When asked, “Who is your target audience?” most church leaders will say young people, Millennials, young families, or the unchurched. Yet who are sitting in the pews, or serving on altar guilds, or ushering, or pledging, or manning the food programs? Many are nearing 75 or are already in that age group.
Can a church be vibrant if it offers well-rounded activities for all ages, but targets older people?
The lay governing body at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Montrose, Pa. decided to focus the church’s ministry on older people at the church and in the community. They made a gallant effort in 2008 to create a ministry for young families, but after four years, concluded that other churches were better equipped to serve them. When the rector first described the situation at his church, my heart cried out, “No, you can’t have church without children.” But then another thought slipped into both my mind and heart.
At the eFormation Conference 2014 at Virginia Theological Seminary, one of the plenary speakers, Meredith Gould, asked “Who is your target audience?” Her answer: the people sitting in the pews, not some unrepresented demographic. As with St. Paul’s, those attending many of our churches are nearing or over age 65.
St. Paul’s came to us with a basic question, “What does ministry to older people look like?” There are no blueprints for such a ministry. Changes in the worship space there are already underway, including a new surround sound system for people with hearing impairments and new cameras to broadcast the primary Sunday worship service in high definition via cable television.
Many questions remain: Will St. Paul’s no longer have intergenerational worship and community events? How will it welcome families and younger individuals who are attracted by their ministry? Because the area is a magnet for retirees, there is a strong base for both a vital church and ministry to older people. Maybe more churches should ask, “Who is our target audience?”
The key component churches can provide to older populations is in the realm of the spiritual. In 1977, the National Interfaith Coalition on Aging, which had representatives from the major Protestant, Roman Catholic and Jewish religious bodies, developed this definition of spiritual well-being:
Spiritual well-being is the affirmation of life in a relationship with God, self, community, and the environment that nurtures and celebrates wholeness (Thorson).
We cannot separate our spiritual lives from the wholeness of life. While it is helpful to distinguish among ministry for the body, mind and soul, we must weave those disparate parts into a whole cloth. The ensuing discussion will examine practices and approaches to ministry in each of three areas—physical, mental, and spiritual—with the understanding that each is only a part of the whole person.
Programming that touches all three areas should also reflect the needs and contexts of each congregation. Activities should be created for “us” by “us;” those that are created solely by staff or well-meaning people for “them” are doomed to fail. The ministries suggested below reflect earlier observations made about the developmental, generational and spiritual characteristics of the Builder Generation.
Physical changes include not only the body, but also how those changes affect volunteer activities, the places people live, and those who are caregivers.
Honoring Past Work
The Builder Generation has provided leaders and workers that are still the backbone of many civic and religious organizations. Many mission and outreach initiatives began with the efforts of people who are now over 75. This group also provided the hospitality that made church communities so inviting, from luncheons for older members to receptions at funerals.
Many of those people are weary and ready to move on to other pursuits. Younger generations, however, seem to have limited time and little interest in hosting receptions or continuing traditional events, so this may be a time to assess which activities are no longer feasible. Instead of letting traditional events die a quick or lingering death, which results in resentment and hurt, congregations should celebrate—with more than just a line in a worship bulletin—the role the events played in the life of the church and the people who made them possible. The Builder Generation laid the foundation that allows the current congregation to change and grow.
Changes in the Body
Changes in the body are often seen and described as losses: a loss of hearing, a loss of vision, a loss of dexterity, among others. These changes often turn sidewalks, entrances, and aisles into barriers.
To test the accessibility of church buildings and grounds, enlist the youth group to conduct an accessibility survey. Not only will the congregation learn about their facilities, the youth will also gain a new understanding of older people. Several groups have published simulations of aging; begin with one from the Texas AgriLife Extension Service (available for free download).
Aging in Place
Most older people prefer to “age in place,” growing old in their own homes. Successful aging in place, however, demands that homes not only provide continued enjoyment and stimulation, but also support declining functional limitations. Churches have an opportunity to partner with local and community agencies to help older people make more informed decisions about their future living arrangements.
A team of architects and construction experts from the church and community could advise older residents about the feasibility of adding chair lifts to staircases, making bathrooms handicapped-accessible, and widening doorways. Expert advice can be offered about other issues, such as transportation. Older residents also need to consider transportation options for caregivers who may rely on public transportation.
