By Dr. George C. Fuller
Thirty-eight million seniors (65+) live in the United States, making up thirteen percent of the total population. What percentage of this senior population resides in “group quarters,” including nursing homes? Answer: about five percent. The huge majority of the senior population is capable of useful service.
The present PCA membership, including children, is 342,041 (plus an unknown number in churches that do not report their data). If the total membership of our churches is like that of the nation as a whole, the PCA has among its members 45,000 seniors. This number will most likely more than double in the next forty years, as the total senior population is projected to do in our country. Currently, relatively few in our denomination are in nursing homes, only five percent or 2,250. Some PCA churches, like Crossroads Presbyterian Church in Woodbridge, Virginia, near Quantico Marine Base, have few seniors; and some, like Covenant Presbyterian Church in Sun City West, Arizona, have only seniors. However, we seniors do indeed tend to be everywhere. What a resource for serving Jesus!
Most books and articles about senior ministry focus on serving seniors and call us to help in meeting their needs. While this call is important and clear biblical imperatives call us to that ministry, most seniors do not have the pressing issues and disabilities that require mercy ministry. Few of our seniors are in nursing homes or severely disabled; and all of them, except perhaps those with advanced dementia, are capable of serving Jesus. What a great challenge and opportunity! All seniors must be challenged to honor the Lord in their lives and by their ministry. Some, perhaps many, indeed do so.
Meet Chuck Backlin. A graduate of West Point, he served as an officer in Vietnam. Now retired, Chuck turned sixty-nine this spring. On Tuesday mornings, he volunteers at the national headquarters of the Multiple Sclerosis Association doing data entry for the clients to whom he ships helpful devices for their everyday needs. On Wednesday mornings, he paints the interior of his church, Covenant PCA in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, working his way around the fellowship hall, down the hallways, and through the classrooms. On Thursday mornings, he volunteers at the American Cancer Society, developing corporate and organizational support. Chuck’s an usher, a “money counter,” and works at VBS. As a deacon, he serves on the equipment committee and is involved in the ministry of mercy. Chuck summarized, “I’ve never been bored; there’s plenty to do, to know about.”
You’ve probably already met Caleb. When he was forty years old, he was sent by Moses as a spy into the Promised Land. When his advice was rejected, the door was closed for forty years. At eighty-five years of age, now serving under Joshua, he asked for permission to drive the Anakites from the “hill country.” He had another mountain to conquer.
Consider other biblical servants, who honored their Lord even into old age: Abram (75), Moses (80), Aaron (83), Joshua (“very old”), Ahijah (“old”), Eli (“old”), Simeon, Anna (84), Lois, Paul, and John. Barzillai (80) served the Lord by not being an unnecessary burden to others. Mary was faithful in later years by letting someone else (John) take care of her.
The biblical challenge to seniors to serve is clear. “Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, O God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your might to all who are to come” (Psalm 71:18 NIV). “They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green” (Psalm 92:14 NIV). “…Who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (Psalm 103:1-5). “I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being” (Psalm 104:33). “One generation shall commend your works to another…” (Psalm 145:4-7). “I will praise the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live” (Psalm 146:2 NIV).
To neglect challenging seniors to serve the Lord is clearly unbiblical. It is also active ageism, prejudice against anyone based on their age alone. Ageism against seniors is everywhere, in movies, on TV, and even among the boomers who are rapidly becoming seniors. People of advancing years may indeed come to see themselves as “disposable, unimportant,” not unlike disposable diapers or material thrown into a garbage disposal. Ageism is most painful when the seniors themselves share in it. “I am useless. I have nothing to do. Nobody needs me.” These are not Christian statements, perhaps especially not for seniors. Challenge seniors to serve the Lord so that neither you nor they are guilty of ageism.
Motivation is the key to your commitment to challenging seniors and to their accepting any challenge. In Christian calling and service, the heart is the issue. Jesus gives us life, and we live for others. The fixed point at which those things happen is the cross. The basic motivation is not found in the needs of others, however serious or gut-wrenching they may be. The motivation is in the Christian, senior or younger. John wrote, “We love because he first loved us… For he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen… Whoever loves God must also love his brother” (I John 4:19-21).
Initiative may have to overcome inertia. If a senior’s history shows no record of serving others, becoming a senior will not change his heart. The Lord needs to do that. Other seniors must understand they do not retire from Christian service. Moving from “serving” through “retirement” to “being served” is along a road on no map in the Bible. A car is easier to steer when it is moving, especially if the motor (heart) is running properly. Starting friction is indeed greater than sliding friction.
Mobilization flows out of motivation, and creativity and dreaming are important. “What could happen, if everything worked out well?”
All dreams do not come to fulfillment. A .300 batting average is very good; but if you never come to bat, 0 for 0, your average is .000. To make a dream become reality you need to gather facts and information, which feed creativity. Explore needs. Discover what younger generations and seniors need and want, survey the total Christian Education program, look for gaps, and consider community opportunities. Now ask, “What do seniors have to offer?” Do a survey not with a form but through visits, writing down reflections after each visit.
Once you have information, use a simple formula: needs + resources = opportunity. Match needs with resources and where they meet is opportunity. You may find that seniors in your church are indeed serving in many quiet ministries among themselves and with others, but creativity may produce multiplied benefits by initiating and enriching their ministry.
Ministry grows out of motivation and mobilization. The goal is to have seniors serving through word and deed, being who they are, representing Jesus, being an example. The possibilities are many, and a few examples accompany this article.
Recognize that you work with volunteers. Karen Morton in CEP’s Serving and Challenging Seniors suggests several steps in cultivating volunteers. First invite volunteers (personal invitations are best), and then interview them and ask about their experience and interests. Inform them by telling them what is expected and what help they will have. Interact with volunteers by seeking feedback and offering reassurance. Invest in them; continuing support is important. Finally, interpret them by seeking information about their experience. Morton concludes, “Ministry by seniors to seniors or to others in the local congregation or community is a win-win. Needs are met and seniors are given opportunities to contribute and to feel useful.”
When seniors accept your challenge to serve the Lord, benefits multiply. Consider the results:
- You “honor” seniors by using them. You meet seniors’ need to feel useful, to be wanted, to be creative.
- You dispel the myth that says, “Old people are nonproductive.” They are in fact often energetic, wise, and reliable.
- You help them to be answers to their own prayers. Every Christian should by nature want to express the love of Jesus.
- You avoid the unbiblical isolation and compartmentalization of generations. Seniors are given opportunity to interact with other generations in service and ministry.
- Tangible evidence of faith experienced and shared will be seen. The invisible rule of Jesus in hearts will be manifest in deeds of service.
- Ministry will happen, in the world and in the church, specifically among seniors but also among all generations. People will be served in Jesus’ name.
Older Adult Ministry: A Guide for the Presbytery Committee is a manual produced by the PCUSA that challenges seniors with the following. “Older persons who withdraw from life before life withdraws from them are depriving themselves and, through them, others as well.” Pray and work so that this statement will not describe seniors in your church. Hear the plea of senior servants. “Give me something to do!”