Keep Older Adults in the Church

Ed Lewis, executive director of CE National, writes about his concerns with how believers view older adults in the Church. Are they a bother? Are they losing their heart for service? Are churches overlooking them? Even while Ed is serving the Lord at Urban Hope in Philadelphia, he continues to have opportunities to speak in local churches where he has seen many methodology changes over the years.

Ed has been with CE National for over 40 years. He loves young people and hopes to always have a heart for reaching today’s generations. But he is concerned about the fact that older people are often detached from ministry in the body of Christ.

Have you ever noticed how hard it is for many older believers to adjust to the changes in our churches today? More services are being geared to the younger generations. That is to be expected since it only seems logical to focus on young adults because:

  1. It is a youth-oriented world. Young people have their whole lives ahead of them. The older adults have most of their lives behind them.
  2. Young adults and high school graduates are leaving the Church by the thousands and we need to try to connect with them to teach them the Word and help them love the Lord with all their hearts and souls. George Barna reports that “2/3 of young teenagers are unlikely to attend a Christian church after they graduate from high school“and that “61% of today’s young adults had been churched at some point during their teen years but are now spiritually disengaged.” The church has the truth and is trying to present the message of Christ in such a way that it will be understood in a secular, youth-focused culture. This approach is similar to methodology used by missionaries as they enter a foreign country.
  3. Jesus gave us an example and chose men who were young to be his disciples.
  4. Young people keep us thinking about the future. As people age they tend to think less about life goals here and more about what’s waiting for them when God takes them home.
  5. Young people usually want to bring fresh new ideas for reaching people for Christ. They try to relate to their culture through technology, music, artwork, etc.
  6. If we fail to reach and disciple the next generation we will lose them and need to re-evangelize.
  7. Christianity is only one generation away from extinction.

So, I fully understand why churches must have services and programs that are attractive to young adults. I, too, am not going to be around in 30 or 40 years, much less in leadership. I want to reach and disciple young adults! That is our mandate.

But here is what scares me. We are losing our older adults! We must honor older believers AND we need to reach older people for Christ. In the USA there are more people over 50 than there are people under 18. Who is reaching the older people? Are we losing them? Are they becoming detached from the church? And on top of all that the Bible honors age, not youth. Job 12:12 says that “wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days.” It also states that “young men must not rebuke an elder” ( I Timothy 5:1) and they are to “treat elderly women like mothers.”

I recently took time to ask a group of 10 respected older believers why they had difficulty with all the methods and changes in the church. I asked what the major struggle is for them in seeing all these changes in the church. Is it that the church is changing to reach younger adults? No. Is it because they do not like the music? They may not find it their choice but that is not the reason they struggle. Is it that the informal service is the issue? No. Is it that the church has gone to small groups instead of Sunday night services in most places? No. Is it that the preaching style has changed? No. Then what is it?

They overwhelmingly stated that they struggle with the changes in the church because they feel they are not needed…not included…overlooked…made to feel like they are “in the way.” What??!! That is not what God desires. God honors age! God wants the older person not only to be involved in the church but to teach the younger people. That is a direct command from the Word. (Titus 2 and 2 Timothy 2). The Church must also focus on helping the older believer learn how to impact others.

What is the answer? Here are just a few ideas:

  1. Make adults one of the priorities in your church. Recruit someone(s) to help oversee this group. The role of the person would be to mobilize older adults for ministry! Because you want to mobilize older people to meaningful leadership and service do not combine staff roles with a ministry of care. Why? The volunteer will spend most of his/her time doing the caring instead of mobilizing adults for service.
  2. Challenge older adults to serve through peer care and peer outreach. Seniors can do much more than you think if you affirm them and let them serve effectively. Do not ask older people just to fold bulletins, do dusting, or work in the nursery. That could be demeaning if that is all you have to offer. Look for ways to get them to serve in outreach, leadership, discipleship and leading groups, and more.
  3. Make a list of things that older adults could do. Think outside the box. Train adults to be counselors through organizations like Stephen Ministries. Challenge them to premarital mentoring for younger couples and starting an ALPHA Bible course for outreach. Encourage them to go on ministry trips overseas or to other churches. Let them teach their peers in computer or Spanish or have exercise classes in order to offer ways of outreach. Some churches offer nursing helps by asking adults to serve as “parish nurses” for those who are ill. Encourage them to adopt a health care unit for prayer and visiting…or a restaurant…or a school. Visit those in county jails.
  4. Consider starting, with the blessing of your pastoral staff and elder board, a new outreach with a classical approach. Not only could this reach older people but it could appeal to those who love classical styles of church programming. Really! It could feature some hymns, gospel choir, special music, children’s spots, interviews of people, an organ and piano, quartets and public invitations. If it helps people reach out to lost people why not!? There will be people who will attend that kind of service before they will attend one that is geared to the young. It is great to do that. Advertise it as a church that has grandmothers in the nursery and where people will hug you when you arrive. Maybe a retirement center would allow you to use their chapel area as the place to start the church.
  5. Train older adults to mentor and disciple younger people through prayer times and one-on-one meeting times.
  6. Do intergenerational events, please! Help older people learn names of young people and children and help the older people and young people to pray together. Yes…not just pray for the youth but pray with them. Consider ways to get the young and old together in meaningful ways
  7. Challenge the older people to leadership – not just service. They can lead groups, teach classes, offer counsel to younger people in the church and mentor others…and teach people that as we age we need to learn to demonstrate MORE of the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).

Love the older people…and mobilize them for service. They want to be involved in helping to make a difference! And if you honor them, let them be honored by allowing them to be seen in church. They are just as important as the other believers.