How is it that senior adult ministries seem to be on the decline at the same time that the average age of church members increases?
While the alarms sounded about the aging of the Baby Boomer generation, I’ve watched churches create 55-plus ministries, only too often to scale back or discontinue these ministries because the Boomers just don’t seem interested. I’ve heard the question asked often by leaders of seniors ministries: Why aren’t the Boomers joining us?
Maybe it’s denial : Boomers don’t want to admit they are old yet. Perhaps it’s simply that they feel they are too active and too healthy to be classified as older adults. Maybe there’s something deeper – a realization that they had a hand in creating a culture where their own elders were ‘put out to pasture’ and now they realize they’re next?
Whatever the reasons, we find ourselves asking: how do we change that interest? How do we get them involved? Maybe we can come up with a name that doesn’t seem age related? How can we reverse that trend?
I believe that the best answer is to change the question. We need a different viewpoint or approach to ministry related to senior adults if we hope to effectively minister to their needs while engaging them in the ministry of the church.
The old paradigm isn’t enough
When I began my journey into exploring senior adult ministry, I saw signs of churches moving away from their disinterest in senior adult ministry. Churches and denominations ramped up budgets for growing their 55-plus ministries. But there was a problem: they built these ministries and no one came. At least not as many as were expected. So we wrote it off as disinterest and moved on to the next big thing.
The sheer size of this generation that is ‘graduating’ into seniors ministry is bringing about a logical conclusion to our age-group approach to ministry. They have moved into an age group they don’t want to be part of, and they want no part of being classified as ‘old.’ This points out a flaw creating identities based on what group or demographic you are part of, as with the older groups there is a perception (whether real or not) is that your group is unwanted, un-needed and cast aside.
In the end, the current paradigm falls short because the church was never meant to be segmented like this. I had originally entitled this section “The old paradigm isn’t working,” but really, I don’t think this is about one way of looking at it versus the other. It’s more that we too often rely exclusively on social groups for our seniors ministry without really responding to the real and substantial issues that come with growing older, while possibly ignoring what Scripture makes clear about all parts of the body needing each other.
Shifting the paradigm
Maybe the best way to minister to seniors is not focus as much on senior adult ministry. I know, it’s an odd thing to say when putting a website together dedicated to senior adult ministry. But what I’m getting at is that maybe we need to rely less on the age-group approach to ministry and to a focus more on ministry directly to, and ministry with, our older members. That we look at it through a new lens, not necessarily replacing one paradigm with another, but add some emphasis in some new ways.
I’ve been thinking about a two-fold approach that I call the PARaDIGM paradigm (or Paradigm2). It’s an acronym: Provide Age Resources and Develop Inter Generational Ministries. It’s an approach that puts an emphasis more on meeting age-related challenges and on engaging our older generations more with the rest of the congregation.
Older adults ministry serves the whole church
There are better places for me to go into detail about the problems of segmenting our ministries too much. I do fear that a group focus can create an environment where the eye is saying to the hand, “I don’t need you.”
How we minister to and with our older members is really a part of how we minister to the whole congregation. Issues that go with aging have an impact on all age groups, not just the elderly. At the same time, isolating generations from one another costs us the diversity of experience and insight that each generation can offer.
Age-related issues impact all generations
I spoke with a pastor who’d started his congregation about 25 years earlier by focusing on young families. He commented that his church was still young and not yet ready for a senior adult ministry. I knew that congregation and was thinking, have you looked around lately? Those parents who joined you are now 25 years older.
The thing is, even ‘young’ congregation faces age-related challenges. A 2014 article in NextAvenue states that 15% of the workforce is in a caregiver role with older parents, resulting in businesses losing an estimated 17 and 33 billion dollars annually in productivity. If that impacts their work lives, how much do you think it impacts them in their involvement in our churches? How many of our church leaders and members are weighed down by concerns about aging parents or grand parents? How do those concerns affect them spiritually? How does it impact the way they can lead or minister within the church? And how well equipped are we to help them?
The church needs the wisdom of its elders
We traditionally view “Do not neglect meeting together in Hebrews 11:25 as an admonition to attend church: But the author preceded that with a call to spur one another on, and followed up with a challenge to encourage one another. The whole point isn’t just about US needing to go to church, but about how we should go because the church needs us. We need to look at our older generations through that lens, that the church needs them.
When we segment our populations by age, our younger generations lose the wisdom and experience of our older generations. Titus 2 encourages the instruction of younger and older men and women in the context of how they relate to one another and what they can learn from one another.
The book Sticky Faith details research identifying the common threads among youth who kept their faith after graduation. One of the greatest factors in keeping their faith ‘sticky’ was the engagement of older non-family church members in their lives. It turns out that strong inter generational relationships can be a powerful way to impact youth ministry.
So, back to the question: How do we get Boomers interested?
Honestly, I don’t know that there is any one answer, and maybe there shouldn’t be. I do have a feeling they will be more likely to engage in a more inter-generational approach because that won’t pigeon-hole them into a particular age-group or identity.
In the end, I am not particularly focused on one particular generation. I believe over-focusing on one generation can lead us to neglecting others. In so much of the discussion on Boomers ministry, we can lose sight of the older generations. We also should be aware that Generation X is sneaking into the discussion, with the oldest of them now being in their 50’s.
In my opinion, the focus on the Boomers isn’t so much on that particular generation as it is that their aging is forcing us to take a hard look at age-related ministry The bottom line is that generation labels don’t matter as much as it matters that we help our older adults meet the challenges of aging while engaging them more fully with the rest of the church.