The ministries of older members

I’m younger than half of the Sunday School class I teach, but older than any of my doctors (except my dentist, by three months) and older than my last five pastors. My perspective on church things changes as this transition to being among the elders becomes more undeniable. My wife Tammi and I were talking the other day about how we’d seen several empty nester friends fade from regular church attendance—call it a second DINK (Double Income, No Kids) era of life. We should be more responsible now than we were in the sparkly days of being newly wed, but that’s not why I’m writing. Sometimes I wonder what my church or your church does to keep those who are becoming less vigorous a vital part of our ministry. 

Perhaps we don’t know what to do when a generation of church leadership—those who were go-to people in deacon ministry or administrative help—needs to be in charge of fewer things. With some of my friends it looks like a severe drop off between “she is everywhere” to “where’d she go?” The false dichotomy between being essential and being useless is fostered from both sides. Church members who slow down a little because their own health, or that of a spouse or parent, sometimes quit everything and fade before anyone notices. Church leaders are unprepared with options for those who need to be less prominent but who don’t want to become uninvolved. 

It’s not an easy nut to crack, but I have been in many meetings where bright people strained and brainstormed about how to get younger families engaged at some level—“Where can we plug them in,” “How can we keep them from just going out the back door?” and so on. If the focus is just on ensuring the future of the church or institution, that scrutiny of assimilating young families is right on. If the focus is on ministry to those God has placed in our hands, our motives and reach need to be less ageist.

Some who’ve taught for decades don’t walk so well these days. There’s not a correlation between one ability and the other. Additionally, you might consider that older members are qualified to teach more than just their peers. Middle-aged folks, 20 years older than I, taught my Sunday School classes from childhood until I was myself middle aged. Can a 70-year-old teacher be an effective teacher of young adults, children or high school students? I can’t imagine why they couldn’t. Some do imagine that pretty easily. 

Multi-generational fellowship is born in multi-generational worship and ministry. Do we want the generations to trust each other and understand each other? A good place to start is engineering opportunities for us to work alongside each other. Instead of a senior adult retreat, how about a retreat focused on the interests of members within more than one demographic? We do have some things in common. Include older members in the student mission trip; let them bunk together and eat together, just like they do with relatives during family events. 

The generations are more likely to snipe at each other when individuals of one age group don’t know anyone of another age group. I assume that my children, well adjusted and gainfully employed, are an exception when I read something foolish done by another member of their generation. I’m less likely to do that when I’ve spent some good time with solid younger folks who are not my kin. My kids are indeed exceptional, but they are not the only wise Millennials.

I recognize the need for outreach among generations that are moving away from their churches. We need to preach the gospel to them and we need to teach them how to follow Christ. Older members are not the “future of the church” unless you consider the next 20 years sufficiently futuristic, but a significant number of their Baby Boomer generation are also lost. We have a few years to preach the gospel to them and teach them to follow Christ. This outreach can be a ministry of young and old, and it can bear unimagined fruit among family members of all ages. 

Think of it as a stewardship of your present ministry, not so focused on the ministry you will have in 10 years. Some of your older members will be able to do less, and you’ll do some funerals. Some of their friends, who will attend the funerals, are lost and hardened to the gospel. Some of their neighbors at the senior center or nursing home are unbelievers. You have church members and staff members who would be well-focused on ministry in this field. As for those who are still active, though a little slower, in your church, what can you do to intentionally equip them for significant ministry during every day God gives you with them?  

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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