Why Older Adult Ministry?

Dr. Richard H. Gentzler, Jr.

“You shall rise before the aged, and defer to the old; and you shall fear your God; I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:32).

Declining memberships, dwindling finances, and efforts to reach a new generation may consume church leaders so that learning to appreciate the unique challenges and gifts of aging get in the way of emphasizing older adult ministry. In addition, our youth-oriented culture makes it difficult for us to appreciate the significance of older adults. As a result, I want to briefly explore eight reasons why our denomination and local congregations should be intentional in ministries by, with, and for older adults. (These are not the only reasons but they are a good starting place for serious reflection and action.)

1. More older adults in US population

As a result of medical/dental discoveries, scientific advances, job safety, lifestyle choices and a host of other variables, more people are living longer lives than ever before. In 1900 there were 3 million people in the United States aged 65 and older. Today, that number is closer to 48 million and by 2030 (according to the US Census Bureau) there will be more than 72 million people in the US who are 65 years of age and older.Our aging population is a result of two major developments: lower birth rates and more people living longer. The prolongation of average life expectancy and the decrease in the birth rate have given rise to an unprecedented demographic transition.

2. More older adults in our congregations

As a result of an aging population, The United Methodist Church has many older members. In 1900 nearly 1 in 25 Americans was 65 years of age or older. Today, roughly 1 in 8 people are older adults. A church in the early twentieth century was filled with children and youth.  Today, a typical United Methodist congregation is filled with older adults.Perhaps the most shocking reality is not that our population is aging but that many churches have done virtually nothing to understand or prepare for this change in demographics. With growing numbers of older adults in our pews, congregations have an opportunity to be blessed by the gifts, prayers, presence, service, and witness of their older members. A church for all ages is a multigenerational congregation committed to creating the conditions of life able to fulfill the great potential that older people still have.

3. Aging is changing

Today people are 65 are generally healthier, wealthier, and more active than was true of previous generations of older adults. Our new aging culture is replacing aging stereotypes of decline, disease, and dementia with empowering values of independence, activity, well-being, and service.Unfortunately, ageism in our society may exist in the life of our congregations, often as stereotyping.  This happens in many ways but let me identify two. First, positive images of aging in our society are often lacking, thus growing older is viewed as something to be denied, avoided, and kept hidden. Ageism is compounded by the negative stereotypes that many older adults hold about themselves. As a result, older adults may not take full advantage of opportunities presented to them because of self-imposed ageism.Second, ageism can cause church congregations to neglect the spiritual and emotional needs of older adults. This is especially true if church leaders do not listen to the needs of older adults but assume they know what older adults need.

4. Living longer also offers other challenges

The longer older adults live, the more apt they are to experience health and financial challenges. The “golden years” are not always so bright and uplifting for older adults. The process of aging is not always positive. Aging is also about physical decline; lost relationships; and loss of roles, income, and housing. Older adults may face the difficulty of managing their own or a spouse’s chronic conditions and they may experience grief caused by the death of loved ones, limitations in mobility and their increasing dependence.It is helpful to remember that aging is a natural process of development that includes both gains and losses. Congregations are often composed of older adults who are experiencing both the positive and negative attributes of aging. Older adults want to serve and to feel needed. They want to be in relationship with God and others. They want to feel safe, respected, and loved. As they age, the challenges of life may become magnified.

5. The search for meaning and purpose as we grow older

As more and more people are living into old age, questions relating to meaning and purpose take on a greater importance. One reason for this concern is because there is a good deal of evidence that old age can be an isolating and depressing time for many people. This may be due to physical circumstances or the failure of our society (and church?) to provide care and direction. Work comes to an end, children leave home, marriage relationships change, friends move away, spouse becomes ill or dies, community and social activities may be curtailed, and health deteriorates.Well-being involves something more than good physical health, financial security, and social support; well-being also involves meaning and purpose. Often feeling that they have outlived their usefulness, many older adults struggle to find meaning and purpose in life. Intentional ministry with older adults involves congregations helping adults find meaning and purpose in the later years. Helping older adults to continue using their skills, expertise, and knowledge can enrich the life of the whole community and all ages.

