I recently attended a conference at which Christian “senior leaders” discussed what would be their legacy to a younger generation. White-haired gentlemen greeted each other with backslaps; they had known one another for a long time, or at least had read each other’s books.

Many of these men still led sizable institutions. Yet they did not act like a small club trying to hold on to dwindling power. They spoke keenly of the demands of our times, and seemed anxious that a younger generation be empowered to tackle them. “Whether we like to admit it or not,” several said, “our day is coming to a close.”

Such magnanimity often characterizes the elderly. In my own church, seniors are among the fiercest in insisting that we have an outstanding youth program. As they put it, “The young are the future of the church.”

While admiring this generosity, I believe it has become dangerous—an old virtue out of place in these new times. For it assumes that the world belongs to the young, and that the elderly may (and should) retire into the background.

Yet America increasingly belongs to the old. Those white-haired leaders, ready to retire into the pleasures of travel and golf, are far from finished. In 1933, when the new Social Security Administration set the age of retirement at 65, most 65-year-olds were within a handful of years of death. Now, 65 is quite young. The average American, retiring at 63, has between 15 and 20 years of good health ahead. If seniors opt out of the challenges of the coming century, if they retire into senior hedonism and toss away a quarter of their adult life, we will lose our wisest, most experienced leaders before their time.

And if the church neglects the elderly, overlooking their needs and their potential because we are so used to focusing on young families, we will miss a key opportunity. In a rapidly increasing sense, the old are our future.

Nearing The Peak

Today about 11 percent of Americans are over 65. That proportion will gradually rise over the next 15 years, and take a big jump when the baby boomers start turning 65, in 2010. Meanwhile, Americans have not been reproducing at a rate that would replace themselves. Ultimately, the proportion of seniors should peak between 18 percent and 22 percent—about double what it is today.

Many churches are already there. James Ellor, professor of human services at Chicago’s National College of Education, has found that in any given American community, church attendance will include about 10 percent more elderly than the community at large; thus, if a certain town has the national average of 11 percent over 65, its churches will be about 21 percent elderly.

The mainline denominations particularly confront aging membership. About one-quarter of Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Methodists are over 65, and about half are over 50. These denominations are consequently doing the most to organize ministry with the elderly. A Methodist seminary, Saint Paul’s in Kansas City, has the nation’s first endowed chair of gerontology at a seminary. The professor, David Oliver, says that some of his students will have ministry experiences in rural churches where 100 percent of the congregation is over 65. There are some churches in the Sun Belt, ministering to retirement communities, that are also overwhelmingly made up of the elderly.

Crises And Miracles

The aging of America will pose national crises of two kinds. The most obvious is financial. The twin miracles of social security and Medicare, combined with huge tax breaks for pension plans, have made older citizens better off than the population at large. A significant minority remain tragically poor, without even the theoretical possibility of working their way out of poverty. But 20 years ago the elderly were poor as a group. Now they are, by some measures, the wealthiest sector of America. The difference is almost entirely due to government spending. Let no one say that you cannot solve poverty by throwing money at it. We did.

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This huge cash transfer was almost painless because it coincided with the coming of age of the baby boom. A rapidly expanding labor force made it possible to spread the increasing cost over a growing pool of workers. Now, however, the field has begun to reverse itself. When the baby boomers hit 65, something will have to give. It is projected that payroll taxes for social security would reach 25 to 30 percent just to maintain the current level of benefits. This could provoke a major crisis—perhaps even a conflict between the generations.

But another, subtler crisis could come: a crisis of national self-image. Americans have seen themselves as idealists—the “city on a hill” image—and as pragmatists—the “can-do” image. It would be difficult, given our current way of thinking, to associate either image with a nation dominated by retirees.

We have seen how the baby boomers skewed the thinking of the nation toward each generation they were passing through: toward family life when they were children in the fifties, toward idealistic protest when college students in the late sixties, toward economics and entrepreneurialism when young workers in the eighties. Toward what will this lean when they are retired? Golf? It is hard to imagine, today, that an old America will find it easy to think proudly of itself, or to feel purposeful. We will need a better interpretation of what it means to be old.

The church should lead in this reinterpretation. But right now it is part of the problem. Carol Pierskalla, who heads senior programs at American Baptist headquarters, complains, “I hear pastors say, ‘What can I do with this church? I look out and see that all the heads are gray.’ It’s that kind of ageism that will do us in.”

Fortunately for us, that kind of ageism is not found in Scripture, not in one single verse. We have a source of guidance to help us change our thinking.

