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  • Chris Wethman

The Blessing of Aging Congregations

"This is all I can stands, I can't stands no more!"


English drummer, Phil Collins, had a hit song back in 1984 that almost won the Grammy. Award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance. Unfortunately, his song, “I Don’t Care Anymore” lost to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” Collins’ mantra of not caring is pretty much the opposite of what a cartoon character, created about 6 years shy of a century ago says. His name? Popeye the Sailor Man.


In many of his exploits, Popeye gets to the point where someone or something has pushed him too far. He’s had enough of a situation that means something to him and he has to take action. That’s when he says, “This is all I can stands, I can’t stands no more!”


Too often individuals adopt the Phil Collins school of thought. This is most certainly true when it comes down to churches dying and “going out of business.” Most likely, the size of the Congregation has dwindled. It might have even been in the decline for years or even decades. Older adults comprise a large proportion of the total church membership. Some of these older adults have been church members for many years, while others may be relatively new. They’re written off and presented with only one option as a solution to their so-called crisis: close the doors.


A few weeks ago, my ears could not believe what they heard being preached from the pulpit. The visiting pastor lamented, “The LCMS is struggling, has been struggling for a couple of decades, maybe more than a couple. The majority of our congregations are either declining in worship size or paddling as fast as they can just to keep where they were 10 years ago.” For me that was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back and put the icing on the cake. Popeye’s words fueled my silent unbelief, “This is all I can stands, I can’t stands no more!” I boldly state: Aging congregations do not present a crisis.


Unfortunately, many church leaders believe a crisis does exist within the church when a congregation consists of too many older adults. I think it's safe to say that in our society the image of an aging congregation is often portrayed as stodgy, outdated, close minded, and stuck in tradition. But it’s not a crisis.


God doesn’t think so in the least. When Moses was 80, God used him to free His people from slavery and take on Pharaoh. At age 100, Abraham went to Canaan and lived there for 75 more years. Part of Psalm 92 says, “They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green…” St. Paul writes to Titus in Chapter 2 about older men and older women and his concern for them. He writes to Timothy about caring for widows. In fact, he refers to himself as an old man.


It is truly sad that the prevailing myth about aging -- that it is nothing but slow and steady decline -- is a byproduct of our culture that worships youth and abhors getting old. Aging = bad. Old = ugly. Consequently, older adults are viewed as a stubborn obstacle to church vitality and church growth.


What is really the crisis? It’s what Dr. Robert Butler defined as ageism. Prejudice or discrimination against older people due to negative and inaccurate stereotypes is one of the hallmarks of ageism. Because it is so prevalent and deeply rooted in our culture and society, it causes many church leaders to believe that the church is comprised of too many older adults and efforts are focused on those younger. When this occurs, the spiritual and emotional well-being of older adults get neglected. It's almost as if there is an unspoken truth about older adults: We don’t care anymore. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that we do care, but about the wrong things?


Many pastors, church members and even seasoned church consultants view not having a growing membership of young people as a failure in mission and outreach. Sadly, there are pastors who retire from ministry with a sense of guilt because they failed to grow “young” churches. This attitude reflects an assumption that church growth is only valid when there are increasing numbers of people under 35 years of age.


So how is it that the prevailing model for running churches is deeply rooted and perpetuated by the teachings and assessments that define church health when they are based on the institution as opposed to the individuals within? Some common strategies they prescribe are:

  • Bring in young families. Invest heavily in facilities and programs for children

  • Invite, involve, invest. Reach out and pull in (attract and retain) rather than build in and send out (disciple and commission)

  • Multiplication. Not of disciples (individuals) but planting more church or launching more campuses, replicating institutions with the same flawed definition of church

  • The intended biblical customers (the lost in the community) are ignored

  • Leadership is an immensely popular church growth concept yet a solution that simply puts a Band-Aid on keeping wounds. Developing better leaders will attract more young folk.

  • Measure health by attendance, giving, etc. People equate high numbers as a sign of dedication and loyalty to the institution.

