By Kent E. Fillinger
“OK Boomer” is a new social media catchphrase that is becoming popular with many people younger than 40. In the Washington Post, Holly Scott defined the phrase as “a jab from the young to the old, a collective eye-roll at the out-of-touch judgments baby boomers pass on the tastes, values and lived experiences of millennials and Gen Zers.” Generational divides and derision are nothing new. Ironically, when boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) were young adults, many said you can’t trust anyone over the age of 30.
In my June 2019 Metrics article, I asked, “Is your church ready for Generation Z?”—those born from 1999 to 2015. This month, I want to turn our attention to the largest generation—baby boomers. Almost 10,000 boomers a day turn 65, and the same number of boomers retire each day.
An October 2019 Pew Research survey found that 76 percent of boomers describe themselves as Christians. This is second only to the silent generation (those born between 1928 and 1945), among whom 84 percent claim to be Christians. By comparison, only 49 percent of millennials (those born 1981 to 1998) describe themselves as Christians.
Thirty-five percent of boomers say they attend church services once or more weekly, while an additional 13 percent say they attend church once or twice a month. So, almost half of boomers attend church once or more each month. Based on these statistics, most of our churches likely have more boomers attending than any other age group.
Are Aging Boomers OK?
Census figures and other research show that baby boomers are aging alone more than any generation in U.S. history. “The resulting loneliness,” say Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg in a December 2018 Wall Street Journal article, “is a looming public threat. About one in 11 Americans age 50 and older lacks a spouse, partner or living child. More than one in four boomers is divorced or never married and about one in six lives alone.”
A 2017 study by Harvard University, Stanford University, and AARP found that, “The lack of social contacts among older adults costs Medicare $6.7 billion a year, mostly from spending on nursing facilities and hospitalization for those who have less of a network to help out.” Another study showed that, among those 50 and older, lonely people see their primary care physicians more than those who aren’t lonely.
More than 8 percent of boomers reported they often feel lonely, the highest percentage of any generational group. A survey of seniors on Medicare found that 27 to 29 percent of them are lonely.
“Research suggests that those who are isolated are at an increased risk of depression, cognitive decline and dementia, and that social relationships influence their blood pressure and immune functioning, as well as whether people take their medications,” according to Adamy and Overberg. “Loneliness and isolation are bad for your health at any age, but the forces that take hold late in life often compound it.”
Churches and church leaders need to take note that some of these lonely, isolated boomers are sitting in your church every Sunday wondering whether anyone is going to notice them or help them.
Minister of Loneliness?
Churches today, especially larger churches, are hiring all sorts of new staff members—from storytellers to filmmakers to fitness instructors to IT specialists—to help them accomplish their mission. So, someone might ask, why not hire a minister of loneliness?
The British government in early 2018 appointed its first “minister of loneliness” to help combat the growing issues of aging, social isolation, and loneliness in their country. I’m not seriously advocating that churches hire a minister of loneliness, but I wonder,
- How would your ministry focus change if you made reducing loneliness a priority?
- Who in your congregation and your local community would be helped if you made this part of your ministry and mission strategies?
- Among your current ministry practices, what can you leverage to minister to lonely people more effectively?
In 2002, a group of seniors in Boston came together to form a “village” to help each other with household services, social activities, and old-age planning. This group has spawned 240 similar groups in 41 states with 100 more in development in what is now known as the Village to Village Network.
A primary component of their mission is to “provide social activities that minimize isolation and promote interaction and trust within the Village community, between individuals who offer their help and those who ask for help when needed.” The members of these village networks help each other with such things as rides to doctors’ appointments and handyman services, while also arranging group activities like exercise and bowling.
This sounds like what everyone in our churches (not just staff members) should be doing—helping one another as needed! It also sounds to me like the early church described in Acts, which shared what they had with one another, cared for one another, and looked after the needs of the widows and elderly.
What Are the Next Steps?
There are 59 “one another” verses in the New Testament that command us to do a variety of things for each other. Perhaps at your church’s next strategic planning retreat or ministry programming meeting the leaders should read through those 59 “one another” commands and ask the following questions:
- How are we doing as a church in obeying these commands?
- In what specific ways am I personally living out these teachings?
- As a church and as leaders, how could we be more intentional about living out the “one anothers” in the Bible?
My guess is if your church did this, it would transform both your church and community. I’m confident the levels of loneliness and social isolation would decrease for boomers and everyone else in your church. And I’m convinced the spiritual and physical health of your congregation and community would improve dramatically.
Kent E. Fillinger serves as president of 3:STRANDS Consulting, Indianapolis, Indiana, and regional vice president (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan) with Christian Financial Resources.