Is Your Church Senior Sensitive?
Most churches in America are following a course that will miss one of the greatest social changes—and greatest opportunities—in American history: the coming age wave. Like beach residents who are unaware of the approaching tsunami, many congregations seem to assume the future of the church is its youth. Today and well into the 21st century the more accurate description is: The future belongs to the old.
Of course, most churches have a token senior adult class, a monthly potluck, or field trip for older adults. Such approaches, however, are woefully inadequate for the task of reaching and ministering to the rapidly growing community of persons over 50.
Why are most churches so senior insensitive? Possible reasons are:
Ageism. This discrimination diminishes and demeans age. Unfortunately, it is alive and well not only in our society but also in our churches. Ignorance. A minuscule number of church leaders have been trained in the unique needs, opportunities, and outreach strategies required for persons over 50.
Irrelevance. Most senior adult church groups are still operating on past assumptions. Senior adults today are far different from their parents or grandparents.
COMMON CHURCH PROBLEMS AND HIDDEN TREASURE SOLUTIONS
Isn't it ironic that in the midst of decreasing resources, many churches don't realize the hidden treasure inherent in the senior adults of the church? What are some common church problems that can be solved by senior adults active in ministry? Lack of dedicated lay workers. Senior adults average two to three times as many available hours for church-related activities as any other age group.
Financial shortfalls. Senior adult church members give seven times the amount of money that baby boomer members give in the same church. Members transferring or moving. Senior adults change addresses an average of once every 12 years compared to the national average of once every 7 years.
Lack of long-term church membership. Senior adults are loyal and committed to their churches. Biblical illiteracy. Most senior adult members have a wealth of maturity and wisdom they can share with others.
RETOOLING OUR MIND-SET
The graying of America provides an enormous opportunity for the church to find effective ways to respond to the challenge of its aging population. But without a major retooling of strategies and tactics, the church will be left behind. What can be done?
Realize that all seniors aren't seniors. A new generational grouping has emerged in our society during the past generation. Their members are called middle adults and include those people between ages 50 and 70. They are, according to U.S. News & World Report, "a new generation, different not only in size but in vitality and outlook." Older adults are living healthier, more active, productive, longer lives. In reality, people of 50 or 60 can expect to live 15, 20, or 30 more years. It is, indeed, their middle years. In their own minds they are certainly not senior adults. Realize that age makes a difference. People 30 years old are different from people 60 years old—not only in the hair on their heads but the mind inside. Older adults think differently from younger adults. David Wolfe, a knowledgeable researcher and marketer, draws some fascinating contrasts:
• Declining influence by peers
• Declining materialistic values
• More subjective
• More introspective
• High sensitivity to context
• Perceptions in shades of gray
• More flexible
• More individualistic
• More discretionary behavior
• Less price sensitive
• Complex ways of determining values
• Whole-picture oriented Young Adults
• Heavily influenced by peers
• Highly materialistic values
• More objective
• More extrospective
• Low sensitivity to context
• Perceptions in black and white
• More rigid
• More subordinated to others
• More predictable behavior
• More price sensitive
• Simple ways of determining values
• Detail oriented
What does this changing demographic landscape mean for the church?
It means the old ways of conducting senior adult ministry must be reevaluated. The term senior adult may become politically incorrect. As baby boomers inch toward senior adult age (the first boomers turned 50 in 1996), the stigma attached to the word senior will make it a liability to effective ministry. When churches offer a senior adult program, at most only 15 percent of church members who are qualified to attend actually attend. Research shows that most people do not want to be lumped into the senior citizen category. Emerging strategies necessary for effective ministry to middle adults have many implications for evangelism and the programming and scheduling of church activities. The church that is age sensitive will provide a variety of groups to appeal to the diversity of interests, needs, and activities for each age group.
GETTING STARTED RIGHT
Five components for developing an age-sensitive adult ministry are:
1. Find, select, train leaders. Success of your adult ministry will be directly related to the quality of your leaders. Leaders with a genuine love for the group to whom they minister will be the most successful. In research conducted with 500 churches that had a full- or part-time senior adult staff member, only 20 percent of the leaders had received specific training in this area of ministry. They were far more effective—and their adult ministries were more likely to be growing—than were leaders who had received no training. It was also found that retired pastors had more positive results as middle and senior adult leaders if they had received training in the unique issues and challenges of senior adult ministry in the 1990s.
2. Get the facts. Abundant, accurate information properly interpreted and applied enables churches to be good stewards of God's grace and effective communicators of the gospel of Christ.
What are the actual statistics in your church? How many members are over 50? 55? 60? 65? What are the age groupings in your community? How many are homebound? What percentage are male or female? What are the needs and interests represented in your prospective constituency? Effective programs and activities will be based on the findings of your research.
3. Begin with an adult ministry, not a senior adult group. This distinction is important. If you have a senior adult group, you limit potential involvement to those individuals who see themselves as senior adults. Many other adults in your congregation and community will not identify with a senior adult group. By contrast, if your paradigm is adult ministry, all kinds of groups can develop, many of which would not even be identified as senior adult. A 300-member church 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 clearly written purpose statement will be the guiding light for a successful older adult ministry. This purpose statement should be accepted by the members and be a yardstick to measure progress regularly. 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 name) has as its purpose to communicate and share God's love to those inside and outside the church family. The assumption behind the adult ministry, the groups, and activities 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 identified reasons older adults buy or don't buy certain products. Their discoveries are valuable to church leaders who seek to reach this same generation and encourage them to adopt a new lifestyle in the Christian faith and community. According to these studies, older adults are motivated by one of five values which form the foundation of their meaningful activity:2
• Autonomy. They desire to be or remain self-sufficient.
• Social and spiritual connectedness. They respond to people more than programs.
• Altruism. They desire to give something 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.
Effective older adult ministries of the 21st 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. For the first time in American history, there are now more citizens over 65 than under 18.
The age wave is rapidly approaching. Churches that are not prepared will be swamped by the sheer numbers, diversity, and impact of these older adults. If churches 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.
2. For a more comprehensive discussion of these values, see the article listed in endnote 1.