Question: What do NPR, USA Today, Chico’s clothing store, CVS pharmacy, Whole Foods Market, CNN, and the Obama administration all have in common?
Answer: They are all investing significant amounts of time, money, and research into one of the biggest demographic shifts ever to occur in America—the aging population. Specifically, these entities, as well as hundreds of others, are studying baby boomers and the impact this huge group will have on society.
The baby boom generation (whom I like to refer to as “the new old”) includes 78 million people born between 1946 and 1964. Pew Research Center1 reports that 10,000 adults are turning 65 each day and that in 20 years, almost 20 percent of our population will be over the age of 65. And while nearly every entity in society is scrambling to respond to this cultural phenomenon, the church is virtually silent. It’s as if this enormous tidal wave is crashing on our shores and we don’t even see it.
If we want to be culturally relevant churches—if we want to respond to the changes occurring in our nation and be like the “men of Issachar who understood the times” (1 Chronicles 12:32)—then we must begin to make this a priority. In fact, I believe it should be one of the major strategic initiatives within our churches.
A good starting point is to consider these four important characteristics of the new old.
1. The new old are approaching aging in a much different way than preceding generations.
For starters, leading-edge baby boomers, and those just slightly older, do not like the word senior and reject just about anything that smacks of old age.
I’ve had more than one frustrated church leader tell me, “We can’t get those 60-year-olds to attend our senior adult activities!” A primary reason for this is because the new old do not consider themselves to be seniors, and for the most part, they are never going to fold into the existing senior adult ministry at a church. They are not interested in potluck luncheons or bus trips. While some of these ministry ideas have worked in the past, they are not going to reach this new generation of older adults.
Community senior centers are discovering this and making adjustments like taking out the shuffleboard courts and putting in fitness centers. Some retirement communities are even removing the names senior and retirement from their titles. The church will need to follow suit.
A handful of churches across the country are creating boomer ministries (separate from their senior adult ministries) and are calling these new ministries Encore, Adult Impact, or simply Boomer ministry. Whatever the format, we need different ministry names, fresh ideas, and a whole new approach to how we do things.
2. The new old are reinventing retirement.
“The New Retirement Survey”2 conducted by Merrill Lynch found that 76 percent of boomers want to keep working in some fashion during retirement. Many adults want to retire from their current career and launch into something new, like part-time work or a job that has flexibility. The types of jobs boomers are most interested in are working in the nonprofit sector, starting their own business, or just doing a fun job that is less stressful. One thing is certain: boomers do not plan to sit in a rocking chair and simply relax for the next 20 years of their lives. They want their retirement years to include a component of work—either paid employment or a significant volunteer role.
Several years ago, Bob, a baby boomer and member of Central Christian Church in Henderson, Nevada, was challenged to use a portion of his time in retirement by serving on the church staff. In fact, he worked for three and one-half years as a full-time volunteer in the worship department. He was included in all of the planning meetings, had specific responsibilities, and used his passion for music to benefit the ministry in a variety of ways. He worked on staging and props, served as the spiritual mentor to the band members and vocalists, and attended all the rehearsals to give encouragement and feedback. He then spent two years as director of facilities, again in an unpaid capacity, using his engineering skills to keep the operation of the building running smoothly.
Many boomers want to discover what the retirement season of life will look like for them. Leisure? Work? Service? A little bit of all three? Wise church leaders will preach sermons, teach Bible studies, have conversations, and plan service projects—all in an attempt to help boomers navigate this new season of life.
3. Not all of the new old are Christians.
I know that sounds so simple, but think about it for a moment. Many churches invest a lot of time, staff, and resources into children’s and youth ministry—which is important—but few churches are intentional about reaching the millions of older adults who do not have a relationship with Christ.
Ironically, there are some characteristics among adults 50 and older that make them very receptive to the gospel. They are facing a number of life transitions such as caring for aging parents, concerns about their own heath and mortality, financial worries, and evolving relationships with their adult children and grandchildren. All of these stresses provide great opportunities for communities of faith to reach out with ministry.
Boomers are also receptive because they are searching for purpose. They are entering a new phase of life and are asking questions like, “Now that I am getting older, my work life is changing and the children are out of the house—what is it that gives my life meaning?” Obviously, Christ followers hold the only true answer to that question.
Community Christian Church in Naperville, Illinois, is serious about reaching adults who are older than 50. Two of the church’s campuses are inside age 55-plus living communities (Del Webb Huntley and Carillon), and the church has also started a Saturday night service at another campus with the goal of reaching out to active adults and empty nesters.
A few other churches across the country are doing similar things, but we need more. And certainly, many existing churches should become more strategic about reaching out to those in their community who are in the second-half of life.
4. The new old have the potential to make a tremendous kingdom impact.
They have time, experience, and resources and they want to participate in endeavors that will benefit others. As these adults enter their retirement years, they desire to do more than staple newsletters, fold bulletins, and make coffee. One man said about his retirement: “I want to give my time to ministry through my church, but I’d like to do more than be an usher.” These are adults who can lead community efforts to help with homelessness, give hours each week to mentoring children at an underprivileged school, serve for an extended time overseas, counsel those who are facing unemployment, and the list goes on and on.
It is imperative we recognize the potential of this generation and find ways to unleash them into ministry. I fear if the church does not engage them, these adults will look elsewhere.
Never before have so many adults moved into their later years of life with so much health and vitality. We have a window of opportunity to harness the capacity of this enormous generation, to grow them up as disciples of Christ and mobilize them for his mission. Let’s not miss the chance.
Amy Hanson, PhD, leads a speaking, writing, and consulting ministry that equips the church for ministry with the new old. She is the author of the book Baby Boomers and Beyond: Tapping the Ministry Talents and Passions of Adults over 50, and she regularly teaches gerontology courses to college students. Amy lives with her family in Omaha, Nebraska. You can read more about her ministry and follow her blog at www.amyhanson.org.
Helpful Resources for Ministry with the New Old
Baby Boomers and Beyond: Tapping the Ministry Talents and Passions of Adults Over 50 (Jossey-Bass, 2010) by Amy Hanson—A free sample chapter, video message, and downloadable discussion guide are available at www.amyhanson.org.
Amy Hanson’s Ministry—The ministry exists to help church leaders unleash the kingdom potential of baby boomers and beyond. A variety of resources, including a blog, are available at www.amyhanson.org.
EFCA Encore (50-Plus Ministries)—The Evangelical Free Church of America is giving focused attention to ministry with older adults. Resources and information are available at www.efca.org/reachnational/efca-encore-50-ministries.
Christian Association Serving Adult Ministries (CASA)—A national organization that provides resources for church leaders who are ministering with people in the second half of life. Go to www.gocasa.org.