Lessons Learned in an Unusual Church

By Tom Tanner

It’s an unusual church, the church where I worship now. We have no children’s ministry, no youth group, and we never send anyone on a mission trip. We have no Sunday school teachers, deacons, or elders. We don’t even have any baptisms.

Lest you think the church I attend is some kind of cult or has the most self-centered sinners you can imagine, let me share one thing more. The average age of those who attend this church is 70-something. At 59, I’m the youngest one there most Sundays. You see, my church meets at the nursing home in Lincoln, Illinois, where my mother resides.

I have worshipped with her and the other residents there nearly every Sunday since September 2009, when she nearly died. I made a promise to her and to God then that if he spared her, I would worship with her each Sunday I could. She turned 90 this year, and about the only Sundays I miss are those when I’m out of town preaching.

The people with whom I worship each Sunday at the Christian Nursing Home in Lincoln are among God’s most precious saints. They are retired preachers and Bible college teachers and missionary workers. They are former farmers and factory workers and physicians. They are mothers and fathers who have become great-grandmothers and great-grandfathers.

I love this church, this unusual church. It is full of wonderful people who have taught me many wonderful things. Three of the most important lessons I have learned from these vibrant veterans of the faith are these: some habits are holy, some songs are sacred, and some facts are never forgotten.


Some Habits are Holy

This church lives Hebrews 10:25, “Not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing.” I am constantly amazed at how faithful these nursing home residents are in worshipping together each week. Each Sunday they gather in a dining-room-turned-chapel to keep “a holy habit.” They come in their wheelchairs and with their walkers. They come when they feel well, and they come when they don’t. With all their ailments, they still come.

I will never forget the Sunday when our 30-year-old chaplain made some passing comment about not feeling well that day because of a cold, but said he came anyway. One of the residents—just shy of turning 100, nearly blind, in failing health, and in constant pain—whispered to her daughter, but loud enough for all to hear: “Well, some of us don’t feel so well either.”

Their holy habit humbles us all. When so many of these residents have been robbed of their lifelong routines—living in their own homes, sleeping in their own beds, eating from their own tables—there is one habit they still have. They “remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.”


Some Songs are Sacred

The church where I worship sings mostly hymns. It is not because we don’t like other kinds of music (we like both kinds of music: country and western). We sing hymns because these are the songs we know. And at a stage of life when it is hard for many to read the words on a page or a screen, these old hymns are like old friends.

We always smile when our young chaplain, raised on contemporary Christian choruses, turns to our 70-year-old worship leader after she leads us in a classic hymn by Fanny Crosby or Charles Wesley and says, “Well that’s another new one to me, Joyce.”

What strikes me so strongly about these nursing home residents is not simply that they remember the words of these songs, but how they remember them. They remember them with respect, reverence, and with a sense of the sacred. These are not just old hymns to them; these are sacred songs. You can see it in their faces. They don’t sing the words; they pray the words. These songs are sacred spaces that take them back to sacred places they have not been in years—to their childhood, to their home church, to the unchanging truths of God.


Some Facts Are Never Forgotten

I am amazed each Sunday when I sit in our nursing home service and watch the residents. When our chaplain, Ryan, reads Scripture, many of them mouth the words right along with him. They are not reading from their Bibles, because many cannot carry a book or read printed text. And they’re not reading from overhead slides, because we don’t use them. They are mouthing the words of Scripture from memory.

They may have forgotten where they used to live or even what they used to do for a living, but many still remember the Words of life. When she cannot sleep, my mother, Helen, will sometimes spend the night reciting her favorite verses. She and many of these residents live the words of Psalm 119:52, “I remember, Lord, your ancient laws, and I find comfort in them.”

Some facts are never forgotten, because they carry such comfort—from the Lord’s Prayer to the 23rd Psalm. In this period of their lives, when so many things have been taken from them, when so many things are so hard to remember, it amazes me how much Scripture these residents recall.

Moses was 120 years old when he stood on the plains of Moab across the Jordan and spoke these words of wisdom: “Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will explain to you” (Deuteronomy 32:7).

This greatest generation has much to teach us, and I have learned lessons for a lifetime from this unusual church. Some habits are holy. Some songs are sacred. Some facts are never forgotten.


Tom Tanner serves as academic dean of the Hargrove School at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University. His mother, Helen, is a resident at the Christian Nursing Home in Lincoln. 

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  1. Pam Bennett
    November 10, 2011 at 1:51 pm

    This was the most beautiful article. I have some self-examination to do. Thank you.

  2. David Miller
    November 11, 2011 at 8:04 pm

    The nursing homes and assisted living centers of our nation contain souls who are just as hungry for God’s word; if not more, as anyone. As one who also ministers and preaches at a nursing home I can tell you that the worship is genuine, heartfelt and enjoyed. The time spent with our Lord with these disciples who are closer to the end of life’s journey than the beginning is as uplifting as any assembly I have been in. Thank you, brother Tanner, ministering to an often forgotten church who still love the Lord.

  3. Neal Cornett
    November 12, 2011 at 1:25 am

    This is far and away the best article I have read in the Christian Standard for many years. Thank you.

  4. Debra Moberly
    November 16, 2011 at 4:55 pm

    My husband and I have been ministering at a nursing home service for 8 years now. Many faces have changed at the nursing home in this time, but the love for our Lord is always there. When we started the work we thought we would be blessing the lives of the people at the nursing home, but we are the ones who are constantly being blessed many times over.

  5. November 16, 2011 at 6:37 pm

    Truly tender and beautiful. Thank you and blessings on that church!

  6. David Neal
    November 18, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    I’ll never forget my ‘turn’ at nursing home worship, when a lady, who never seemed to be “in the moment” sang clearly and on tune all the words to “Jesus Loves Me” It was a magic moment for those of us who wondered if she was aware…

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