6. Need for spiritual growth and faithful aging in the later years.

Bette Davis is often quoted as saying, “Old age is no place for sissies.” Some older adults live in a world of fear and denial. They naturally fear the coming of old age with advancing frailty and cognitive decline, the fear and worry about being a burden on their children and others, and the fear of outliving their wealth. The struggles and fears that often come with age can challenge even the most faithful of Christians.For some older adults, religious change and different styles of worship and music can be bewildering. Older adults may feel isolated within their own place of worship, and at odds with the pastoral staff and other members. Indifference to the spiritual needs of older adults will not help them grow in faith and spiritual maturity as they age. Older adults who are home-centered or residing in nursing homes or assisted living facilities also need the presence of familiar religious symbols, hymns, and rituals to support their continuing identity as members of the church.While the church’s attention and commitment to older adults is nothing new, it has to be recognized that the growth in numbers of older adults invites congregations to new forms and methods in helping older adults grow in faith and to opportunities for expressing and witnessing their faith to future generations. Faithful aging means knowing and trusting God throughout our later years.  It involves the capacity to help build the body of Christ and to serve the needs of the community.

7. God loves older adults

As I have often shared in my workshops and seminars, “Nowhere in the Bible does it say that God takes away God’s blessing when a person reaches 65.” God loves God’s creation, including older adults. As a church, we emphasize the priesthood of all believers, not the superiority of any particular age group. However, there are many wonderful passages of Scripture concerning aging and old age. Below are just a select few:

  • “I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging for bread” (Psalm 37:25).
  • “Do not cast me off in the time of old age; do not forsake me when my strength is spent” (Psalm 71:9).
  • “So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to all the generations to come” (Psalm 71:18).
  • “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life” (Proverbs 16:31).
  • “The glory of youth is their strength, but the beauty of the aged is their gray hair” (Proverbs 23:29).
  • “Better is a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king, who will no longer take advice” (Ecclesiastes 5:13).
  • “Listen to me, O house of Jacob…even to your old age I am he, even when you turn gray I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save” (Isaiah 26:3a,4)
  • “Do not speak harshly to an older man, but speak to him as to a father….to older women as mothers” (I Timothy 1, 2).
  • “Tell the older men to be temperate, serious, prudent, and sound in faith, in love, and in endurance. Likewise, tell the older women to be reverent in behavior, not to be slanderers or slaves to drink; they are to teach what is good” (Titus 2:2-3).
  • “For old age is not honored for length of time or measured by number of years; but understanding is gray hair for anyone and a blameless life is ripe old age” (Wisdom of Solomon, Apocrypha).
  • “My child, help your father in his old age, and do not grieve him as long as he lives; even if his mind fails, be patient with him; because you have all your faculties do not despise him” (Sirach 3:12-13, Apocrypha).

8. Intentional ministry with older adults invites us to come to grips with our own feelings about aging and growing old

Intentional ministry with older adults means that we are willing to grapple with our own attitudes about older people and old age. Unless we see ourselves in the older adults around us, we will never truly accept the fact that we will someday be old ourselves. Getting past the wrinkles and seeing the soul of older persons is necessary for ministry.As we engage in ministry with older persons we not only learn what old people are like (which is quite simply, they are like everyone else) we also learn something about ourselves. Many people think of becoming old as becoming a problem. Because we fear old age, we fear contact with older adults because they show us our own futures.God’s love for all people is creative and unconditional. People have dignity and worth not because they have achieved success or the esteem of the world, but because they are made in the image of God. Just being with older adults allows God to use us as channels for God’s love.Older adults have much to teach us. Our learning is not only about aging and the aging process, but about life and faith. And, about trusting a God of mystery.

Dr. Richard H. Gentzler, Jr. is director of ENCORE Ministries, a ministry funded by Golden Cross Foundation of the Tennessee Conference – United Methodist Church.