  • When the church is defined biblically, these barometers of organizational health give way to a heavy marketing that focus on attracting these young families. Young families eventually start showing up to “window shop” in response to marketing campaigns that call for churches to:

  • Remove denominational references and crosses from logos and signage hoping to appeal to nonbelievers

  • Start searching for dying churches to “acquire” and then plant campuses under new branding

  • Upgrade the band and raise the decibel level reminiscent of a rock concert

  • Drop the word “church” and change its name to something consumers would want (Victory Church, New Life Church, Harmony Church, etc.)

  • Aggressive approach to joining a church

More often than not when drastic recommendations like these are implemented swiftly, older people leave in droves. They feel ignored and unwanted. Then, discipleship and community impact suffer immensely.

While it is true that old age is often associated with negatives -- illness, dependence on others, loneliness, depression -- research has shown that older persons cope with stress better than young adults. They experience more life satisfaction enjoyment and happiness. Much more than that the oldest members of a church may be some of the healthiest believers in the building.

  • Elderly retirees have more time for personal discipleship then busy families with young children

  • Retirees also have more bandwidth to live out their faith by serving the Lord outside the four walls of the church whereas every spare minute in the lives of young families is consumed by events such as soccer games and cheerleading practices

  • Healthy older Christians will naturally attract and will be more active and bringing in a whole new generation of healthy younger Christians

Aging is not a problem to be solved but a gift to be embraced. It is a natural lifelong process that includes gains and losses. But every age and stage of life has its own unique challenges and assets.


Some church leaders see older adults as having worked hard in and retiring just relaxing, lying on a beach somewhere, and playing bridge or golf. This view is through the lens of old norms and stereotypes. Granted the financial gifts of older adults that helped maintain the church building and are supportive in ministries are very much wanted.


Solving the challenges of the aging of congregations requires church leaders to think creatively, reimagine congregational vitality, and to reframe aging.


Parker Palmer, author of On the Brink of Everything wrote, “We need to reframe aging as a passage of discovery and engagement, not decline and inaction.” The church can be blessed indeed when older members have an opportunity to capture a new vision, new purpose, and meaning for living.


As church leaders we are called to help change attitudes in our congregations about aging. We need to first recognize any negative attitudes we may have about our own aging and that of older adults in general. We can teach our congregation by example and serve as advocates on behalf of aging and older adults. When we challenge those cultural myths of growing older by reframing aging, we see older adulthood not as an age of liability but as an age of opportunity.


Our congregations have a unique opportunity to reach out and minister to and through older adults. Their wisdom, skills, experience, and faith must be carefully nurtured, properly equipped, and fully utilized.


In the categories of Worship, Fellowship and Stewardship, here are some possibilities for both ministry to older adults and by older adults:[1]


Congregational Worship

  • Include one or more older adults as members of the worship committee to express their age group’s needs and interests.

  • Accommodate older adults who prefer morning or afternoon services on special occasions, such as Ash Wednesday, Good Friday or Ascension Day.

  • In terms of some people's cognitive loss, familiar hymns, scripture readings, and prayers can be helpful.

  • Hold a special Senior Sunday. Provide transportation to and from the church. Perhaps provide a meal after the service. Enlist the help of persons who are willing to use their cars for transportation.

Homebound Worship

  • Give the homebound names of people for whom they can pray.

  • Contact older persons, and other members too, when they are absent from worship.

  • Work with the homebound to develop

  • Provide the opportunity for homebound members to convey recorded messages to the church administration, older adult meetings, etc.

Fellowship

  • Provide educational trips to historic areas.

  • Recommend continuing education programs sponsored by Community Schools.

  • Check out Lutheran camps for seniors.

  • Prepare a periodic newsletter for older adults by older adults.

Adult over the age of 65 are the fastest growing population group today. Now is the time to provide consultation, resources, training, support, and advocacy to equip church leaders for intentional ministry by, with, and for older adults. Every one of us should be a Popeye who stand up and says, “This is all I can stands, I can’t stands no more!”




[1] Taken from “How to Minister Among Older Adults” by Charles T. Knippel


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