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The New World of Senior Adults

By Charles Arn

The statistics are mind-boggling:

Our country is rapidly aging. Many social scientists believe this population shift will produce the most significant social revolution in American history. "It’s going to be of a significance that matches the dawn of the industrial age or the invention of the microchip," says Ken Dychtwald, researcher and gerontologist.

If your church is concerned with presenting a relevant Christian message to your community, this "age wave" presents a stimulating challenge.

IMPLICATIONS OF THE AGE WAVE

Previous generations of senior citizens have been fairly homogeneous in nature. Churches could offer one senior-adult class and most older adults would be satisfied. But as life expectancy has increased (30 years in the past century; 13 since social security legislation), the age range of what most churches call senior adults can now be 40 years or more—hardly the makings of a homogeneous group.

In addition to extended longevity, there are at least two other dramatic changes occurring in today’s older-adult generation. Forward-looking churches will do well to consider both in their strategic planning. The first change is that today’s "new seniors" are much different from their parents or grandparents in attitude and behavior. The second change is the emergence of an entirely new generational slice of the pie within the traditional older adult population—"middle adults."

NEW SENIORS

Many of today’s older adults (regardless of age) are quite removed from the stereotypical senior citizen of yesterday. Their attitudes are different; their behavior is different. U.S. News & World Report notes: "What is important about this generation is its difference, not only in size, but in vitality and outlook." A recent study of this generation by the MacArthur Foundation found that rather than being a time of despair and crisis, the new old are self-confident, in good health, and personally productive. George Brim, director of the study, concluded, "The sense [older adults] all have is that this is the best place to be."

Unfortunately, most churches continue to operate on traditional assumptions that senior adults are inactive, inert, and ineffectual. As a result, the likelihood of these churches reaching the growing numbers of unchurched new seniors is nearly nonexistent.

What are the attitudes and qualities that distinguish the new seniors from their predecessors? What are the implications for churches desiring to reach and assimilate them into active church life? Here are some of the most important.

• New seniors have goals they want to accomplish. Some of their goals are self-centered, others are altruistic. But new seniors have a clear sense of things they want to do. As a result, church activities that are not goal-directed or have no apparent purpose beyond passing the time will not attract new seniors. In contrast, church activities that are a means by which new seniors can invest their time meaningfully will find much interest.

• New seniors feel 10–20 years younger than their chronological age. Ask someone over 55 how old he/she feels and then how old he/she actually is. If the former is at least a decade less than the latter, you may be looking at a new senior. Not only is their self-image underage, their behavior is too. Churches with only one group of senior adults—who act at least as old as they are—will not attract new seniors. Churches with groups and activities that stretch the mind, spirit, and body in new ways will be much more attractive to new seniors.

• New seniors look forward to the future. New seniors believe some of their best days are still ahead. They spend time thinking, talking, and planning for tomorrow, not just rehearsing, recalling, and reliving yesterday. Churches seeking to reach new seniors plan many and varied activities which imply that the future is bright and the opportunities vast.

• New seniors would rather serve others than be served. New seniors have discovered one of the great secrets of life: Through giving one gains far more than through selfishly seeking. New seniors want to pass on the experience and wisdom they have gained over their years. Church programs that allow participants to meaningfully give time, effort, money, and energy to others will attract new seniors.

• New seniors spend time with others who share common interests. New seniors often join organizations that reflect their passions. Such groups may have a purpose of service, compassion, or support. But their common denominator is action. Churches intent on reaching new seniors do well to identify needs, concerns, interests in their community, and then provide programming and activities that encourage involvement.

• New seniors eat nutritionally and exercise regularly. New seniors hold their physical bodies in high esteem and care for them as conscientiously as any other valuable property. Churches that show little concern for maintaining the temple of God imply that they expect the bodies of older adults to become frail and useless. Churches that help individuals to understand and care for the bodies God gave them will attract new seniors.

• New seniors enjoy going out. The experiences of life that are yet to be had—locally and beyond—call new seniors to a more active lifestyle than their traditional counterparts. Consequently, new seniors tend to have less time available for long-term commitments—including church activities.

• New seniors have supportive friendships. A great secret new seniors have discovered is that relationships are regenerative. To the new senior, people are the most stabilizing ingredient in an often incongruous life. New seniors go out of their way to be with, enjoy, help, and learn from others. Churches are wise to nurture meaningful human relationships—both within and across generational lines.

• New seniors have a sense of humor. The spectrum of life experiences can (and often must) be laughed at. New seniors know that life goes on—as it has for the decades of their own life—and will after they’re gone. New seniors do not let the setbacks of life take away their ability to laugh. Churches can exemplify this healthy philosophy of aging by bringing the joy of laughter into their programs and activities.

• New seniors view retirement as a time for work, study, service, and play. New seniors believe that retirement is not the end of an old life, but the beginning of a new one. This new life is an opportunity to do new things, gain new insights, go new places, support new causes, meet new people. Senior-adult programming that assumes retirees desire only frivolity and play miscalculate on a critical assumption about the conclusion of work years for many people. In contrast, programs for retirement years that stimulate, challenge, and speak to issues of importance attract new seniors.

In summary, new seniors have a new view of aging. They will not be reached through the old-senior programs and activities of most churches. But they are reachable when the gospel is presented in a manner responsive to the perspective and priorities of this new group of older Americans.