The pairing of people in their 50s and 60s who are beginning to think about future living arrangements with people in their 80s who are aging in place could create beneficial bonds. The Builders could help the Boomers with the realities of independent living arrangements, while the Boomers might be able to resolve some of the challenges the Builders had not anticipated.
Every church should reach out to caregivers who are working with older people. In his first monograph, I’m Old, written when he was in his late 80s, Milton Crum argues that more time and effort is spent dealing with caregivers than old people themselves. However, in his later work, I’m Frail, he relates his experience of having primary responsibility for the care of his wife. Many mature adults with health issues of their own assume caregiving responsibilities for a spouse, partner or friend.
Caregivers of all ages need more support than governmental agencies and care facilities offer. Churches can support caregivers through support groups and short-term palliative breaks.
The second element that informs ministry to older adults is related to the mind. Too often when the terms mental and older adults are paired, thoughts quickly move to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, even though half of those in their late 80s and 90s will maintain their mental faculties. Nevertheless, adults over 75 have already begun to live with issues of loss in every facet of their lives.
Dealing with Loss and Loneliness
A reality for people over 75 is the loss of spouses, friends and other family members. Women are especially hard hit: 64 percent of men over 75 are married, while only 18 percent of women are married. Women continue to be more likely to outlive their male spouses.
Along with this loss is another reality that feeds feelings of loneliness. In a major study of women over age 65, women were asked how their congregations perceived them. They said they were invisible. Several practices can increase the visibility of the group, including storytelling, tending to relationships, and advocating for economic and other issues that are applicable to all older adults.
Jane Sigloh suggests that loneliness can be a positive experience that leads people to fulfillment. Loneliness is “a place where, in the ultimate depths of each individual soul, we can meet God. And where we can hear the voice of God, the way Elijah did, in the sound of sheer silence” (104).
Keeping Close to Family
Contrary to societal beliefs about relationships between mature adults and other family members, research shows that while generations are less likely to live under one roof, older adults report close relationships with children and grandchildren.
Churches can provide settings to help generations spend time together as families. Week-long Vacation Bible Schools are a good place for grandchildren who are spending time with grandparents. While children are involved in the program, grandparents can share their skills and talents as volunteers, doing tasks from storytelling to making creative snacks to teaching a craft.
Many churches also design weekend retreats to include extended family members. Other intergenerational activities, such as mission and outreach opportunities, embrace family members of all ages.
According to the Pew Research Center, people over 75 are more tech savvy than ever before. They are very likely to communicate by email, to use Internet search engines, to engage in some format of social media and to own smart phones and tablets. Often they are frustrated with the lack of detailed instructions about using new software and their own fears of “breaking” an application or losing data.
As churches turn to digital technology and online communication, they can assist older members in using new technology for faith formation and general communications. Boomers will soon be moving into the over-75 age group, and they will be bringing their interests and skills with them.
Millennials, who create most of the available software applications, or apps, assume users share their trial-and-error method of learning new tools. Older people prefer written guidelines or one-on-one instruction. Pairing Millennials with older people for “App Sundays,” is one way to bridge the knowledge gap between generations, with younger people listening to needs, suggesting appropriate apps, and teaching their use, and older people sharing their related experiences and humor. A learning and teaching atmosphere is conducive to building relationships that go far beyond random apps.
Using online spiritual and worship resources is not difficult, but finding them is challenging. By simply bookmarking resources, churches can open up a new way of thinking about God. The brothers at the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, for example, provide online daily meditations, audio clips of prayers and chants, and seasonal reflections. With social media, people can form online communities to share their thoughts and activities. A Facebook page with limited accessibility would allow a group of older women, to support each other, sharing joys and sorrows, and facing loneliness.
Thoughtful Programming Content
Content that is intellectually stimulating and thought-provoking is often missing in programs targeted to older people. While lighter community-building functions are enjoyed by many, some would gravitate to events with more substance. Older adults interested in this kind of programming can provide the leadership to start and sustain it. In addition to denominational resources, content is available for no or low cost from such sites as TED Talks.
Several new Bible studies are also available to help groups go beyond a basic discussion. The Covenant Bible Study, uses video segments of scholars who take a contemporary approach to ancient texts. The format provides a new way to think about biblical texts—a new lens for seeing how the texts interact across the millennia.
For elders with dementia, memories can still provide feelings of safety and contentment. Unlocking those memories from brains with twisted neurons may require only a few simple prompts. A story that takes a person 9+back to childhood often brings a smile; occasionally the older person picks up the strands of the story and retells it in a slightly new way.
