By Amy Hanson
Chances are you’ve heard some of these statistics, but try to take a fresh look and really let them soak in:
• Americans 65 and older are the fastest-growing segment of the population.
• In the past century, the number of people in the United States under the age of 65 has tripled; however, the number of people over 65 has increased by more than a factor of 12.
• Today, there are approximately 78 million baby boomers in the U.S., with the oldest boomer turning 63 this year (2009).
• By the year 2030 there will be 72.1 million people in America over the age of 65.1
Nearly every industry, from travel and leisure to health care, is working overtime to respond to these unprecedented numbers. But the church is lagging behind, and as a whole, little focus is being directed toward responding to this age wave crashing on our shores.
As I travel across the country, I speak with church leaders who are aware of the demographics but simply don’t know how to prepare. I hope the following suggestions will spur your thinking and encourage you to expand your view of older adult ministry.
Let go of the “one-size-fits-all” mentality. One of the most common challenges facing today’s traditional senior adult ministry is the inability to get the “young-olds” to participate. So often I have senior adult pastors or senior members in a congregation come up to me and say, “We have a great program on the third Thursday afternoon of each month, but we can’t get those who are in their 50s or 60s to attend. What should we do?”
In order to reach the large number of people who fall in the 50-plus range, we must recognize their uniqueness.
One of the most researched principles in the field of aging is that we become more diverse as we age. If you gather a room full of preschoolers you will find that developmentally, they are basically doing the same things. But as we get older, our differences increase.
By the age of 80, some people have never left the state in which they were born, while others have traveled all over the world. Some have doctorate degrees, and others didn’t finish high school. And probably one of the greatest differences among people is their health. Some are running in marathons while others are frail and living with disabilities.
This kind of diversity among people requires diverse ministries. Churches with fruitful 50-plus ministries have a variety of different ways to reach people, including motorcycle clubs, caring-for-aging-parent seminars, grandparenting events, and even special boomer events.
One church in Bothell, Washington, hosted a Baby Boomer Bash a few years ago to celebrate the first boomer turning 60. Beatles music, yellow and orange decor, pizza, and dancing were all part of the evening. The emphasis was on recognizing and affirming people at this particular stage of life.
Find ways for older adults to integrate into the entire church. When I was growing up my home church had promotion Sunday (I suspect many of your churches did, too). It was a really big deal for grade-schoolers to move from one Sunday school class to the next, older one. We were proud of each year’s accomplishment and excited to meet our new teacher.
But let’s face it, as adults we typically do not like this. We don’t want to be promoted and told we must fit into a certain mold.
In academic literature, this is called age-grading and it refers to using age to dictate what opportunities and privileges people can enjoy. For example, we may think it is appropriate for our 25-year-old niece to be getting married, but we have great reservations about our 85-year-old father marrying.
A few months ago I was visiting with a former state senator who is in his 70s. I asked if he participated in his church’s weekly senior adult program. He looked at me like I was crazy and said, “I don’t want to be with those old people!” He proceeded to tell me about his intergenerational Sunday school class that included young families, singles, and retirees. He had found his place to belong and his place to serve at the church, but for him it was not within the formal older adult program.
As leaders, our goal should be to see older adults involved in every aspect of the church, growing in their relationship with God and serving him wholeheartedly. While specific programs and ministries dedicated to reaching older adults are valuable in connecting people and helping them grow, success can never be solely measured by how many come to these events.
Consider eliminating the word senior. Most people over the age of 50 perceive a senior as someone they are not. Old, elderly, and senior are all words that tend to stir up negative attitudes. Some churches find success by using positive terms for their ministries, such as: Adults 50 & Better, Life after 50, or Second-Half Ministries.
A number of churches and national ministries are using the term Encore to describe this new generation of older adults. When a concert or performance ends and we stand to cheer and applaud, we are pleading for an encore. Essentially we are saying, “That was great! Please come back out and give us some more.”
We want to encourage older adults to finish well, just as Paul describes in Philippians 3:13, 14: “I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
Make evangelism and spiritual growth a priority. In the past a traditional senior adult ministry often placed a strong emphasis on fellowship. The foundation of ministry was built on potluck luncheons and bus trips. While nothing is inherently wrong with these activities, sometimes we can neglect to look outside the walls of the church to the millions of older adults who do not have a personal relationship with Christ.
The truth is, not all older adults are Christians. Statistics such as “64 percent of Americans who accept Jesus as their Savior do so before their 18th birthday”2 have been used to justify why so much energy must be spent on children and youth ministries. And while these are important areas of work, perhaps the reason for such a low number of conversions in the second half of life is because we have not invested time and resources in that area.
Another important point: while many older adults may practice religious habits, such as going to church, not all of them have let the truths of the Bible transform their life.
The reality is that boomer age and older adults represent a wide-open door for ministry and evangelism. We cannot assume all older adults are Christians or that all older people are spiritually mature. “Open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest” (John 4:35).
Emphasize the importance of serving. One of the myths about aging is that the later years of life are a time for relaxing and living a life of leisure. In the college-level gerontology courses I teach, I ask students to imagine themselves at 75 or 80 and what it is they will be doing. Most of them say they will be playing bingo or lying on the beach; few of them see themselves working or volunteering.
But in reality, the vast majority of older adults report they want to be involved in something productive. Research demonstrates that people who volunteer tend to be healthier, live longer, and have increased life satisfaction.
Older adults have skills, experience, and time to contribute to meaningful service. We simply must expand our view of what it means to serve in the later years of life.
I believe it is no accident God has ordained such a large number of healthy, active, and capable older adults to be alive at this time in history. The church has an incredible opportunity to reach this group and unleash them to significantly impact the kingdom. Let’s not miss this chance.
For a helpful resource on this topic, see Amy Hanson’s paper, Churches Responding to the Age Wave at www.leadnet.org/encoregeneration.
1“A Profile of Older Americans: 2008,” Administration on Aging, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; available at www.mowaa.org/Document.Doc?id=69.
2Available at www.barna.org. Search by Topic: Evangelism.
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.