Most churches are following a course that will miss one of the greatest social challenges and greatest opportunities in history: the coming age wave. Like beach residents unaware of the approaching tornado, most congregations still seem to assume that "the future of the church is its youth." As we approach the twenty-first century, the more accurate description may well be: "The future belongs to the old."
Of course, most churches have a token senior adult class, perhaps a monthly potluck or field trip for older adults. But such approaches are woefully inadequate, if not entirely irrelevant, to the task of reaching and ministering to the rapidly growing community of persons over 50.
Why are many churches so "senior-insensitive"? Perhaps because of an attitude that discriminates against the elderly. Or maybe because few church leaders are trained to understand the unique needs, opportunities, and outreach strategies required for the elderly.
The hidden treasure
But the fact the church cannot afford to ignore is the "hidden treasure" senior adults constitute for the completion of the mission of the church. Consider, for example, some of the problems the church faces and how the senior adults can aid the church.
Problem 1. We recently conducted a survey of pastors on the problems they face. Their most common frustration is a lack of dedicated laypeople to do the work of the church. Senior adults can help. One study found that on average senior adults have two to three times as many available hours for church-related activities as any other age group.
Problem 2. Financial shortfalls are the most common reason for not adding buildings, programs, and/or staff in local churches. Again, a study found that in a given year one senior adult member will give seven times the amount of money that a "baby boomer" member will give in the same church.
Problem 3. Members transferring jobs and/or moving to another community ac count for 3 to 5 percent membership loss in a congregation each year. Low institutional loyalty is a common characteristic of baby boomers. But senior adults tend to stay in one church and support its ministry.
They seldom like to move from church to church. In the United States senior adults change address on an average once every 12 years, compared to the national average of once every seven years.
Problem 4. Biblical "illiteracy" is common among laity in many churches. As a result, pastoral teaching often remains at the "elementary" level. Most senior adult members have been Christians for years. Having experienced life's mountains as well as its valleys, they can share their maturity and wisdom with others.
Approach to senior adults
Thus the aging population provides an unprecedented opportunity for churches to increase their ministerial effectiveness. Here are some things that can be done.
1. Recognize that all seniors aren't seniors.
A new generational grouping has emerged in our times, known as "middle adults," and includes those between 50 and 70 years of age. They are, says U. S. News & World Report, "different not only in size, but in vitality and outlook." Older adults are living healthier, more active, more productive, and longer lives. A person of 50 or 60 can expect to live 15 to 30 more years. It is, indeed, their middle years. They are not, certainly in their minds, "senior adults."
2. Recognize that age does make a difference. People 30 years old are different from people 60 years old, not only in the hair on their head but the mind inside. Older adults think differently from younger adults. David Wolfe, a knowledgeable researcher and marketer, draws some significant contrasts (see above). 1
Implications for the church
What does this changing demographic landscape mean for the church? It means that the old ways of doing senior adult ministry must be reevaluated. In time even the phrase "senior adult" will become politically incorrect. As more and more baby boomers inch toward that age category (the first boomers will turn 50 next year), the stigma attached to the word senior will make it a liability to effective ministry.
Even now we find that when churches offer a "senior adult" program, at most, only 15 percent of church members who qualify to be there actually are. Our research has shown that most do not want to be lumped into the category of senior citizens.
The new and still-emerging strategies that will be necessary for effective ministry to "middle adults" have many implications for programming, evangelism, and scheduling of church activities. The church that is "age-sensitive" will provide a variety of pro grams to appeal to the diversity of interests, needs, and activities of each age group.
Getting started right
If you were to develop an age-sensitive adult ministry, how would you begin? Here are five components:
1. Find, select, and train leaders. The success of your adult ministry will be directly related to the quality of your leaders. Some one needs to own the goal of ministry/ outreach to young, middle, and senior adults. The leaders who will be most successful in each group will have a genuine love for people in that group. It's not a job; it's a ministry.
Our research with 500 churches that had full- or part-time senior adult staff members showed that the leaders who had specific training in this area were far more effective and their adult ministries were more likely to be growing than were lead ers who had received no training. We also found that retired pastors are generally in effective as middle and senior adult leaders unless they had been retrained in the unique issues and challenges of senior adult ministry.
2. Get the facts. Here is a proven principle: "Abundant, accurate information, properly interpreted and applied, enables churches to be good stewards of the grace of God and effective communicators of the gospel of Christ."
Find out how many members in your church are over age 50,55,60,65. What are the age groupings in your community? How many are homebound? What percentage are males, females? What are the various needs and interests represented in your prospective constituency? Your findings will lead you to organize effective programs and activities.
3. Begin with an adult ministry, not a senior adult group. The distinction is important. If you have a "senior adult group," you limit the potential involvement to those individuals who see themselves as "senior adults." Many other senior adults in your congregation and in your community will not identify with "those old people." In contrast, if your paradigm is an adult ministry, all kinds of groups can develop, many of which would not even be identified as "senior adult." A church of 300 members could have 10 to 15 various adult groups responding to a variety of needs and touching the lives of many more people.
4. Develop a purpose statement. A dearly written purpose statement will be the guiding light for a successful older adult ministry. This purpose statement should be "owned" by the members and be a yardstick to measure regularly the progress. If a clear purpose statement is not established and used early in the ministry, the activities will become increasingly self-serving and self-centered.
Here is one purpose statement developed by an age-sensitive adult ministry. Use or adapt it if it describes the purpose you desire for your adult ministry. If not, create your own.
The adult ministry of ______ church has as its purpose to communicate and share God's love to those in the church family and to those outside the church. The assumption behind the adult ministry, the groups, and the activities sponsored by this ministry is that they exist for the purpose of serving, not being served; of giving, not receiving.
5. Build your adult ministry on adult motivators. Marketing researchers have sought to identify the reasons today's older adults buy or don't buy certain products.
Their findings are of value to church leaders seeking to reach this group. According to these studies, older adults are motivated by one of the five values that form the foundation of most of their meaningful activity:
- Autonomy---they desire to be or re main self-sufficient.
- Social and spiritual connectedness---they respond to people more than programs.
- Altruism---they desire to give some thing back to the world.
- Personal growth---they desire to continue developing as human beings.
- Revitalization---they respond to activities that bring fresh and new experiences.2
Effective older adult ministries in the twenty-first century will be those that integrate these values and motivators into a creative variety of activities and experiences.
The "age wave" is swelling! The 60-plus age group is growing three times more rapidly than the population at large. Those churches that are not prepared will be swamped by the sheer numbers, diversity, and impact of these older adults. If they are prepared, they will get out their surfboards and catch the ride of a lifetime!
1. David Wolfe, "Targeting the Mature Mind," American Demographics, March 1994, 32-36.