Seven Reasons for Having a Senior Adult Ministry

Having worked among older people in a church setting for more than twenty years, it appears to me that there are at least seven good reasons for establishing a Senior Adult Ministry. Consider the following as a rationale for having such a ministry.

1.  The Aging of America
America is getting older. We are experiencing for the first time in history a “senior boom.” In simple terms that means that there are more older people than there were a generation or two ago. In fact, the percentage of older adults is growing at a rate twice as fast as the population as a whole. A century ago, one in ten reached 65 years of age; today, eight in ten live past that age.

The aging of America has caused two major changes to our culture. First, a new period of life has been created — retirement. Thirty years were added to our life expectancy in the last century. In the past, people didn’t retire; they died. Today, the typical newly retired person can look forward to an additional one-third of his or her adult life. And many retirees live their latter years in pretty good health. Second, we are in the process of shifting from a youth-oriented society to one that focuses on the desires and needs of a middle-aged and older population. It is estimated that over half of all the people who have ever been 65 years of age in the history of the world are alive today.

Along with the aging of America comes the graying of the church. In the year 2000, 50% of the people in the mainline Protestant churches were 60 years of age or older.

2.  The Appearance of the “New Seniors”
Newly retired people today are healthier, wealthier, better educated, and more politically savvy than any previous generation. At no time in their lives are they in more control of their schedule than now, since they are generally free from the restrictions of a job, of rearing children, and of financial worries.

A burgeoning subgroup within the older adult cohort is what has been called “the new seniors.”[1] What makes these people unique is that they have adjusted to extended longevity and are determined to make the most of it. “The new seniors” have the following characteristics:

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    • They have a much more active lifestyle.

    • They are goal oriented, hoping to benefit both self and society.

    • They would rather serve than be served.

    • They eat nutritiously and exercise regularly.

    • They feel 20 years younger than their age.

    • They see the present and future as a time of harvest, not the beginning of winter.

    • They enjoy friendships with all age groups.

    • They enjoy being part of groups that share common interests and concerns.

    • They have a sense of humor.

    • They view retirement as a time for work, study, service, and play.

    • They are flexible, caring, and giving.

    • They are able to take life’s “lemons” and serve up lemonade.

    • They have a higher energy level than other seniors.

    • They view life full of hope.

      “The new seniors” make having positive, vital, growing senior adult ministries in the churches across our land an exciting possibility. This growing subgroup of older adults encourages a new kind of ministry where the emphasis is not just a ministry TO older church members, but also a ministry WITH them.

3.  The Harmful Affects of Ageism
Ageism is a prejudice against anyone because of age. It can be directed toward any age group, but usually it is directed toward older people. In the United States, we live in a youth-oriented society where people want to be forever young, and conversely, do not want to be old.

For an unvarnished view of what our society thinks of older adulthood, go to a card shop and read the cards that are designed for people over 40 years of age. They are not very flattering.

What is fueling this negative thinking about older adults? A major contributor to the emotions behind ageism is a number of negative myths about older people. For example, some commonly held false beliefs about those in the latter stage of life is that most older people are poor, senile, powerless, miserable, lonely, depressed, sexless, neglected by family, and living in nursing homes. If these characteristics accurately described the majority of older people, who would want to be old? But they do not. While these characteristics do describe some older people, they certainly do not describe most of them. Unfortunately, the negative stereotypes continue to prevail, even among many professionals.

Ageism is all around us in our society. Older people are often considered to have less value, much like owning an aging automobile. There is probably not much we can do about it in society. However, we do have some control over attitudes and environment when we come together as a church. Let’s make sure that ageism is noticeably absent within our fellowship.

4. The Instruction of Scripture
The classic passage of Scripture of what God expects from his older people is found in Psalm 92:12-15. Notice the verbs. The verbs in this psalm tell us that God expects his older people to be active participants in his cause, not passive observers. The psalmist writes:

The righteous will flourish like a palm tree,they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon;

planted in the house of the Lord,

they will flourish in the courts of our God.