Providing a safe place where people can face and name their fears, especially for those over 75 who may be reluctant to do so, is an important ministry of the church. One way to do this is creating personal memory boxes to help people recall favorite memories.
Memory boxes can be explored through a series of gatherings and scheduled over several weeks or during a retreat. People who might hesitate to share an intimate story about God’s presence in their lives are more open to talking about music that touches their hearts and their memories of a story or family photograph.
Spiritual autobiographies focus on the way people, events and experiences have formed a person or shaped the course of his or her life. Through the writing of spiritual biographies people begin to identify tangible objects that reflect their deepest memories. The objects chosen not only have the power to evoke a pleasant memory, but also to reflect God’s presence in the events of a person’s life.
The third element that informs ministry to older adults is related to the spirit. Spiritual wholeness can be elusive, especially among those who have resisted doubt and uncertainty in their faith. Its importance can be overlooked or shoved aside in the busy-ness of everyday life.
Those from the Builder Generation may find it difficult to move beyond a faith defined only by community mores. Beliefs forged and strengthened during times of doubt are more difficult to embrace. Ministries that help mature adults fashion their faith include holy listening, mentorships, knowing God, and facing death—both their own and those they love.
As congregations age, there is an increasing need for those who can provide the grace of listening. “Explaining ourselves,” says Thorson, “and finding that we are pretty good people after all is like forgiveness of sin; acceptance as we are—warts and all—is what we strive for and is what I think gives meaning to life.” He believes that just sitting still to listen to older people talk about their lives is grace (Thorson, xvi).
Thorson says that those who are in listening roles don’t have to correct historical misinterpretations that they catch, and they have the power to give absolution.
Initially, a holy listening ministry may be a team of people who visit church members in retirement communities or nursing homes. People who offer a listening ministry often report that they receive the same grace that they grant.
“Spiritual well-being is being on friendly terms with God,” says Thorson (xvii). That means spending time with God, in silence, through conversation, and in prayer. Older people who are accustomed to prayer books or more formal prayers during worship may find it difficult to be in conversation with God. They sometimes revert to language of the King James Version of the Bible, which makes conversation stilted and unnatural, or they simply feel inadequate to address God in more familiar language.
Short courses on different ways to pray and other spiritual practices could be offered at retirement residences, at church gatherings, and in homes. Courses can also be targeted to people of all ages as intergenerational programming.
Researchers have discovered that older people in general are happier than younger adults (National Opinion Research Center). While older people experience significant losses, they report less anxiety and fewer difficulties with financial and interpersonal problems.
Younger adults could benefit from the serenity and calm that is sometimes more evident in older people’s lives. Churches might explore prayer and silence with an intentional pairing of younger and older adults. A mixture of active and passive activities would benefit young and old alike. Both could learn how to be “on friendly terms with God.”
Older people often say that it is the “dying process” that they fear, even though death itself may be a friend. Most people live with the hope that they will remain active to the very end, and then die quietly in their sleep. Regretfully, this is not the end most will experience.
Sherwin Nuland suggests that there were two options for facing death: “One is to battle death using all the weapons of ‘high-tech biomedicine.’ The other option is conscious acquiescence to death’s power” (10). Richard Rohr in Falling Upward agrees with Nuland that our churches, medical profession, and even families focus more on surviving rather than thriving (xvii).
Churches can help individuals and families first to articulate the options they prefer, and secondly to prepare living wills and other documentation to make their wishes known and legally binding. A beginning point might be reading and discussing Nuland’s How We Die in small groups. A second step might be the preparation of living wills with the help of community social agencies or knowledgeable church members.
In describing the human condition, Paul said in 2 Corinthians 4:
“But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way but not crushed, but not driven to despair; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed… So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.”
Many people over 75 have lived these words, through the losses they have faced, through illness and disease, and in the uncertainties of simple survival. And yet many are more likely to express contentment than younger, more active people in the prime of health.
Perhaps by spending more time with older people in our churches and personal lives, listening to their stories, or just being in their presence, we can benefit from their wisdom.
At the same time while the “outer nature is wasting away” for many older adults, their inner nature is being renewed daily. All who walk with them in this journey can glimpse the “eternal weight of glory” that awaits us all.
This article first appeared in Episcopal Teacher:
Winter 2016, Vol. 28, No. 2, Special Issue: Adult Formation, page 20-24