MIDDLE ADULTS

A second change in the senior-adult demographic landscape is the emergence of a new generational cohort called middle adults. Whereas new seniors (of any age) are easily identified by their attitudes, middle adults are easily identified by their age. Men and women in this group are approximately 50–69 years old. They are often retired or partially retired. They are usually healthy and happy with their stage in life. They qualify, by virtue of their age, for many churches’ senior-adult activities. But middle adults most definitely do not consider themselves seniors.

Gail Sheehy, in her book, New Passages, discusses the middle-adult generation and observes: "American society is only in its infancy of this adult revolution.… The territory of the mid-fifties, sixties, and beyond is changing so fundamentally it now opens up a whole new passage and stage of life." In other words, there is such a difference in the worldview of middle adults (50–69 years) and senior adults (70+ years) that it is creating a generation gap as distinct as any other in America.

Why the term middle adults? Because that’s just what they are. Upon entering this stage, most have 20–30 years of life ahead of them and are in their middle years of adulthood. If adult life spans the years between 20 and 80, the mid-point for many is 50.

EMERGING ADULTS
18–29 yrs.

There are five lifestages of adulthood. (See list.) People at each stage have unique goals, challenges, and priorities. Some creative churches are restructuring their adult educational ministry around these life-stages with staff, classes, support groups, and outreach targeting each life-stage.

Many churches find their existing senior-adult group does not attract middle adults. It probably never will. Why?

1. Middle adults do not perceive themselves as seniors. Anything that remotely resembles an activity for "those old people" repels them. Even if the activity seems interesting, if it is for senior adults, most middle adults won’t attend. It betrays their self-image.

2. Most senior groups are saturated. This means the group can no longer add additional new members, but only replace members who leave. Like a saturated sponge that can hold no more water, a saturated group can hold no more members. Groups of any age or size will saturate, but senior-adult groups are particularly prone to this phenomenon. A group becomes saturated because after 2 years together, the history, traditions, and relationships of members in the group have become so strong they inadvertently keep newcomers out. This describes the condition of most senior-adult groups in churches today.

3. When a church has only one senior-adult group, that group tends to attract only one narrow slice of the mosaic of persons over 55 years of age and excludes the rest. An important principle for successful groups—including senior-adult groups—is: The more things members have in common, the more likely the group will succeed. People who share interests with others in an existing senior-adult group fit in and come back. Those who don’t, won’t.

4. Most senior-adult groups do not prioritize outreach to prospective new members. In a recent survey we conducted of 500 churches, the leaders of senior-adult groups rated outreach as the least effective of all activities. The natural tendency for established groups—senior-adult groups in particular—is to turn inward. As a consequence, outreach becomes less and less a priority.

CHARACTERISTICS OF MIDDLE ADULTS

Here are some of the life issues of middle adults that help us better understand them and better anticipate their unique needs and concerns.

  1. They are at their peak of influence and possess considerable energy.
  2. Their children have moved out (or soon will, they hope), and they are facing an empty nest.
  3. They are anticipating, if not experiencing, the transition into retirement.
  4. They are spending more time in leisure activities.
  5. Their self-image is changing as they experience a decline in physical ability.
  6. They are facing the aging of their parents and associated responsibilities.
  7. Women, in the later stages of middle adulthood, begin facing the prospect of widowhood.

A NEW MINISTRY OPPORTUNITY

Consider broadening your church’s older-adult ministry to include middle adults. You will at least double the size of your ministry and certainly broaden your impact in more lives. Here are five steps to get started.

1. Establish a task force of five to seven middle adults. Have the group develop a purpose statement for a middle-adult ministry that includes plans to function in four key areas: a) service, b) spiritual development, c) outreach, and d) fellowship.

2. Survey the middle adults in your church. Find out how many middle adults there are in proportion to your total membership. What family and marital status are represented? What are their common concerns, needs, and interests? One way to learn more about the worldviews of middle adults is through the following questions: What do you wonder about most? (To what questions do you wish you had answers?) What do you wish for most? (If you could have anything you wanted, what are your dreams?) What do you worry about most? (What keeps you up at night, gives you ulcers?) Categorize their responses.

3. Conduct a demographic analysis of your community. Identify the number of adults in your community in each of the five adult life-stages, including middle adults. Compile whatever other information is available that would help you better understand this group. Such information is often available at the local library or Chamber of Commerce.

4. Plan two high-visibility events targeted for and promoted specifically to middle adults in your church and/or community. A high-visibility event is a church-sponsored activity that is designed to be of interest to the middle adults you are trying to reach. Plan your event based on one or more issues identified in your research from Steps 2 and 3.

5. Survey the people who attend the event to learn more about their life interests and priorities. Additional responses to the three questions from Step 2 will help you gain valuable insight into their priorities. From this information you will have the key to planning exciting, need-meeting opportunities for your new middle-adult ministry for years to come.

A MAGNIFICENT NEW OPPORTUNITY

Think, talk, and pray about the new opportunity your church may be facing. It is the opportunity of creative new ministry and outreach to the "surfers of the age wave." Older adults are here; and more are coming each year.

While some senior ministries reflect a culture of bygone years, yours can be a model of invigorating new life and growth. More and more churches are realizing that the graying of America presents new possibilities to influence and reach adults who truly are receptive to the good news. Why not join the excitement? Surf’s up…let’s catch the age wave.

Charles Arn, Ed.D., is president of Church Growth, Inc., Monrovia, California. Charles Arn has written Growing in Love. Along with his father, he has also written, Catch the Age Wave and Live Long and Love It. They have also produced The Grand Way, a video training series for senior adults.

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