DEVISING PROGRAMS FOR MINISTRY TO SENIOR BELIEVERS
Part 5 of 5
For some reason the American culture has created a list of myths concerning older people. Rather than being complimentary in nature, they tend to speak derogatorily of those who have come to their later years in life. They may appear more prominently that ever now that the culture experiences the “Age Wave Movement.”
Among such myths is the unwise conclusion that aging is measurable mostly by the number of years one has lived on earth. Another declares that senior adults tend to be unproductive as some of their physical and mental stamina wanes.
Indeed, it is a false notion that most older people want to disengage from life and activity. The lives of all older people are not so serene that they simply wish to be left alone to live in placid existence the rest of their days. It is equally wrong to hold the view that most seniors are so set in their ways that they become inflexible more than at any other time in their lives. Some go so far as to accuse all aged of becoming senile and declining into a second childhood.
Indicative of the prevalence of such faulty conclusions concerning senior adults, Kerr writes, “In my experience I have found many people who believe that older people are incapable of learning, reject anything new, are sick, complain constantly, are of little value to society, are doomed to senility, and should accept passively their lot as persons disengaged from work and society” (Horace L. Kerr, How to Minister to Senior Adults in Your Church [Nashville: Broadman Press, 1980], p. 15). With such views it is little wonder that some consider old age to be a curse. Kerr concludes to the contrary that 80 to 85 percent of older persons are able to manage their own affairs and still offer meaningful service in society (17).
Believers must not allow such myths to so influence a congregation that it does little more that tolerate its seniors while they live out their allotted time among them. Scripture repeatedly speaks of long life as a blessing. Indeed the first of the Ten Commandments containing a promise declares, “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you” (Exod. 20:12). Then, a church does well to devise programs specifically designed with older believers in mind. They should include ministry to them as well as receiving ministry from them. Items worthy of focus in such programs are their spiritual, emotional, social, and physical needs as well as their need to continue to serve others.
Selecting a Group Name
Scholars suggest various limits as to those who are included in a ministry to senior believers. Indications of sub-grouping within those limits generally come from titles attached to each. These include such things as Middle Adults, 50-70 and Senior Adults, 70 and above.
Among the first things that usually comes in developing a ministry for seniors is that of selecting a group name. Kerr suggests the possibility of such titles as Pioneers, Golden Agers, Keen Agers, Second Milers, or Extra Years of Zest (XYZ). However, this is likely the least important aspect of planing a programs designed to serve older believers in a congregation.
Meeting Spiritual Needs
Logically, ministry to the spiritual needs of maturing believers stands at the top of the list of services a congregation should offer its seniors. The preceding article in this series addressed that somewhat at length. However, these efforts need to include more than just preaching from the pulpit that has them in mind. For example, a church does well to not overly-segregate its people into age groups. Older persons still need inter-generational activities.
Further, worship leaders should not be so selfish as to direct singing mostly in a style of music that suites their taste. When, as is the case in many places, up to one-half of the membership consists of older believers, logic itself suggests that half of the songs should be to their liking. Finally, The seniors themselves along with the rest of the congregation must exert every effort to win lost persons who are aging to the Lord. Arn and Arn suggest that a major activity in the beginning of a ministry to and by seniors is that of identifying unreached people in the social webs of present believers (p. 105).
Attending to Emotional Needs
Ministry to the emotional needs of older believers takes into account the loneliness of widows, widowers, and otherwise single seniors. Koenig and weaver say, “More than 20% of men over age 75 live alone conpared to almost 55% of women. Almost 50% of women over age 65 are widows” ((Harold G. Koenig and Andrew J. Weaver, Pastoral Care of Older Adults [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998], p. 65). The church should serve them as a resource center for materials appropriate for attendance to their special needs. Church leadership should also schedule seminars for their benefit. Provisions for small group discussions among them as a part of regularly scheduled activities in the meetings of the congregation likely would not require much additional effort. Organizing to send cards of encouragement periodically and on special occasions would go a long way to meeting the emotional needs of senior believers.
Filling Voids in Their Social Lives
One way of attending to the social needs of seniors is that of planning “fun night” activities designed especially for them. This allows for people with time on their hands to engage in profitable fellowship with others of their age. In addition to group games where all participate, should be that which allows for competition to win in events played by smaller groups on tables in the room.