They will bear fruit in old age,

they will stay fresh and green,

proclaiming, “The Lord is upright, he is my rock,

and there is no wickedness in him.”

In Matthew 9, Jesus asked his disciples to pray for workers because “the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.” Through the centuries that has always been our problem — too few laborers. But in our lifetime, it may very well be that God has answered that prayer and sent us a whole generation of workers — our older Christians.

5. The Waste of Older Christian’s God-given Talents
What are most Americans choosing to do in their retirement years? Tim Stafford, in a 1987, Christianity Today article, entitled “The Aging of America,” stated that the majority of older adults in our country spend their time mostly with leisure. He said that they spend year after year seeking to fill their lives with recreational activities, largely devoid of work and responsibility. Retirement is seen as a time to relax and enjoy the fruits of their labor. He calls this way of life senior adult hedonism, i.e., the pursuit of pleasure by older people.

Many Christians follow this pattern and choose to retire from church activities about the time they retire from their jobs. Sadly, it is not uncommon for church leaders and church policies to promote this disengagement of mature Christians.

This view of retirement concerns me because it was not looked on with favor by our Lord. Remember the parable of the rich fool. Jesus described him with these words:

Then he said, “This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink, and be merry.’” But God said to him, “You fool!” (Luke 12:18-20a) NIV

When we as church leaders encourage our older people to retire from their church activities, is it possible that we are actually promoting a non-Christian way of life that God described as foolish? After all those years of taking up their crosses and following Jesus, could we be pushing them in the direction of hedonism?

One of the most encouraging trends in the United States is the increasing number of older people getting involved in volunteerism. One survey report [2] stated that 41% of senior adults volunteered to help others at least one-half day a week, and another 37% might volunteer if they were asked. The primary motive behind older adult volunteerism is “the need to be needed.” Think what might happen if a congregation began to promote and facilitate older adult volunteerism within and around the local church!

 

6. The Receptivity of older people to the Gospel
H. G. Koenig, in a 1994 book titled Aging and God, stated that recent research has discovered that older adults may be just as receptive to the gospel as any other age group. Some people believe, as I do, that many older adults in the future will be open to becoming disciples of Christ. There are several reasons for having this belief.

First, Flavel Yeakley, in his book, Why Churches Grow, teaches us that people are more receptive to receiving the message of Christ when they are going through some change in their lives. With retirement and all the losses that generally come in late life, no one experiences more change than our older people.

Second, with an ever-decreasing social network and the nagging pangs of loneliness, many older people have a great desire for making new and meaningful relationships with others. Such a need correlates beautifully with an active senior adult ministry and friendship evangelism.

Third, many senior adults are looking for something significant to do with their lives. They want to make the world a better place and to personally make a meaningful contribution. What greater contribution could be made than helping someone become a Christian? Typically, people with a common lifestyle and who have had similar experiences are the easiest individuals for us to bring to Christ. Thus, we promote senior adult peer friendship evangelism as a team effort at church. The older Christians bring their friends to senior adult activities, others welcome them and love on them, and a few months later someone comes along and shares with them the gospel in a private setting. A loving, self-sacrificial Savior is best communicated by a loving, self-sacrificial group of older Christians.

Fourth, people like Win Arn, Charles Arn, and the late Donald McGavran, who have spent a life time studying principles of church growth, believe that many of America’s unchurched older people will be receptive to the gospel.

7. A Personal Reason
If God blesses us, some day we too will be older adults. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the church where we worshiped had a senior adult ministry in which we were offered opportunities — along with our friends — to make a significant contribution for the cause of Christ? Wouldn’t it be comforting to know that this group of people loved us and would stand with us as we faced the final trials of life?

These seven reasons for having a senior adult ministry in the local church have been offered for your consideration. If you find them reasonable, it is my prayer that you will also consider beginning one in your congregation.


[1] W. Arn and C. Arn, Catch the Age Wave: A Handbook for Effective Ministry with Senior Adults, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1993, pp. 29-30.

[2]R. Sneed, Marriott Senior Volunteerism Study, Marriott Public Relations, 1991.

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