Not long from now, older adults will outnumber the youth. When this age wave crashes on our shores, says John Roberto, every aspect of society, including church, will be scrambling to respond. This article looks at key characteristics of mature adulthood that influence learning, potential themes for faith formation for mature adults, and effective practices and approaches.
Adults’ readiness to learn is directly linked to needs—needs related to fulfilling their roles as workers, spouses, parents and Christian disciples, and to coping with life changes (divorce, death of a loved one, retirement). Because today’s mature adults are healthy, energetic and living longer, ministries should be designed as being with and through them rather than to them. Moreover, ministry with maturing adults should be both age-specific and multigenerational—the comfort of their own environments as well as the challenge that comes from different ways of thinking.
The content for faith formation for maturing adults needs to be broad, wide, and deep, and the location should include both physical and virtual spaces. One ministry type will not meet all the needs of older adults. Some will enjoy meeting for a weekly or monthly luncheon program, while others prefer to be part of a mission team or community service project. Some are available during the day; others will be working and available only at night or on weekends.
One congregation doesn’t have to do everything. It can be a clearinghouse and a curator by alerting maturing adults to the vast array of educational, formational, prayer and reflection, and service opportunities available.
Characteristics of Mature Adulthood
Gary McIntosh describes the Baby Boomer generation as educated, media-oriented, independent, cause-oriented, fitness-conscious, activist, quality-conscious and questioning of authority. Baby Boomer church members are:
- committed to relationships rather than organizations
- wanting to belong rather than join
- supportive of people rather than programs
- longing to live their faith rather than only talk about it
- unique individuals rather than a monolithic group
- seeking to design their own programs rather than attending ones developed for them
- yearning to serve others rather than being served
- craving meaningful activity rather than empty days
Most adults in their mid-50s through mid-70s seek continuous learning and growth. A motivation for ongoing learning flows from the needs of the participants. David Moberg argues that maturing adults have a need for or to:
- Meaning and purpose
- Love and relatedness
- Spiritual integration
- Cope with losses
- Freedom to raise questions
- Prepare for dying and death
- Be useful
- Be thankful
Potential Themes for Faith Formation with Mature Adults
In adult faith formation, there are no dividing lines between the content of faith learning and life learning. “Since all experience has the potential for learning, the division between sacred and secular fades away,” writes Margaret Fisher Brillinger. “Whether the experience and struggle to make meaning of it are painful or joyful, the whole process is sacred. Whether the learning event takes place within a religious context or outside of one, the moment is God-given. Lifelong learning and the faith journey are one and the same.”
Congregations can provide workshops, resources and support aimed at addressing the realities of the maturing ages of life, including simplifying life, nutrition and fitness, managing life transitions, or discovering or developing artistic and creative talents.
Another issue that touches many in this age group is sudden unemployment. A Michigan church hosted several sessions on the spiritual challenges of being unemployed, thoughts from an employer, the emotional effects of unemployment, and practical tips for seeking re-employment.
Life’s Transitions and Losses
Upon reflection, most people realize that their deepest faith growth occurs during unpredictable situations—and even crises—of normal everyday life. “In times of transition,” says Diane Tickton Schuster, “most people experience feelings of disorientation and tend to question personal priorities; they may seek to ‘finish unfinished business’ or develop new dimensions of their lives….They look to education to help regain ‘order and stability’ in their lives.”
Congregations are crucial at these times, and our response, our walking with people during transitions, takes many forms beyond information (Miller). The task for churches is to be aware of all the transitions which are touching the lives of the maturing adult today. Richard Johnson suggests a program of mini-courses flowing from the life transitions of older adults, emphasizing the spiritual dimensions of these life events.
Prayer and Spirituality
The maturing adult is at a place and space in life where prayer can deepen experience. Prayer methods that open the door for people include meditation, Lectio Divina, centering prayer, contemplative prayer, Ignatian contemplation and consciousness examen (Feldmeier).
