By Amy Hanson
Today’s older adult ministries are much different than 30 years ago. There is no longer one single approach that makes a 50-plus ministry successful; rather, there are a variety of methods being used to reach this rapidly growing age demographic. Here are just a few of the innovative and effective strategies being used by churches across the country.
Small Groups as a Tool for Evangelism
Community Christian Church (www.communitychristian.org), a multisite church in Naperville, Illinois, has a site at Carillon, a 55-plus living community. Earl Ferguson, pastor at Carillon, says small groups have been the key to bringing people into a relationship with Christ. He says, “While our small groups have a component of Bible study, our emphasis is on building relationships.”
This is not surprising. Win and Charles Arn write that one reason older adults are so receptive to the gospel is because they have an increased desire for meaningful relationships.1 A retiree’s social world is often smaller than when he was working. At this stage of life, children have often moved away, retirement has altered previous relationships with coworkers, and old friends and family members may have died.
Small groups provide a way for new relationships to be formed and a safe place for discussions about serious life issues. Loren Hagen, a retiree who lives in Carillon, is a small-group leader. He says when he shares personal stories from his own life, others in the group can identify and feel a connection.
“Basically a non-Christian is invited to one of our groups and gets to know the people,” he says. “They may do things one-on-one with each other, such as shopping or playing shuffleboard, and slowly over months they build a relationship. Each week they come to the small group and are studying the Bible and hearing other people talk about the lessons, and in turn they begin to get excited about God.”
Church members in Carillon can recount numerous stories of people who found their way back to God through small group ministry. One of these men, Bob, had owned his own business and traveled all over the country before retiring and moving into Carillon.
Says Ferguson, “We invited him initially to a small group and we could practically see his eyes begin to open to the message of the gospel. Bob was baptized when he was 80 years old and told his friends and family, ‘All my life I’ve known something was missing and now I know what it is.’”2
Various Ministries Within the Older Adult Ministry
In order to better reach out to those who are 50-plus, some churches are dividing their ministry into different age categories.
Paul Stetler, senior adult minister at LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, Colorado, (www.lbcc.org), established three different ministries with three separate leadership teams as a part of the overall ministry with adults 50 and better. The Prime Time leadership team is comprised of those ages 50 to 65, the Mountain Toppers are 65 to 75, and the Saints Alive are 75-plus.
Stetler says, “The age distinctions are not defined in our promotional materials, nor are they something we advertise. They simply become a way of guiding the various activities that each leadership team plans.” For example, Prime Time organizes ski trips, hikes, and a yearly campout. Most of the people who attend these events fall into the 50 to 65 category, however there are some in the older age groups who choose to participate. Stetler says this has been a great experience for everyone.
The time of day certain activities are offered can influence who attends. Halftime Talks is a monthly, educational ministry at Central Christian Church in Mesa, Arizona (www.cccev.com). This ministry targets active retirees, according to Paul Forsythe, second-half ministries pastor. Its mission is to inspire and equip people to finish well through learning opportunities and a lunch. Speakers have included a physician, an attorney, and a wealth management adviser, and topics have ranged from Bible study methods to refugee resettlement.
Regardless of how an older adult ministry is organized, it is important to recognize the diversity within this area of ministry. Some adults who are 50-plus are limited by health, while others are still working full-time, and still others may be raising grandchildren. Successful older adult ministries are those that have a variety of opportunities available in order to reach the varied needs and interests of the people.
Blast, the fifth- and sixth-grade Sunday school class at East 91st Street Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana (www.east91st.org), hosts an annual brunch to honor older adults. When the event started, young people would invite their grandparents. But it has evolved, and now their invitations go out to at least five of the older adult Sunday school classes. There are 75 to 100 people who look forward to participating in this event.
Intergenerational events such as this one are beneficial both for the older adults and the young people. When young and old interact in meaningful ways, negative stereotypes are broken. Young people find out that older adults like to have fun, and older adults discover not all young people are disrespectful and lazy.
The most successful intergenerational activities tend to have two things in common. First, they are fun for both age groups. One church in Portland, Oregon, hosts an annual miniature golf event in which golf teams are made up of one older adult and two high school students.
A second way of making these events successful is by providing questions in which the two age groups can easily engage in conversation.
Amy Blaskiewicz, director of seniors ministries at East 91st, says one year at its brunch, participants were asked to tell two facts about themselves and one lie. Amy says her son still remembers the older man who shared that he had been an Air Force pilot, an ice cream man, and the owner of several restaurants. The lie? That he was an ice cream man!
Short-Term Mission Opportunities for Older Adults
In 2008, the ministry with adults 50 and better at LifeBridge Christian Church planned a mission trip to Cookson Hills (www.cooksonhills.org), a ministry for children and families in crisis located in northeastern Oklahoma. The hope was to give older adults an opportunity to use their time and talents serving those less fortunate, as well as increasing their awareness of missions.
Stetler said the response was overwhelmingly positive. “People came back from the trip with a lot of enthusiasm and with a desire to go back and meet some of the needs they observed while serving for those 10 days. Many of those who went on the trip decided to become monthly contributors to the ministry.”
In addition to planning another trip to Cookson Hills this year, Stetler and his leadership team have added a mission trip to Pine Haven Christian Camp (www.pinehavencamp.org) for adults 50 and older. “Overnight this new mission trip filled up to capacity,” Stetler said. “Our older adults are looking for ways to serve and make a difference. It is our goal to add a third mission experience in 2010 . . . hopefully an opportunity for our older adults to serve overseas.”
1Win and Charles Arn, Catch the Age Wave: A Handbook for Effective Ministry with Senior Adults (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1999).
2Adapted from Amy Hanson’s papers, “Churches Responding to the Age Wave” and “Creating New Opportunities for Older Adults to Serve.” Used by permission. ©2007, Leadership Network. The full papers are available at www.leadnet.org/encoregeneration.
Amy Hanson is a speaker, educator, writer, and consultant in older adult ministry and gerontology. She was the active adult (50-plus) ministries director at Central Christian Church in Las Vegas before moving to Nebraska to complete her PhD in human sciences. She teaches college-level courses on aging and is writing a book on the church’s response to the aging baby boomer. Amy lives in Omaha, Nebraska, with her husband, Jon, and their 5-year old daughter, Ella. Find out more about Amy’s ministry at www.amyhanson.net.