Seniors can be a challenge. They can be grumpy, they can complain, they can fuss and fume over very insignificant things. But you know what? So can younger people. A younger pastor engages the older people in his congregation because they are part of his flock—and, more importantly, they belong to the Chief Shepherd.
In late July, I turned 66.
When I was a kid, being 66 was like having one foot in the grave. When I was in my 20s and 30s, being 66 made someone elderly. In my 40s and 50s, being 66 meant getting older. Now being 66 is, well, just being 66.
A couple of people asked me how it felt to be 66. To be honest, it doesn’t feel like anything. I’m in good health, I’m not drooling (that I know of), and despite a few aches and pains that I didn’t have 25 years ago, I feel good. My outlook is that when I’m 70 in four years, I’ll just be entering mid-life.
This all may sound like I’m in a bit of denial, and maybe I am. But the fact is that being 66 today is not what being 66 was like fifty years ago. People are living longer, and they are generally much more healthy and mobile. That has several implications for our society. But it also has implications for our churches.
I don’t know the particular demographics of your church, but unless you have “targeted” younger people (and I’ll ask you to rethink any strategy that emphasizes one age group over another), you probably have a good percentage of older people in your church. They may even be the dominant age group.
I work with older people now. I work for a large retirement community and I drive older people (and I mean older people – those in their 80s and 90s) to medical appointments. Some of them have substantial physical limitations, but many are still active and vibrant. Here are some characteristics of the older generation and what they mean for our churches.
Older people don’t have the same energy they did when they were younger, so consider that when you plan your worship service. Having people stand for four songs or having them stand up and sit down repeatedly is not always easy. While you may say “Stand if you are able,” some of our older saints don’t want to look like they’re being uncooperative. Or they’d rather endure the pain than look frail. If that last bit sounds weird to you, just wait. You’ll see. Someday.
Older people see a world that is changing fast, and their ability to grasp change is not what it was when they were young. As you plan changes in your church, make sure you take plenty of time to explain the purpose behind them. Give them time to think about what those changes mean to them. A few weeks ago, our church announced that they would be changing the times of the worship services and Sunday School – in December. Bravo! They are giving people four months to think through how they’ll need to adjust.
Older people can easily feel left by the wayside as the church does new things. Older people spent decades coming to church in their “Sunday best,” singing a familiar set of songs from a hymnal. Those songs were accompanied by an organ and/or piano and led by a man who directed the congregation like a choir, often with great enthusiasm. Their worship services had soloists and choirs and periodic concerts on Sunday night. Their pastor wore a suit and tie and would never wear jeans. In fact, no one wore jeans.
Whether changes to our worship styles are for the better is not the point. What matters is that we’ve asked our older people to worship in a way that they are not used to, and it should be obvious that many have taken a long time to get used to it. They take longer to learn the songs and sometimes don’t like the volume of the instruments or the group leading the singing. Right or wrong, older people miss a style of worship was both familiar and very meaningful to them and as a result feel passed by as if they don’t matter.
Let me suggest some ways that younger pastors can minister to older saints: