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As life span increases, senior ministry comes of age

Winnie Bell is exactly the type of Christian a lot of churches aren’t looking for.
She rarely misses a service at the Main Street church in Crossville, Tenn. — or the ladies’ Bible class that meets on Tuesday mornings. She hosts potluck dinners and devotionals at her home and writes encouraging notes for the sick and the grieving. From her computer, she teaches English using the Bible to students around the globe through World English Institute.
But at 83, she’s beyond the age group that researchers consider vital to church growth.
Churches where 10 percent or less of participants are age 60 and up are twice as likely to experience significant growth as churches where the 60-and-up group comprises half the congregation. That’s according to the Faith Communities Today survey, which compiled responses from 14,000 congregations in the U.S., including Churches of Christ.
Churches with “a healthy mix of ages” tend to grow, researcher Kirk Hadaway wrote in a 2005 update to the 2000 study, “but most important to growth is the ability of congregations to attract young adults and families with children.”
Churches often associate youth with vitality, said Charlie Pruett, director of the Pruett Gerontology Center at Abilene Christian University in Texas.
“We get excited about a young couple with three kids coming and placing membership,” Pruett told attendees at the 10th annual Retirees Ministry Conference in Abilene recently.
“We see the younger people as a resource,” Pruett said, “but older people … not as much.”
Congregations that emphasize attracting young families can inadvertently send the message that they “don’t need anything from the old folks except to attend and give,” said Leon Sanderson, an associate minister for the White Station church in Memphis, Tenn. About one-quarter of the church’s 1,000 members is age 60 or older.
Evangelism research also seems to prize youth over age. According to the California-based Barna Group, a person’s moral code and spiritual moorings are set as early as age 9.
That doesn’t mean seniors are “set in their ways” and unreachable, said James Vandiver, older adult minister for the Harpeth Hills church in Brentwood, Tenn.
New research indicates that spiritual formation continues — and may even intensify — during senior years, he said.
Seniors represent a growing percentage of the U.S. population, Vandiver said. The fastest-growing segment of the population is age 85 and up. Increasingly, Americans are living past 100.
Churches that fail to recognize the importance of serving seniors may miss opportunities to reach America’s 76 million Baby Boomers as they retire.
“We’re living longer,” Vandiver said, “and we do not wish to be segregated — nor do we wish to be un-useful.”
Vandiver spent 40 years in ministry before moving into health care. He directed community relations for a senior services company involved in assisted living communities.
Two years ago he returned to Harpeth Hills, where he once served as pulpit minister, to launch the Resource Center on Aging. The goal of the center, which partners with health organizations and universities, is “to provide collaborative, faith-based services that meet the health and wellness needs of the whole person,” Vandiver said.
The center has hosted workshops for seniors, caregivers and medical professionals. Such events can open doors to evangelism since seniors, like most people, “tend to be most open as their needs are met,” Vandiver said.
Other congregations have launched ministries to reach seniors — inside and outside the church:
• In Memphis, the White Station church plans to serve the aging neighborhoods near its building, Sanderson said. Seniors will staff a coffeehouse in the church’s new multi-purpose building.
Groups of seniors also plan to meet for devotionals and then “go two-by-two into the neighborhood and visit with those who are lonely and older,” he said. “If they don’t come (to church), we’re just going to try to lift their spirits.”
• Members of the Holland Park church in Simpsonville, S.C., have helped their seniors with needs including grass cutting and plumbing for several years. The church is expanding its ministry to include trips to concerts and other recreational activities to allow seniors and younger Christians to bond, member Darla Yazombek said.
• In Byesville, Ohio, the Stop Nine church dedicated a new Senior Activity Center recently to serve as home of the congregation’s Golden Sixties ministry, minister Woody Biggs said. The ministry of about 100 members hosts gatherings on Thursday nights. Since 1973 the ministry “has led to many souls being saved in the twilight of their lives,” Biggs said.
• Correspondence ministries including World Bible School and World English Institute allow seniors to assist in evangelistic efforts around the globe.
Bell, a retired librarian at Harding University in Searcy, Ark., keeps a record of students and their progress for World English Institute lessons. Thousands have completed at least one lesson, she said. 
“I feel that I am spreading the good news to those who have never heard it before without leaving my own home,” Bell said.
It didn’t take an elaborate community outreach or senior seminar to get Lynette Lee into church. All it took was a sideways glance out a bus window.
Lee, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., grew up Catholic, but only attended Mass once or twice a year. After her husband died in March 2006, she started thinking seriously about the next life.
While riding the bus to work, one of her daughters noticed a small church building not too far from their home.
“I said, ‘OK, let’s see what it’s all about,’” Lee said.
That church, the 100-member Queens congregation in Flushing, gave Lee a heartfelt welcome. Soon she was a regular visitor.
“I liked what I heard,” she said. “I liked the minister, brother (Carlton) Freeman. When he talks, it’s kind of like he’s talking about me.”
Two years ago, at age 73, Lee was baptized.
“She is open-minded about changing her lifestyle to please God,” said church member Andre Chauncey.
“That is a hard thing to do when you have been though a lot of your life without a true understanding of God’s will.”
Lee rarely misses an opportunity to learn about the Bible. She’s a regular attendee at services and is excited about her Wednesday night Bible class, which recently began studying the book of Romans.
“I’m a slow learner … still learning so much,” she said. “I can’t wait to get there on Sunday and meet everybody. It’s like a whole new family.”


SENIOR MINISTRY RESOURCES:  Institutes, programs and upcoming events

Abilene Christian University, Abilene, Texas. (325) 674-2350.
Harpeth Hills church, Brentwood, Tenn. (615) 373-0601.
Marshall, Texas. (903) 935-5742
Metro church, Gresham, Ore., and Maryville, Tenn., church. (503) 661-0348 or (865) 983-0397.
Cedar Park, Texas.
Sunset International Bible Institute, Lubbock, Texas. (800) 658-9553.
OCT. 5-8, Lodge of the Ozarks, Branson, Mo. (501) 279-4660
“Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life” is the theme of this annual seminar, featuring speakers including Jim Bill McInteer, Paul Faulkner, David Burks, James Maxwell and Sandy Hazelip. Abundant Living is an outreach of The Institute for Church and Family at Harding University in Searcy, Ark. The ministry also produces a quarterly magazine.
“We had seniors from 19 states at our inaugural seminar last year,” director Kay Gowen said. Seniors from across the nation came “to be encouraged, inspired, equipped and challenged to stay connected to the kingdom.”

  • Feedback
    I served a small church comprised mostly of young families – 60 members with 35 children – and we found kingdom work to be a struggle on two levels. First, we didn’t have the direction and stability that older members give us and second, many of our members with young families found time for kingdom work to be a struggle. As one of our men said, “Our biggest asset is our youth and our biggest drawback is our youth.” I believe we were a good church and a powerful force for Christ in our community, but we sure could have used some older folks!
    Thank God for the senior saints.
    September, 29 2008

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