By Rick Lowry
It’s easy to focus programming on younger adults. After all, they represent the long-term future of the church. That’s why many churches place a priority on worship music preferred by the younger crowd and the children’s programs that are important to their families.
I’m a discipleship pastor, and I acknowledge that our church gears most of our discipleship efforts toward those on the front end of family and life. But I have also observed that, as a result, many mature Christians struggle to find a place in their local church where they can continue to grow.
As a church staff member moving into my 60s, I find myself living in two worlds. On the one hand, I’ve been instrumental in introducing many contemporary elements to church programs over the years, especially in the area of small groups and discipleship. On the other hand, I still remember spiritual growth settings that were meaningful to me in years past, like adult Sunday school, monthly Saturday men’s prayer breakfasts, or Wednesday-night prayer meetings. They still fit like an old glove when I get a chance to experience them again.
Do we have to choose between older and younger church members when it comes to Christian growth? Or can we help all ages grow in Christ?
I researched churches in my region of the country that are growing and attracting the 20s and 30s crowd, while at the same time offering meaningful discipleship opportunities to middle-age and older adults.
Here are some attitudes and actions that these churches embrace to help the age-50-and-older crowd thrive spiritually.
Age 50-Plus Church Members Can Serve in Meaningful Ways
One key element of discipleship for older adults is to continue finding ways to serve in the church—to give back what they have been receiving over the years. Georgetown (Indiana) Christian Church has a large percentage of children’s ministry volunteers who are empty nesters and retirement age. Georgetown discipleship pastor Chris Tanner has seen growth in younger people’s lives as they learn from those a generation or two ahead of them.
Mason Seevers at Whitewater Crossing Church in Cincinnati recounts how an older adult group made an admirable transition. They moved from doing only tourist bus trips together to becoming a service-oriented group. They now regularly serve together at places like Matthew 25 Ministries, an organization that helps the underserved.
Mature Adults Can Offer Strong Discipleship Leadership
At Community Christian Church in Bethel, Ohio, family life minister Kyle Dickerson was having trouble finding qualified teachers for the ABF (“adult Bible fellowships” or Sunday school) program. Some seniors—who in their earlier years had been teachers and had experience at running a Sunday school program—heard about this need, so they stepped in and offered the leadership necessary to once again make the adult Sunday classes a thriving place for growth. Seniors with church leadership experience can be invaluable to leading a church discipleship program.
ABFs Can Meet Spiritual Needs Just as Well as a Home Bible Study
I was invited to join the staff of First Church of Burlington, Kentucky, a few years ago. Leadership charged me with starting a small groups program. There were already some strong adult Sunday classes.
When I arrived, people in the Sunday classes were nervous I was going to encourage them to stop meeting and become part of a small group. Instead, we decided to acknowledge that they area small group—just one that happens to meet at the church building on Sundays. These classes were doing everything we wanted a small group to do—studying the Bible, praying for one another, and being involved in each other’s lives. So, we asked ourselves, Why would we break up a group that is already functioning as the kind of group we are hoping to build for the future?We view our ABFs as some of our most meaningful discipleship experiences and regard them and their teachers as full members of our small group program.
Tim Peace, who serves on the staff of Mount Carmel Christian Church in Batavia, Ohio, has taken a similar approach. Mount Carmel has midsized classes on Sunday morning, Wednesday evening, and Thursday morning. They’ve encouraged the groups to do the things that other small groups do: enjoy meals together, have Bible discussion, and receive prayer requests (the same things good Sunday school classes have always done). Peace reflects that rather than experiencing a “small group vs. ABF fight,” these groups have become additional places for people to meaningfully belong.
Kathy Stahlhut, who directs discipleship at Greenwood (Indiana) Christian Church, starts with a resolve to create environments where every person can take their next step in growing closer to Jesus. Greenwood has a strong small groups program, but Stahlhut acknowledges that no matter how much the church emphasizes it, some people will never join a conventional small group. So Greenwood has developed alternative programming to try to catch everyone. For example, discipleship coaches are available to every age group; these coaches walk beside a person to guide them into their best next steps for growth.
Many Older Adults Are Lifelong Learners
At First Church we started “FCUniversity,” which is a series of classes designed to help people dig deeper into the Bible. In the spring and fall, we offer a more in-depth look at topics, Bible books, and issues than we might normally try to cover in a regular small group setting. Things like “Basic Theology,” “New Testament Survey,” or “What the Bible Says about Homosexuality.”
We originally planned to address a concern about biblical literacy, but we were surprised when the largest number of attendees were older adults. It reminded us that many older Christians are hungry for Scripture and more in-depth discussions than we can offer in home Bible studies.
Sunday Isn’t the Only Day for Senior Adult Discipleship
At Whitewater Crossing, “groups guy” Micah Odor offers a midday, midweek Bible study for seniors. Attendance is 50 to 80 people per week. The church has noticed the following benefits:
- The time frame avoids both morning, when winter roads can be rough, and evening, when it’s dark.
- The parking lot is empty, so there’s no stress dealing with traffic.
- They basically have the building to themselves, so there are no crowds to maneuver through.
- The schedule makes it possible for a staff member to teach at the gathering. (Staff typically are unavailable to teach on weekends, due to other responsibilities.)
The class is from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m., but a lot of people get there at about 1:00 and stay until 3:00. So, socializing and informal care takes place. The class members take turns stocking the snack table.
Small Groups Can Emerge Organically from Programs for Older Adults
Our church started a Sunday-evening worship service geared toward older adults that we call “Trio.” It’s based on the Gaither Homecoming model, with traditional Southern gospel music. Back when we began to emphasize the importance of small groups, the director of the Trio program had a vision for groups starting organically from the Trio crowd.
For example, one of our church’s most thriving small groups calls itself “The Knee Group.” For a few weeks at Trio, director Gary Griesser announced that a group was starting for people who had experienced knee replacements. They met at our building immediately after the Trio service. Twelve people showed up the first night. After an initial tryout period, they decided to become a permanent group. They have become one of our model groups, as they meet weekly to study the Bible and be involved in each other’s lives. They go for bike rides together and also travel to attend the funerals of loved ones of group members.
Being a senior adult means something different than it did a generation or two ago. The older members of our churches have much wisdom to offer, the freedom to serve, and a desire to keep growing deep in their relationships with Christ—just as much as the younger members. Let’s release them for ministry. Our churches will be better for it!
Rick Lowry serves as spiritual growth pastor with First Church of Burlington, Kentucky.