The Church’s Response

How should the church respond to the aging of America? No doubt Christian bodies will have some voice in shaping national policies, in building better housing, in making government bureaucracies responsive. But the church’s major role must surely be the one it has always done best: interpreting and embodying the true meaning of life through Jesus Christ.

Aging in modern America has two distinct characteristics. First, for the majority, it is leisure: premature and long years of leisure by the standards of all earlier eras. (Seniors may be very busy, but they usually have considerable choice in how they spend their time.) Then, for at least a large minority, aging is distinctively loss, usually gradual and cumulative over as much as a decade. And unlike Horatio Alger, unlike Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, unlike refugees from war-torn Germany, these losers will never make a new start.

As aging is both leisure and loss, so the church’s response must be in two kinds. First, older Christians must make something purposeful of this long stretch of life called retirement. Second, older Christians must find meaning and spiritual growth through the losses that often accompany their last years on Earth. These responses are essential if we are to reclaim the biblical idea of old age as a blessing (Exod. 20:12; Job 12:12).

While many church programs begin by concentrating on ministry to the dependent elderly—the homebound or those in convalescent hospitals—there is increasing recognition that most of those over 65 are hale and hearty.

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Church ministries specially designed for the “young old” typically involve Sunday school classes, a midweek luncheon or Bible study, educational trips, and retreats. These programs may appear to be like entertainment-oriented youth programs; but they fill an especially important role in the life of seniors. Aging people often find their circle of human contact limited by the fact that they no longer work, that they are less able or motivated to get out, and that their circle of friends has begun to die off. Social contact is a vital need.

But few people involved in seniors ministry are content to provide only social programs. Says David Oliver of Saint Paul’s Seminary, “When I first came here everybody was talking about ministry to the aging. Now it’s shifted to ministry with. I’m thinking maybe we need ministry from. They probably can teach us more about our faith than anybody. Who else has been in relationship with God longer?” Adds Pat Parker, who ministers to older adults at Pennsylvania’s Drexel Hill Baptist Church, “It’s the retired in our churches who have the time to give to the community. I get really upset with pastors who say, ‘Oh, my congregation is all gray-headed.’ That’s where your money is, that’s where your energy is. Young people have energy, but we don’t have it to give to the church.”

The most common way of using retired people in the church is to involve them with ministry to those still older than they—to visiting the homebound, for instance. Presbyterians have launched the “Gift of a Lifetime,” a kind of VISTA program in which retired people volunteer two years to go to another church and develop ministry to the elderly. “Part of the issue is a call to older people, ‘What does the Lord require of you?’ ” says Thomas Robb of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office on Aging. Adds psychologist Coleen Zabriskie, “I don’t see any permission in Scripture for us to retire from serving the Lord.”

Others emphasize that the elderly should not merely minister to one another; they see intergenerational programs as crucial for breaking down the age-biased thinking of old and young alike. Harold Hinrichs, director for Family Life and Aging of the American Lutheran Church (now the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), suggests that “One of the main gifts of the elderly, spiritually, is reminiscence. They don’t need to reminisce just with older people but with younger.”

His main emphasis has been to bring the generations together in worshiping communities—small sharing groups that follow a carefully structured weekly program for celebrating the Eucharist together. Other churches organize “Adopt-a-grandparent” programs, or send youth groups to interview older church members.

Not only do the elderly have great potential to serve, they have greater availability for spiritual development. Ed Powers, a gerontologist at Iowa State University, says, “Now you can say, ‘We’re going to get together two nights a week,’ and nobody says, ‘We need babysitters.’ We don’t have people saying, ‘I can’t do that because I work until 7:00.’ The opportunity exists for servanthood and spiritual development on a scale that we have not envisioned.”

Yet it is often the old who disqualify themselves. “There are two barriers I’ve seen from the start,” says David Jobe, pastor for senior adult ministries at First Evangelical Free Church in Fullerton, California. “One is, ‘I won’t get involved because I’ve done my part.’ The other is, ‘I can’t. I couldn’t do that, I’m too old for that.’ ”

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“Often older people pull back in retirement and rest,” notes Janine Tartaglia, of Pasadena’s First Nazarene Church. “That’s okay. There’s a place for rest. We need to retreat. But we need to remember that we shouldn’t go into retreat forever.” She recommends that churches help people plan in advance what they want to accomplish during retirement.

Many pastors to the elderly also encourage retirees to plan for their own death or disablement. Not only is there great practical value in thinking through funerals, wills, and the degree of medical intervention they wish in the event of a serious disease. The planning process may also deepen spiritual growth, as the older Christian confronts the losses that will occur.

All But Forgotten

If the “young old” should be challenged with their potential for service, the “old old” (those over 85) challenge the younger church to serve them. When people become homebound, or even unable to talk intelligibly, do they remain members of Christ’s body? In many churches they are all but forgotten.

Serving the homebound means opening avenues for them to continue a life of service, through prayer, through the telephone, through the mail, through routine tasks that can be done at home. One of the worst parts of being homebound is a sense of uselessness and isolation. James Ellor says, “When people are no longer able to participate in worship there is a period of withdrawal, of real unhappiness.” He notes that many find a “functional equivalent” in the electronic church, and suggests church leaders should recognize and even offer counsel about this through a list of preferred TV programs.

Pat Parker emphasizes the church’s responsibility to stay in touch. “I hear them saying, ‘I gave my life to the church. Was it worth it? Now when I expect some return, where is it?’ ” Janet Yancey, who runs an inner-city seniors program at Chicago’s LaSalle Street Church, notes, “There’s no bang for the bucks when you’re working with older people. Some would say the best you can expect is that they’re going to die. Young people have great potential. They’re going to be missionaries. They’ll earn money and pour it into our program. Old people are going to get crabbier and sicker. But God’s command to me is not to put my money where there is a big bang. His command is to visit the homeless and the widow.”

Programs involving the “old old” tend to meet very practical needs. Many churches sponsor convalescent home visitation and worship services, and give home Communion. Some churches attempt to keep in touch with members through volunteer visiting or telephoning teams, who can touch base on at least a weekly basis. Often tapes of Sunday services are hand-carried to elderly members, and at least one church has used taped “calls to worship” from homebound members to begin Sunday worship. James Ellor cites a church that organizes one-on-one Bible studies in the homes of the homebound.

Other churches work to provide “Meals on Wheels,” transportation, or escort services. Says Yancey, who uses 25 church volunteers in a Homebound Elderly Program, “They need someone to take them to the bank. They’re not steady on their feet, they’re nervous, they’re not used to being out there. They don’t want someone to do it for them. They want help—for balancing their checkbook, grocery shopping, going to the doctor, paying bills. We must build programs to meet their needs. They may not need another Bible class.”

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Carol Pierskalla of the American Baptists says, “If you were to sink your money into one thing, I think it should be having a member of staff who knows what services are available.” Her comment reflects the confusing and overlapping bureaucracy of social welfare agencies that offer benefits to the elderly—everything from adult day-care centers to home-nursing care. Most agencies are understaffed and it takes considerable persistence to find out just what is available. Pastors can function as part-time social workers, guiding families through the maze of options, but most find it difficult to stay abreast of rapid changes.

Usually the children of the elderly are involved in decisions, sometimes from a distance. They need spiritual counsel and support; guilt is an abiding theme. Pierskalla relates, “People say to me, ‘What if I go to church and people ask me, “Where’s your mother-in-law?” and I say, “I put her in a nursing home”?’ One woman said to me, ‘The deacons came to visit my mother-in-law, but they never came to visit me, and I was desperate.’ ”

Old Age As Blessing

Our challenge is to understand old age as something good. That means treasuring and caring for those whose ability to contribute or attend church is diminished. That means considering a congregation that has grown predominantly old as full of opportunity and hope. That means seeing seniors as people with great potential for ministering to others. That means building a spirituality that incorporates loss—what Eugene Bianchi in Aging as a Spiritual Journey calls “growth through diminishment.” For seniors, problems don’t go away; they usually grow larger while the individual grows weaker. We need to articulate a spiritual life where loss is not a total loss, but part of God’s pattern of loving kindness.

It may also mean, especially in rural or urban areas, reconfiguring our image of evangelism and church growth. James Ellor describes a church on the west side of Chicago that has a nursery filled with practically antique toys. “Everything is in its place, which is a bad thing to say about a nursery. It means nobody is using it.” The congregation, he says, has come to see that nursery as a symbol of what is hopelessly wrong with it: there are no young people to fill it with children. “If you ask the elderly how to make a church grow, they’ll say bring in the young.” But there are very few young people left in the neighborhood.

Ellor is not so sure the old members are right. “Maybe they need to have a sale and get rid of those antique toys. Maybe they should use the proceeds to put in a senior center. What is wrong with reaching out to widows?” In the decades ahead, more and more churches will need to ask that kind of question.

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