Mature adults need fresh ideas about spirituality and faith, and many are afraid to ask their church to help them. They should be invited into optimistic, growth-filled, practical information and formation regarding a maturing spirituality. They welcome how-to’s which enable them to stay active, energetic, involved and open to spiritual growth and change which will affect their entire lives.
Effective Practices and Approaches for Faith Formation with Mature Adults
In most instances, congregations can offer mature adults programs and resources virtually as well as face-to-face. Small Bible study groups can share their faith and day-to-day challenges via Skype or other web conferencing service, or in a Facebook group. Churches can become curators of online faith formation resources for mature adults to use on their own, and can help people find those resources.
Prepare for a gathered program by sending a news story, questions or links to other online resources by email which participants can view ahead of time. Provide opportunities for Boomers to learn about new technologies, perhaps from younger generations serving as mentors. Offer online courses, such as those available from universities and seminaries, as well as on iTunes University, for adults to learn independently or in small groups.
Conversation with other adults enhances our ability to express our faith, provides a context for seeing connections between faith and life, and strengthens our faith as we hear about the faith of others (Regan). And conversations among small groups have additional benefits:
Conversation with other adults enhances our ability to express our faith, provides a context for seeing connections between faith and life, and strengthens our faith as we hear about the faith of others. (Regan) And conversations among small groups have additional benefits:
- Community building: A small group serves as a community or congregation within the congregation.
- Educational development: Small groups provide a wonderful opportunity to engage people in study.
- Spiritual enrichment: Far too many Christians limit their prayer life to one minute before meals and one minute before going to sleep. Many find themselves just too busy to pray.
- Mission outreach: Each small group is required to look beyond themselves by engaging in ministry beyond the group. (Weber)
People who have been members of small groups understand what makes small groups thrive. Group members have a shared vision of the gathering, they have common goals and engage in prayer and rituals, and they share in taking responsibility for the group.
One popular form of small groups are study groups that meet to study Scripture, review recent books, movies and videos, or explore social justice issues. Some book clubs devote themselves to one kind of book or theme, but many are eclectic. Patrick White, professor of English at St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana has noted, “You can’t get people together to talk about literature in a serious way over time without touching on spiritual matters.” Book clubs and other study groups can happen face-to-face or virtually, lending themselves to the schedules and life situations of the maturing adult.
Members of a support group typically share their personal experiences and offer one another “you’re not alone” emotional comfort and moral support. Practical advice and tips for coping and thriving help members to feel more empowered. The advice may take the form of evaluating relevant information, relating personal experiences, listening to and accepting others’ experiences, providing sympathetic understanding and establishing social networks. Sometimes a support group may also work to inform the public or engage in advocacy.
Support groups can be in person, on the Internet or by telephone. They may be led by professional facilitators or by group members. Numerous life issues can be the focus of support groups for those in their mid-50s through mid-70s, including marriage, empty nest syndrome, divorce, loss of a spouse or friend, addiction, aging parents, among others.
Programming for Communities of Like Interest
We can no longer approach adult faith formation with a “one-size-fits-all” mentality. Richard Gentzler advises churches to “use lifestyles, not age, as the determining factor for ministry. Chronological age is not important in ministry with persons at midlife and beyond. Rather, lifestyle issues are more important. . . .Create small groups around common interests, concerns, or careers.”
Certainly, there are times when “mixed groups” are extremely important; we learn from the wisdom and experiences of each other. Yet many congregations tell us that they have better response to offerings targeted to communities of like interest.
An intergenerational mindset is crucial in our ministry to all members, especially those in their mid-50s through mid-70s. “People who age well often have growing relationships with younger people and are involved in learning and growth opportunities” (Gentzler).
Ramonia Lee recounted in a workshop that “age-segregated ministries often do not appeal to Boomers. They want partnerships with other groups in the church and the community, including mission groups, choirs, coffee conversation groups, even confirmation classes with older members studying with the children.”
