence, the senior adult ministry is simply a civic club that provides its members with opportunities for social gatherings and periodic community service.       

A third characteristic of the new model is that it is biblical.  Old and New Testament examples abound of individuals who did not disengage from their spiritual journey because of chronological age.  Abraham, Moses, Caleb, Daniel, Anna and Simeon are but a few examples of persons who maintained an active, living faith well into their later years.  The instructions of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 serves as a reminder that the church is similar to a body in that each part has a role to play.  One part may seem more important than another but each makes a significant contribution to the functioning of the whole.  Members of the youth group, young professionals, young marrieds, or empty nesters may seem to play a more significant role in the life of a church but all members, including the senior adults, should be encouraged and permitted to contribute to the vitality of the body.

Finally, the new model for senior adult ministry must be intergenerational.  Many senior adult ministries include a form of intergenerational programming such as senior adults mentoring a younger member of the church or a young family adopting an older member as a surrogate grandparent.  Efforts such as these are outstanding because they link the generations and allow a level of understanding, trust, and respect to develop.  However, far fewer senior adult ministries are reaching out to the generation directly behind it.  Baby boomers are rapidly approaching the age that has historically marked the entrance into the senior adult years.  Despite their chronological age, many boomers seem uninterested in senior adult ministry often labeling it as something for the “old people.”  The message being sent by boomers is that the old model is not appealing to them because they want to be involved in meaningful forms of ministry to which they can relate.  Maintaining a viable senior adult ministry hinges on the ability to develop social, service, and spiritual opportunities that are attractive to boomers without alienating those who are currently involved in it.

For many churches, the future of the American population is already being experienced within their membership.  In response, a growing number of churches are adopting the new model of ministry that seeks to harness the energy and wisdom of senior adults for the good of the entire group.  While the actual programs and services offered vary from one congregation to another, they are based on a belief that the presence of a large number of senior adults is a wonderful opportunity to develop innovative ways to minister with others.

Biographical statement:  James L. Knapp, Ph.D., is professor of sociology at Southeastern Oklahoma State University. James L. Knapp, Ph.D.1405 N. 4th Avenue PMB 4074Durant, OK  74701-0609
jknapp@sosu.edu     (580) 745-2016   

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