Ministering to Seniors

By Michelle Van Loon (now a Northern student!)

Since I started writing and speaking about midlifers’ changing relationship with the local church, various friends have pointed me toward a few churches who are making some sort of attempt to minister to their older congregants. As I learned when I offered my survey on the subject earlier this summer, many congregations don’t know what to do to nurture spiritual maturity in their “second adulthood” members beyond asking them to fill slots on the church org chart. This energizes some, but leaves others feeling patronized or used.

Some congregations recognize that older members present a different set of needs. Any time a person mentioned a church that’s doing something to provide care for their older members, I asked a few questions about the nature of the ministry or headed to the church website to have a peek.

Many of these ministries to mature adults are focused primarily on offering a menu of social activities for its “seasoned saints”. I have nothing against going to plays, concerts, museums, Mag Mile shopping outings, or even overnight trips to see the leaves changing color. In fact, I imagine it might be a lot of fun to do some of these things with a group of others. However, the people who seem to be involved in these groups tend to be mid-60′s and beyond. People who are 44 or 57 aren’t typically participating. They’re too young.

And they’re the ones who are currently downshifting from active participation in their churches. Some of the 40+ church downshifters from whom I heard earlier this summer are loathe to imagine their legacy-creating years spent doing church stuff that doesn’t have much meaning beyond filling an empty calendar date with some pleasant activity and light conversation.

My first response when looking at these ministries was to chalk them up to recreational busywork. A good friend of mine majored in recreation therapy in college, and spent most of her adult life working in the field. Her stories about her work often reminded me that recreation is a Sabbath-themed discipline (even if participants are ziplining or bowling or going shopping for Yankee Candles in some charming antique-ish village somewhere). Good re-creation restores, refreshes and reconnects us with God, ourselves and others.

In some of these recreation-themed ministries, I’d imagine that relationships do move beyond surface participation toward true Biblical koinonia (fellowship, sharing, participation in the life of Christ together). Well they should. This is the one thing we in the church are uniquely able to share with one another.

I wonder if some churches offering activity-based ministries for older members are aiming too low if the primary goal is simply to keep the aging folks busy and entertained.

We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. – 1 John 1:3

So please weigh in: What are your thoughts on the subject of what ministry to older adults in a church should look like? Does your church offer an activity-based ministry for older adults?  

Do you know of a congregation that is doing something beyond senior luncheons and garden tours for all of its members 40 and beyond? Pleasecontact me with details if you do! I’d love to profile the ministry in an upcoming blog post. 

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Mark Kennedy

    Do we ever outgrow or outlive the need to be disciples of Jesus? If not (and I would say we do not), then in one sense the central question never changes: How do I continue the road of discipleship to the Master?

    I would want any church or fellowship activities for ‘seniors’ to be in line with this overarching discipleship template, just as I believe all church activities should do. Sadly, in my experience–admittedly limited–this is not the case.

    Full disclosure: I got all this from reading Dallas Willard.

  • Scott Gay

    Honestly, if their is a conjunctive reality to life then you have to acknowledge an ability to relate in contemporary terms. I see no need to be kept busy and entertained. No complexity, angst, struggle, conflict, not even much openness when I have participated in these types of activities for so-called mature. Reality when you mature is sought out with a more protean aspect. I’d rather be part of a meal ministry, coffeehouse, volunteering at school, a wedding or funeral reception, a rally, an evening at a winery, a resort attracting a crowd for any reason, a church social, a museum get-together, a book club, a bible study, a community homecoming, a Friday night football game…… usually all related to the broader local community. Seems odd that many church activities for older members act like they include the whole community, but they don’t.

  • Candie Blankman

    A good read for this discussion is “A Vision for the Aging Church: Reclaiming Ministry For and By Seniors” by Michael Parker and James Houston. Their research and expertise (in and outside the church) and corresponding recommendations are helpful. For the highly motivated reader you can skip the first few chapters that are an argument for why someone should read the book. Other than that and a small irritation of overly publicized (in my view) parentheticals about which author is writing at any given time, it is functioning as an important tool for our discipleship and care leaders to evaluate and plan for future ministry.

  • Nancy Gordon

    Hi! I’m the director of California Lutheran Homes Center for Spirituality and Aging, and seek to encourage older adult ministry to and with older adults. I too believe that most churches aren’t doing a great job of spiritual formation with any adults, let alone with the aging boomers, and the cohort above them. And too many churches do rely on primarily social programs for their oldest adults. My website (www.spiritualityandaging.org) has a section of resources for congregations and there is an article there that I wrote on “Re-imaging Older Adult Ministry.” Michele, if you would like to talk further, shoot me an email (from the contact us page). This is a huge area of need for churches, but even when most of the congregation is 55 and over, they talk to me about what they’re doing to attract young families with children–and meanwhile pretty much ignore the people sitting in the pews.


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