Likewise, intergenerational programs benefit younger generations. John Kotre maintains that for any culture to flourish younger people need the examples, witness and stories of real-life people growing older and acquiring wisdom. Cultivating wise elders should become an integral dimension of adult learning (O’Murchu).
Fortunately, the awareness of—and the planning for—intergenerational learning is growing. Churches can respond in numerous ways by putting different ages together in small groups, prayer and worship, and service and outreach. Grace Presbyterian Church in Houston participates in a Church Apartment Ministry in which the church maintains an apartment for families of cancer patients at the Texas Medical Center. The Encore 50+ Ministry coordinates this outreach and the young adults do most of the cleaning and maintenance as well as helping the families move in. The older adults visit the families and patient, offering to bring them to church or provide meals.
One way to connect with and build on intergenerational programming is to shape all offerings to the congregation around a specific theme.
Inviting and equipping people in mature adulthood to purposefully reflect on their lives is a constructive approach to cherish life, to deepen meaning, and to share legacies. There are numerous ways to invite people to participate that speak to different learning styles: writing memoirs or autobiographies, previewing and assembling photo albums, taping memories and stories, expressing life moments and history through art, creating memory gardens, among others.
Incorporated into these life histories, adults in their maturing years might also be invited to reflect on their legacy. What are they passing on to the next generations? Invite them to first identify their spiritual gifts and talents and second, name those who could receive them.
At one church, a person’s journey of writing a spiritual autobiography touched many others. Mary began writing her story a few months after her husband died, a very difficult time in her life. After its completion two years later, Mary realized that the writing of her story brought healing during a time of grief, and she discovered that the moments when God was present just naturally surfaced.
Several years later Mary participated in a program that emphasized the power of writing a spiritual autobiography. She realized that she could share her experience by creating a workshop to provide insights into writing a spiritual autobiography. Through this workshop she touched many lives.
According to a researcher at Peter Hart Associates, “For this generation of older Americans, volunteerism is about something much more substantial and real than taking up time in their day. . . . It is about filling a need, their need to both make a difference and be involved.”
Churches are responding by creating compelling opportunities for service and outreach to the community and beyond by delivering Meals-on-Wheels, providing transportation, mentoring, serving in homeless shelters and soup kitchens, among other outreach programs. Mature adults not only provide the labor, but also the leadership and program design.
Gary McIntosh summarizes many of opportunities available for ministry and faith formation with Baby Boomers or mature adults by offering these recommendations:
- Build a ministry for Boomers that is adventurous. Rather than mall walking, consider hiking in the mountains, cross-country skiing, or snowshoeing. Remember: Boomers have always seen themselves as a youthful generation, and they still do!
- Build a ministry for Boomers that is fun. Rather than potluck luncheons, consider catered parties, fishing trips, paint ball competitions, and team-building camps. Remember: Boomers are not looking for a seniors’ ministry; they are seeking an older youth ministry.
- Build a ministry for Boomers that is significant. Rather than being served, consider serving others by building a home for Habitat for Humanity, assisting missionaries, helping out-of-work people to find a job, or tutoring children. Remember: Boomers desire to make a difference in the world by taking on great causes.
- Build a ministry for Boomers that is educational. Along with Bible studies, consider CPR, basic first aid, personal health, managing finances and public speaking classes. Remember: Boomers are an educated generation, and they wish to continue learning to the end of their days.
- Build a ministry for Boomers that is spiritual. Rather than offering simplistic formulaic programs, consider prayer walks in the neighborhood, intercession teams, and a variety of small groups. Remember: Boomers are a mosaic of sub-groups, and it will take a multi-dimensional approach to spiritual formation to reach them.
This article first appeared in Episcopal Teacher:
Winter 2016, Vol. 28, No. 2, Special Issue: Adult Formation, page 16-19