The AARP Generation Plants Churches
Rather than boomers putting their ministries on cruise control, now is the time for them to take a chance on church planting, to finish their careers playing offense rather than defense.
“Why would you give up your dream job?” The psychologist asked that question at our screening interview with U.S. Missions. I had spent over 6 years as director of doctoral studies at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary. He wanted to know why I would consider giving up such a position for a new adventure: church planting.
While people decide to plant new churches every day, it is not often they do so in their mid-50s after working in higher education, a role people often see as reserved for later in life. Even the church-planting poster issued by the Assemblies of God depicts an attractive couple in their mid-20s dressed in the casual style of today’s young adult. Having already pastored three churches, should we not have stayed at AGTS until I retired from my dream job?
We would have answered yes, had we not felt called to plant a university church in Berkeley, California, a city of 100,000, 10 miles north of San Francisco. This location, home of the University of California at Berkeley, would be our new home and the site of a new church reaching out to the Cal community. As the vision for Berkeley grew within us, we discovered something: Calling is not determined by age. While our custom is for younger people to plant churches, Peter quotes the prophet Joel: “Your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams” (Acts 2:17, NIV).
If the church is to reach its potential, it needs everyone. The world knows this. The CEO of General Motors, for example, is my age (55). Surely we do not believe a mid-50s person is capable of leading a major international conglomerate, but lacks the assets to start a new congregation? Perhaps we have used the young because they seem the most willing. After all, why would anyone with anything to lose risk it all on the uncertainties of church planting? Our journey indicates that older people have untapped potential in start-ups as well as in a variety of ministries. Just because you have an AARP card in your wallet does not mean you lack fire in your heart.
This article explores the potential of post-midlife people — the AARP generation — as church planters. While researching this subject, I contacted Ed Stetzer, a missionary strategist with the Southern Baptist Convention, and asked if anyone had conducted a study of older planters. His response was: “I do not know of anyone who has done research like that.Honestly, it is mostly a young man’s game.”1 His conclusion is ironic in a nation that is home to more people over the age of 65 than under the age of 18. The goal of this article is not just to review what is known about post-midlife planters, but also to encourage the AARP generation to be open to this option.
The builder generation has blazed the trail with RV Volunteers like Richard and John, the senior citizens who built the oak furniture in my AGTS office. Rather than boomers putting their ministries on cruise control, now is the time for them to take a chance on church planting, to finish their careers playing offense rather than defense.
Dan Estes, who left an established church in his mid-50s, summarized some of his motivation when he noted, “I felt I had become the keeper of the aquarium rather than a fisher of men. … I do not think about retirement and I have no intention of going anywhere else.”2 The first step in opening up to this possibility is to hear from some who have already taken the journey.
The Older Planter Experience
When my wife, Janet, and I decided to become church planters, we developed a natural curiosity about other older people who might have done the same. We had heard of a few, but had never met one. So I posted my interest in meeting older planters on Facebook, a leading social networking Web site, and I immediately received several responses. I was impressed that older leaders were using Facebook, usually regarded as the preserve of teens and twentysomethings.
Following up on these contacts, I asked several post-50 planters three questions by e-mail of Facebook:
- How did you become a planter?
- In what ways was your age an advantage?
- In what ways was your age a disadvantage?
Everyone I interviewed responded positively to the request and supplied thoughtful answers.
Virgil, previously a senior associate at a church in the Pacific Northwest, offered a typical answer to the first question when he wrote, “What led me to plant was, of course, a complete leading of Jesus Christ.” He confessed, “I had never thought of myself as a planter, never prepped to become one.” Nonetheless, Virgil’s new church has experienced steady growth building to a Sunday morning attendance of around 150. Not unlike most of the other boomer planters, Virgilwas taken by surprise when the call came into start-up ministry.
Pete took a seminary class on church planting and got much more than an education. “God broke my heart for the lost,” he states. “I discovered that it was one of the best ways to reach the lost and that my gifting, experience, and passion all pointed at planting.”
