The future of our churches, in whatever form they may take, will depend upon today’s young adults. We’ve learned through countless studies, as well as from personal observations, that our congregations are growing older. The realization seemed to hit us out of the blue and in a somewhat-frenzied effort to make up for lost time, we changed our communication styles, our worship services and our outreach efforts. We did good, right? Not if our newly acquired vision ignores those who are right before our eyes.
Don’t Turn a Blind Eye
“Of course it’s extremely important for churches to do what it takes to attract young singles and couples. It always has been,” says Rev. Dr. Jeff Wilson, a minister at Brentwood United Methodist Church (BUMC) in Brentwood, Tenn. “As churches, we noticed that there were a lot of older folk in our congregations, but just because we gear up to attract and serve a younger crowd doesn’t mean we ignore the old one.”
Wilson, a pastor in BUMC’s Caring Ministry, created the church’s “older adult” ministry just over a year ago with little-to-no fanfare. “It was kind of a quiet roll-out,” says Wilson. “We didn’t need a logo or a catchy tagline to create awareness; our target audience was already here.”
Instead, Wilson holds quarterly events that highlight concerns commonly shared by older adults. “For instance we had a half-day gathering that focused on what you need to think about as you approach retirement. Mentally, physically and spiritually”, he explains. “We have another gathering planned on to how to handle grief … and not just the kind of grief you experience over a death. You can grieve the loss of a career and the loss of purpose.”
Seeing God at Work
The four, yearly events are an important component of BUMC’s older adult ministry, but Wilson says it is through hospital, nursing home and shut-in visitations, a flower-delivery ministry, in-home communion service, a prayer shawl ministry, an Alzheimer support group and weekly caregiver respite activities that he gets to see God at work in the ministry on a daily basis.
“Of course building people’s relationships with God … that’s what this is all about,” says Wilson. “Wherever they are on their spiritual journey and however they came to this point, it’s an opportunity to be with people in this stage of their lives – to walk them home.”
Coming into Focus
Announcements about events and classes are listed in the bulletin and other regular forms of church member communication, but Wilson says he also uses email when he wants to target just a portion of the church’s older adult database. “Rarely do I come across someone who does not use email,” he says. “So, we can sort within our older member database and direct the invitation, event information … directly to a specific list. “
Wilson also communicates to the entire older adult ministry through a weekly email/blog called Jeff’s Foot Notes. “I really just talk about what’s on my mind each week and tie it into a spiritual lesson or observation,” he explains. “Because I, too, am an ‘older adult’, members seem to relate to my experiences, and it’s a way for me to continue to build relationships.”
Using a Wide Angle
Typically, a targeted ministry doesn’t have generational crossover … something many churches are trying to change, but Wilson says that’s not the case with older adult ministries.
“You have to remember that there are older adults and then there are older adults,” he smiles. “So even at a smaller church, you’re going to have people in their 60’s as well as people in their ‘80’s and even 90’s.”
Wilson won’t actually define the term “older adult” saying it doesn’t really matter. As long as the members are being spiritually fed, he’s happy. “I guess I figure that if you have to wonder whether or not you are an ‘older adult’, you’re an ‘older adult,’” he chuckles.
Judy Bumgarner is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tennessee.