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January 20, 2011

Thursday Is for Thinkers: Amy Hanson on The New Old

Thanks so much to Felicity Dale for last week's post on Simple Church Principles.


Next week, Lizette Beard from the LifeWay Research Team.


When I first started in pastoral ministry, the big rage was how to reach the baby boomer. I even attended an Elmer Towns conference by that same title in Buffalo, New York. Though I wasn't a boomer, I found fascinating the need to reach this rather large generation. Later, we'd hear much about what was then called Generation X (what my generation would be called), and the focus continued to evolve toward subsequent generations. We need to consider, however, as generations age, how does the church respond? Today's post deals with that issue.

I am glad to have Amy Hanson here at the blog. Amy is a speaker and consultant in the area of older adult ministry, as well as the author of Baby Boomers and Beyond: Tapping the Ministry Talents and Passions of Adults over 50, in which she reminds us of the work still to be done making disciples in the older generation. She regularly blogs at amyhanson.org. I'm glad to to have her here today, and hope that you will join the discussion.

Well, it's here. The year 2011. And people like me who have spent their entire ministry, work and academic life immersed in the field of aging and older adult ministry have been anticipating this year for a long time. Just a few weeks ago when January 1st rolled around, the first of 78 million baby boomers turned 65. Pew Research Center reports that 10,000 adults are turning 65 each day and that in 20 years, almost 20% of our population will be over the age of 65.

In the past month there has been a surge of news articles and stories on the topic of aging baby boomers, a group I like to refer to as "the new old." These are adults who are primarily between the age of 50 to 70 and view the later years of life in a completely different way than their parent's generation. The new old are active, involved and anything but "old."

Government, health care, fashion merchandising and a host of other businesses are giving serious attention to the implications of this huge demographic.

And it's time the Church enters into the conversation.

How do we respond to this phenomenon? What do we need to know?

Here are 4 key issues we must consider.

1. The new old are approaching aging in a much different way than preceding generations. For starters, leading-edge baby boomers and those just slightly older do not like the word "senior" and they reject just about anything that smacks of old age.

I've had more than one frustrated church leader tell me, "We can't get those sixty-year olds to attend our senior adult activities!" One primary reason for this is because the new old do not consider themselves to be seniors and for the most part, they are never going to fold into the existing senior adult ministry at a church. They are not interested in potluck luncheons or bus trips. While some of these ministry ideas have worked in the past, they are not going to reach this new generation of older adults.

Community senior centers are discovering this and making adjustments like taking out the shuffleboard court and putting in fitness centers. Some retirement communities are even removing the names "senior" and "retirement" from their titles. The church will need to follow suit.

A handful of churches across the country are creating boomer ministries (separate from their senior adult ministries) and are calling these new ministries Encore, Adult Impact or simply Boomer ministry. Whatever the format, we need different ministry names, fresh ideas and a whole new approach to how we do things.

2. The new old are reinventing retirement.The New Retirement Survey conducted by Merrill Lynch found that 76% of boomers want to keep working in some fashion during retirement. Many adults want to retire from their current career and launch into something new, like part-time work or a job that has flexibility. The types of jobs boomers are most interested in involve working in the nonprofit sector, starting their own business, or just doing a fun job that is less stressful. One thing is certain. Boomers do not plan to sit in a rocking chair and simply relax for the next 20 years of their lives. They want their retirement years to include a component of work - either paid employment or a significant volunteer role.

3. Not all older adults are Christians. I know that sounds so simple, but think about this for a moment. Many churches invest a lot of time, staff and resources into children's and youth ministry - which is important - but few churches are intentional and strategic about reaching the millions of older adults who do not have a relationship with Christ. Ironically, there are some characteristics among 50+ age adults that make them very receptive to the gospel. They are facing a number of life transitions such as caring for aging parents, concerns about their own heath and mortality, financial worries, and evolving relationships with their adult children and grandchildren. All of these stresses provide great opportunities for communities of faith to reach out with ministry. Boomers are also receptive because they are searching for purpose. They are entering a new phase of life and are asking questions like, "now that I am getting older, my work life is changing and the children are out of the house, what is it that gives my life meaning?" Obviously, Christ-followers hold the only true answer to that question.

I've been thrilled to learn of a few church plants and multi-site venues that are purposing to reach out to this age group. But we need more.

4. Aging boomers have the potential to make a tremendous Kingdom impact with their lives. They have time, experience and resources and they want to participate in purposeful endeavors that will benefit others. As these adults enter their retirement years, they desire to do more than staple newsletters, fold bulletins and make coffee. One man said about his retirement: "I want to give my time to ministry through my church, but I'd like to do more than be an usher." These are adults that can lead community efforts to help with homelessness, give hours each week to mentoring children at an underprivileged school, serve for an extended time overseas, counsel those who are facing unemployment, and on and on the list goes. It is imperative that we open our eyes and recognize the potential of this generation and then find ways to unleash them into ministry. My fear is that if the church does not engage them, they will look elsewhere.

Never before in history have so many adults moved into their later years of life with so much health and vitality. We have a window of opportunity right now to harness the capacity of this enormous generation, to grow them up as disciples of Christ, and to mobilize them for His mission. Let's not miss the chance.

What are the barriers you've seen that keep us from developing robust ministries with aging boomers in our churches and communities? What are you doing in your ministry context to reach out to this age group and tap into their ministry potential? What other comments and ideas do you have about ministry with the new old?

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Thursday Is for Thinkers: Amy Hanson on The New Old