On the issue of advantages of age, Pete notes, “My life and work experience (CEO) have been tremendous assets as have the relationship networks I have developed over the years.” He points to the fact — while age may bring some physical challenges — an older person may also have unique assets such as professional experience and advanced education. If church planting were only an issue of raw effort, then only the young would be eligible. But those who have started new congregations would be the first to say that wisdom and experience are just as important as hard work. Age does not inevitably supply these assets, but it does provide options that are seldom available in youth. In fact, Larry, who has planted in both the U.S. and Europe, points out, “Age is a big advantage because of pastoring experience, and our children being grown made the financial part easier.”
When I asked boomer planters the disadvantages of age, Larry replied, “There has been no disadvantage other than I wish I had started years ago, and I am sure someday I will wish I had more time to serve.” He did admit, however, that he might possess “a little less energy, or a lot less on some days. I do not think of age as a disadvantage unless you feel old in your spirit. We keep up on education, reading, music, etc.” Larry and his wife, Mary, are exemplars of the advantages that boomer planters can bring to church planting.
The Older Planter Advantage
Openness to the calling of church planter begins, not with reading books about it but in accepting age as a gift from God. Scholar R.C. Sproul reflected on this principle in his ministry: “When I last crossed a decade barrier in my own aging process, God was good enough to grant me this small bit of wisdom — the Bible honors age, not youth. I came to understand that the disappearance of my youth was something God thought a good thing; and if I were wise, I would agree.”
If we embrace age as a gift rather than a curse, a whole new world of possibilities opens up. Rather than thinking of our age as disqualifying, we can consider the unique ways in which it prepares us for ministry. We may not perform that ministry in the way a younger person would, but our contribution can still be extremely valuable.
Consider for a moment some of the specific advantages older people have concerning the potential they bring to the start-up experience:
- Older planters can get higher in social networks faster and closer to people of influence in the community because they tend to have more education and experience. Jan and I, for example, both have earned doctorates which will help us relate to the Cal community. A younger person may hold an advanced degree, but the likelihood is much less.3
- Older planters will have to look for succession from the beginning. Because the time remaining to us in ministry is correspondingly less, we will need to consider developing younger leaders to succeed us almost from the first day.
- Older planters have enough of a past to understand their future. We have lived enough of life to have some perspective on how the elements of our past fit together. Our educational background, for instance, which at one time made it difficult for us to find ministry assignments, today turns out to be the ideal qualification for planting in a college town.
- Older planters benefit more from the energy of a fresh challenge. The start-up enterprise has proven to be a personal renewal for us, almost turning back the clock to the days when we were young. It also gives us a new peer group of young friends: other church planters.
- Older planters may have the privilege of sacrificing more. We have had the chance to give up our professional careers, our income, and the only home we have ever built to move to Berkeley. These sacrifices are not heroic; they are an honor.
- Older planters may have to relearn how to do the faith. When we made our decision, Janet said, “Now we have to be Christians.” She meant we were walking by faith in a way we have not experienced since our youth. We have rediscovered our relationship with God in the absence of institutional structures.
- Older planters can project a more influential example. No one expects anyone with anything to lose to attempt planting. So those who do will have greater influence through the power of their example.
- Older planters have a chance to redeem past errors. If things have not gone well during some seasons of ministry (which is true for all of us), planting can provide a way to finish strong, to break the tape running.
- Older planters have fewer identity/accomplishment issues to work out. As boomers, we have had decades to work on issues related to our identity and our place in the world. Hopefully, this means we can work on our ministry for its sake, rather than as a means for dealing with our personal issues.
- Older planters have a great opportunity to experience reverse mentoring. Since most planters are young, we boomers can draw on their wisdom and experience to improve our own performance as start-up leaders. Jan and I have learned a great deal from younger planters already and continue to interview them at every opportunity.
- Older planters have a lesser chance of creating collateral damage. Since we tend to be empty nesters, our church-planting adventure does not gamble with the lives of young children or put our future career at risk (since our career is mostly behind us now).