Further, fellowship over food has been a part of church activity from the beginning. Even in Old Testament times a worshiper presenting certain offerings enjoyed eating parts of them in fellowship with Jehovah as well as with his family, orphans, widows, and the needy in the outer court of the Tabernacle (Deut. 14:22, 23, 29). The New Testament churches had their agape or love feasts. At first they made the mistake of combing such meals in their celebration at the Lord’s Table. Because of this Paul declared, “If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home” (1 Cor. 11:34). However, what he rebukes is not simply their practice of eating in the church building. Rather, the manner in which they did so caused them to “come together not for the better but for the worse” (17). Following corrective instructions which the apostle gave in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, they separated these suppers from the Communion service.
Then, the age-old custom of enjoying fellowship over food provides a biblically based occasion for attending to the social needs of senior believers. Variations on the concept of “church suppers” include that of picnic and pot-luck meals for older persons in a congregation.
Receiving Ministry from Senior Believers
Arn and Arn write, “On the average, Americans live fourteen years longer than they did in 1930" (Win Arn and Charles Arn, Catch the Age Wave [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1993], p. 52). This suggests that seniors have several more years following retirement in which they can find much meaning in life in service to others. How sad, as Arn and Arn say concerning the American society, “It forces them to retire before they have exhausted their capacity for productive work, and then suggests that they occupy their time with hobbies or recreational activities” (p. 56). On the other hand, as Koenig and Weaver observe, “If the person can recognize and use his or her special God-given talents or abilities, this will give life meaning and purpose in spite of, and sometimes actually because of, his or her disabled state”(pp. 56, 57).
Several activities provide an avenue for seniors to continue to serve others. With their years of being involved in the ministry of the church they have acquired both wisdom and expertise. Scripture provokes thought with the questions, “Is not wisdom found among the aged?
Does not long life bring understanding?” The implied answer to both is, “Yes, indeed.” The congregation and the community need both and suffer want when they fail to take advantage of what seniors have to offer. When a church directs them in such meaningful activity it indirectly demonstrates respect for their years of service in the work of the Lord
Including older members in the ministry of the church utilizes their expertise in teaching, care-giving activities, and artistic abilities. They are also well qualified to offer practical helps in prayer, preparing meals, and making small repairs at houses where needy persons live. With regard to home repairs, Kerr says, “The plan usually functions by putting those who need minor home repairs in touch with those who have the skills to perform the repair. This service would be for those who can no longer do such things for themselvesfor example, women who live alone or men physically disabled” (103). Then, who is able to minister more effectively in hospital and nursing home visitation than senior themselves? Indeed, the sub-groups in a church, such as a Sunday school class, do well to assist the ministerial staff in providing semi-pastoral care for members of their fellowship. They are also essential for assimilating newcomers into the life of the church and in preventing any members from becoming drop-outs.
Showing Concern for Physical Needs
Jesus taught that believers should be concerned for the basic needs of those (especially fellow believers) who cannot fully care for themselves (Matt. 25:35-45). Early churches financially supported worthy widows. Under the inspiration of the Spirit Paul penned guidelines for a church setting up such a program (1 Tim 5:3-16). He established limits as to those who qualified to be listed on the permanent welfare roll of the congregation.
Sadly, with the passing of time the State and other agencies have assumed more and more of that kind of service for the aged. Of course, though much less directly than before, believers contribute to their care through the payment of their taxes. Some also give to other agencies devoted to such services. Still, in many cases what older people receive for the State and private, non-profit agencies still leaves them short of what their circumstances require to supply their basic needs in life. The ever-rising rate of inflation dinds those on fixed incomes suffering the most. With the growing cry for less taxation and the resulting decrease in what needy persons receive from the government, once again the church needs to do more for them. Rather than spend a disproportionate amount of their income on building ever new and more elaborate facilities, congregations will do well to dramatically increase the amount of money budgeted for benevolence.
Often seniors need assistance with transportation to places where they receive medical attention for their physical needs. Some even need help to get to the market to purchase the basic need of food. Though both governmental and private agencies offer some of these services, they have their disadvantages and limitations. When churches do some of the same they certainly demonstrate the love of Christ for those they help.
Koenig and Weaver draw attention to another area of possible service for senior believers. It concerns giving relief assistance to persons who attend to the needs of a loved one. They write, “Caregivers need to get out of the house on a regular basis. They need to do fun things for themselves at least two afrernoons per week. This is absolutely essential to avoid getting burned out” (32). They even suggest that larger congregations may organize to offer day care centers for chronically ill persons, especially aging ones.
Arn, Win and Charles Arn. Catch the Age Wave. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1993.
Kerr, Horace L. How to Minister to Senior Adults in Your Church. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1980.
Koenig Harold G., and Andrew J. Weaver. Pastoral Care of Older Adults. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998.