In an increasingly fragmented society, churches must navigate the tension between affinity groups, meeting the spiritual and physical needs of each while encouraging all to be united in the cause of Christ. But what’s a pastor to do with the rapidly growing group known as Baby Boomers that is united by one characteristic—their age—but not by their life experiences?
Answering that question and equipping churches for ministry to older adults is the goal of four SBTC conferences hosted across the state beginning March 3 in New Braunfels and March 10 in Grapevine.
Speakers at the conferences will be Scott Shulick, pastor to maturing adults at Mobberly Baptist Church in Longview; Bob Neely, senior adult pastor at First Baptist Church Euless; and Billy Barnes, senior adult pastor at FBC New Braunfels and SBTC senior adult associate. They spoke with the TEXAN, offering their perspectives on ministry to senior adults across Texas. Larry Lilley, minister to senior adults at Houston’s First Baptist Church will also speak at the conference but was unavailable for an interview.
Simply defining the term “senior adult” is a point of dispute. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) welcomes those as young as 50 years old into the fold. The Golden Years will save you some green at a host of restaurants and movie theaters. At 62 you can score a U.S. National Parks Service lifetime pass for $10.
But for church ministry purposes the term “senior adult” defines members and evangelistic outreach to populations who top 50 years of age.
Still, for some, that label sticks in their craw.
“With the Boomer generation you better not use that term. You’re going to get a lot of push back,” said Schulick. “When you abut generations, there will be tension between the two.”
Such is the disparate character of senior adults in America and the church. The “Builder” and “Boomer” generations generally define anyone over the age of 50. The Builders—so named for their role in building a thriving post-WWII America—are those 65 years old and up. Boomers, aged 50-64, grew up in the America created by the Builders. Pastors and lay leaders must recognize the distinct differences between the two groups in order to maximize their service to and through the church.
And preconceived notions of what it means to be a senior adult must be dispelled said Barnes who has seen churches squander the potential of their older members.
“Churches could better utilize their senior adults. A lot of churches are trying to pacify them (and) just let them do what they want,” he said.
Too often they are not asked to work in ministry because it is assumed they will respond with, “No. I’ve done my time.” But allowing any member to rest on their laurels does a disservice to them and the church, Barnes said.
Although it is an oversimplification of their generation, Neely said Builders tend to work in service to the church taking on the roles of teacher, nursery worker, greeter, usher, counselor and mentor. They are reliable, faithful in giving and loyal to the church. As a group they are often followers, submitting to the direction of the senior adult ministry director, whether that is a layman or a pastor.
Boomers are a little harder to nail down.
“They’re a challenge,” Neely said. Once Boomers hit retirement, “they have other plans.”
Some Boomers bring to their approaching retirement unflattering perceptions of senior adult church life. Springing to mind are “Meet, eat, burp and go home” monthly lunches or the physical and mental infirmities that come with advancing years. Although these stereotypes are not unfounded, Boomers live to dispel those characterizations.
“They still think they can change the world,” said Neely. “A lot of Boomers like to get in and do quick services. They like to get involved in some meaningful projects.”
And they like to lead. So ministry directors need to have confidence in their Boomers and “get out of the way,” Schulick said.
Neely agreed, saying, “Give them the responsibility and cut them loose to do it.”
But Boomers often have many irons in the fire. They’ll fit ministry activities in between work (they don’t necessarily retire at 65), leisure activities, grandkids, travel and the whole array of retirement daydreams. For this reason, pastors who want to tap into the resource that is their younger senior adults should calendar ministry opportunities, like short-term mission projects, in advance.
Some Boomers at FBC Euless have incorporated evangelism into their leisure activities. A group of men who enjoy rebuilding and restoring old cars join local enthusiasts in showcasing their work at local car shows. Congenial “shop talk” can easily segue into a discussion of how a person’s life, like the cars they pamper, can be restored by Christ.
The Builders at FBC Euless host a ceramics class that draws to the church people who might not otherwise come.
Neely said it is that kind of difference in the two groups that he, as a pastor, finds exciting and enjoyable.
Sharing the gospel with their peers—be they Boomers or Builders—is always the end game of any ministry. The pastors agreed service inside and outside the church is vital and very much appreciated, but senior adults need help seeing the lostness in their own community.
“There is a presumption that older folks are saved,” Schulick said.
Neely said it is assumed seniors “are getting closer to heaven and they’ll pay attention, but they don’t.”
And Boomers are particularly indifferent to the gospel, not because they are from the rage-against-the-machine 1960s but because they are so focused on enjoying retirement that they don’t or won’t think about what comes next.
But infirmity comes to most who live long enough. Although that is the reality of aging, it does not have to define the age. Senior adult ministry is about the long haul—ministering to and through church members at every stage of life. Those who can no longer serve should be ministered to by those who can, paying special attention to members with no family living nearby. When ministering to their members at home or in nursing facilities, church members can take advantage of the opportunity to share the gospel with other residents.
And, Barnes said, it is vital to stay connected to senior adults who can no longer attend church or be a part of ongoing ministries.
“They’re not dead!” Barnes said. “There’s something for everybody to do.”
For those homebound and nursing home church members limited only by physical constraints, they should still be incorporated into the work of the church. Schulick encourages churches to create and maintain a sense of community among these older believers who can pray, write letters and financially support ministries they can no longer physically take part in.
How senior adults are utilized in church ministry is dependent, in large part, on the pastor, Barnes said. Those who keep their older congregants engaged do so to their advantage. Getting them working toward the same goal is sometimes difficult, but encouraging Builders and Boomers to appreciate the gifts and life experiences the other brings to the church is vital to maximizing what can be done in and through this rapidly growing and changing demographic.