‘Backbone’ of the church: Senior adults valuable segment of church population

‘Backbone’ of the church: Senior adults valuable segment of church population

By Carrie Brown McWhorter

Correspondent, The Alabama Baptist

There may be more millennials than Baby Boomers alive today, but Americans 65 and older remain a strong and vital segment of the U.S. population that no organization, especially churches, should ignore.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that by 2050, the number of Americans 65 and older will nearly double, far outpacing the overall population growth. The number of people 85 and older will more than triple. Because of this increased lifespan, churches will likely see a growing need for accommodating the specific needs of adults in the second half of their lives.

“Older adults are the backbone of the church,” said Eileen Mitchell, an associate in the office of Sunday School and discipleship at the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions who provides leadership to senior adult ministries. “Many older adults have given their ministry lives to a single church. They have served in the nursery, taught children and been in the choir. We need to recognize that these people matter.”

Looking at facilities

From a facilities perspective, accessibility is an important part of welcoming older adults. Many accommodations require little money but make a big difference, Mitchell said.

Signage is a good example. At a recent event, Mitchell said she had to walk up to a door to see the small sign indicating the room number. For those with poor vision — old and young alike — easy-to-read signage feels more inviting. Strong fonts in bulletins, high-contrast screen announcements and large-print literature also are helpful to seniors but benefit those of all ages, Mitchell said.

The same is true of handrails, ramps and well-maintained sidewalks, Mitchell said.

“Senior adults may have mobility issues, but so do those who have knee surgery, hip replacement or other injuries,” she said. “We can’t just assume that everyone who needs to get to the platform or into our buildings will always be healthy enough to get from point A to point B.”

Another simple accommodation is to move Sunday School classes for seniors closer to the sanctuary, with parking close by as well. Mitchell also recommends that churches utilize greeters to help older adults navigate sidewalks, steps or uneven ground while carrying their Bibles, handbags and other items.

“Even a person in relatively good health sometimes needs a hand,” Mitchell said. “It’s great to have youth on the greeter team too because it allows multiple generations to get to know one another.”

Facility accommodations are just part of creating an environment that addresses the needs of older adults, however. Ministries to seniors have the opportunity to engage an older population with programs that provide spiritual, educational, social and service enrichment.

First Baptist Church, Jacksonville, in Calhoun Baptist Association, has an active senior adult ministry that meets several times a month. Each program is different in order to meet different needs and interests, said Eloise Crossley, who coordinates the Keenagers ministry with her husband, Bob.

Once a month the group meets for lunch and a program. A book club also meets monthly. Weekly game days, local missions, retreats and leisure trips happen throughout the year. Not everyone participates in everything, but the variety of programs gives everyone an opportunity to be involved, Eloise Crossley said.

Active minds, bodies

“The main thing is to help senior adults stay connected to their church,” she said. “We love them and want to meet their needs beyond worship and life groups by helping them keep their minds active and their bodies active.”

That’s not to say every senior adult ministry looks the same, since even the term “senior” may bring different images to mind. While 55 may be considered the young end of the generation, most 55-year-olds are still working. Some still have children at home. Others are caring for their parents.

At First, Jacksonville, the “Fabulous 50ish” group concentrates on those who are not yet ready to be “seniors” but are seeking social relationships and missions opportunities with church friends outside of Sunday programs.

That kind of social contact is an important element of ministry to older adults as they transition from their work and child-rearing years to being empty nesters and then retirees, Mitchell said. Pastors do well to not only remember the contributions senior adults have made but to realize they still have contributions to make in the life of the church.

“I try to remind every pastor I meet to get to know their senior adults,” she said. “If you spend time with them, they will become your biggest cheerleaders. Take a bus trip with them. Visit with them. Connection goes a long way in building ministry.”

In a world that often values youth, senior adult ministry is an opportunity to show the world what it means to value people of all ages, according to Amy Hanson, author of “Baby Boomers and Beyond: Tapping the Ministry Talents and Passions of Adults Over 50.”

“The church has a moment in time, right now, to create a new paradigm for aging. A biblical, God-honoring view of aging,” Hanson writes. “We can communicate that God has a purpose and a specific role for everyone to play, regardless of age.”