40+ And The Church / Beyond Recreation Therapy?

40+ And The Church / Beyond Recreation Therapy? August 28, 2013

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? Please contact me with details if you do! I’d love to profile the ministry in an upcoming blog post. 

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  • Pat68

    I guess what I’d like to see instead of a ministry to older adults, is just a community of believers who could get together with one another without it being billed as “fellowship”. Why can’t a few people get together, kick back and just enjoy each other’s company and good conversation without it being a small group, Bible study, etc.? It’s almost as if church is a contrived environment and we no longer know how to be genuine with another unless it’s a churchy event. Does that make sense?

    As for what churches are doing for older adults, the church I attend now has a group called the 49ers and I think it’s made up of people who’ve been at the church since ’49 or something like that. They have luncheons but they have guest speakers come in and one Sunday they had someone from the congregation give a history of the stained glass in the church. My last church had a senior ministry and then something geared for those younger seniors but it seemed to mostly be just going out to eat.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      I do agree with you Pat. Relationships should happen without the artifice of programming. To borrow one of my own pet phrases, the programming is a launch pad, not a destination. If the relationships launch, then the church-y programming has served its purpose. As long as that programming is connected to an institution, it must (by definition) follow the institution’s rules.

      • Pat68

        I was giving this more thought this morning, and actually, churches don’t have to have niche programming. I’ve never been a big fan of it, even when I was a singles ministry director. At my current church, like I said above, they have a 49ers group and something for youth and children. Apart from that, they have small groups that meet in the home, but more churchwide activities that anyone can participate in like working a food pantry, community garden, farmer’s market, dinner before the Wednesday night classes, a community theater and more. Even the 49ers group is open to anyone who wants to participate in any of their functions even though the membership of the group is mainly made up of those at the church since ’49.

        I think openness is key. If a church is truly open and welcoming, then people are more apt to participate rather than shy away or feel they have to participate because they’ve been guilted into it. When I moved in with my mother and demands on my time changed, I missed several of the pastor’s midweek class and when I would see him on Sundays I would apologize and let him know that I was just tired or busy but really wanted to be there. One day he told me he wasn’t about guilting people and ever since, I’ve stopped making excuses. His new class starts up next week and greeted me in the hall this Sunday and said, “Hey, did you see the description on the new class?” It was a casual hallway greeting and I appreciated the non-aggressive way that he brought it up. I had every intention of attending before he mentioned it, but it was nice that he thought of me and brought it up without any pressure.

        • Michelle Van Loon

          I love the way your pastor has made you feel welcomed whether you show up at class or not.

          What sort of class is it? ( know you’ll bring a lot to the discussion, whatever the topic!

  • In my opinion, people of all ages want to be contributing, valued and engaged. What if churches encouraged and equipped people of all ages to purposefully serve/engage/work together toward a common purpose? Those over 40 or 50 have a lifetime of wisdom, skill, passions and spiritual maturity. Let’s use these talents and resources for the Kingdom! Let’s not bury them. When combined with the energy and perspective of younger generations, the potential is staggering. Relationships will come naturally when we work toward a common purpose.
    I am in the 50+ age category, so I am speaking for myself and, I pray, others of my generation when I say I have little interest in spending the second half of my life being entertained. I want to put all that I’ve learned and acquired in the first half of my life into meaningful action. Anyone else, or is it just me?

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Both hands raised, Judy Allen!

  • Boyd

    Many of these ministries to mature adults are focused primarily on offering a menu of social activities for its “seasoned saints”.
    Actually, I’m not shocked since frequently what is offered to younger adults with families is just a way to socialize with people who are in the same demographic.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      That was my impression, too, Boyd.