- Older planters have survived more disappointments. Jan and I have found that the ability to assimilate setbacks is a key feature of start-up ministry. After years involved in planting, Todd Hunter describes the change in his attitude: “Reality mugged my naiveté.”4 The problems encountered by planters have the ability to overwhelm both the leader and the ministry. But like a great quarterback who has been sacked, you shake it off and run the next play. Older leaders have been sacked so many times in the past that running that next play may be just a little easier.
- Older planters have ministry experience. We have pastored three churches, plus served as assistant pastors, a consultant, and writers. None of this adds up to being ready to plant (if anyone ever is); but having been through years of ministry leadership, we have developed some skill sets and learned how to work through conflicts. Perhaps some of the stress of planting, then, is related to the fact the average planter has never been a senior pastor. In fact, Bob Franquiz, pastor of Calvary Fellowship, admonishes younger planters: “You will be surprised how much you can learn if you will stop talking about how great your vision is and listen to the wisdom that older church planters have learned over the years.”5
Our move to Berkeley is based on our assumption that we can capitalize on these AARP generation advantages. However, the most obvious way in which older leaders can benefit the planting process is that there are so many of us. With Generation X being one of the smallest in recent history, boomer planters will be necessary until 80 million millennials arrive on the scene. No one else is coming.
The Lipitor Revival
My friend, Curt Harlow, regional director of West Coast Chi Alpha, refers to older people involved in planting as the Lipitor Revival. As long as we can keep our cholesterol at a manageable level, there is no reason boomers should be disqualified or disqualify themselves from the pool of potential start-up leaders. This openness will require stepping off the predictable ministry career path that often tends to gravitate toward safety as we age, relegating risk-taking to the young. While the young can take more risks, many post-midlifers are finding that a second window for spiritual adventures opens up after age 50. With the kids out of the house, we are in a position to do things that are not really feasible during our middle years with commitments to childrearing, paying mortgages, etc.
Taking advantage of this second window may be exactly what my generation needs. Bobby Welch, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, frames the issue this way: “There are two roads to the same dream. … One road is traveled by older people who have gotten near the end of their ministries and never got to where they envisioned themselves going. They are disappointed and feel like they have failed. They are hungry for one more shot for giving their best for the rest of their lives. The other road is traveled by younger folks who are looking for something to give the rest of their lives to. Here is what I am saying: Older guys, do not lie down and quit on us, not now. Younger guys, do not turn and run away from us, not now … we must have a unity of purpose for reaching a lost world.”6
Every member of every generation has a contribution to make to the mission of the church. Limiting the potential of any group with artificial barriers to making that contribution serves no one well. Thinking of younger people as incapable of leading is just as misguided as defining boomers as too old to plant. These limits are cultural, not biblical. The Scriptures call on us to mobilize all people to be open to the call of God in any form that it may take, whether it fits our cultural stereotypes or not. We need every kind of called, qualified planter available. They may mostly be young, but some of them must be older if we are to form the new congregations needed to reach our communities. The psychologist who interviewed us agreed. He, too, left his academic position — to work in a church plant.
1. Ed Stetzer, e-mail, 9/17/08.
2. Dan Estes, in John Kennedy, “Church Planting Never Gets Old.” Blog post.
3. Dick Scoggins (Head of Leadership Development, Frontiers International), Church Planting Manual: Planting House Churches in Networks (Chapter 8). www.dickscoggins.com/page147.html
4. Todd Hunter, “Church Planting: What’s Different 20 Years Later?”
5. Bob Franquiz (Pastor, Calvary Fellowship), “Church Planting 2007…” blog post 30 April 2007. http://bobfranquiz.typepad.com/bobfranquizcom/2007/04/church_planting.html
6. Bobby Welch, “Young Leaders Summit,” http://www.lifeway.com/lwc/mainpage/0,1701,M%253D200456,00.html [address no longer accessible].
Models of Post-midlife Planters
The Entrepreneur: An older person leads a plant in the same way a younger person would. These examples exist, but are few in number.
The Family: A younger person plants a church, but his parents join the effort, often by relocating to the new city. I have witnessed this model in several locations.
The Coach: An older person who planted in his younger years now works in a recruiting and advisory role, often for a district or other organization.