I am concerned about our aging church membership, not out of fear that we are becoming an “old” church; rather, my concern is that churches are missing an opportunity to help build the kingdom of God with older adults.
Many people 65 and older experience retirement as “a season in search of its purpose.” It is a time of adapting to loss and transition, and a time of deepening a loving, meaningful relationship with God. People young and old need to know that God loves people of all ages and stages of life. Older adults need to experience a church that cares for them as individuals and as a group.
My growing understanding of—and appreciation for—aging as an exceptional time of life helped me hear my calling as a Christian minister, more fully engaged in intentional ministry by, with, and for older adults.
In college, I was trained to be a high school teacher. I felt fairly confident in my ability as a teacher of high school students. After all, I wasn’t much older than my students, and I had learned the necessary information about child development, teaching praxis, and the subject matters I was teaching. In seminary and in the years that followed, I pastored several churches with many older adults. I felt knowledgeable about the Bible, theology, and my preaching ability, but I knew nothing about the challenges and transitions of aging persons or being a good spiritual leader of “graying” congregations. As a result of my uncertainty—and my desire to be a more effective pastor—I returned to school to study and earn my doctorate in gerontology (aging studies) and ministry with older adults.
My studies, experiences, and love for older adults have helped me discover the value of older adult ministry. Many of our churches send the wrong message to older adults by only emphasizing ministry with children, youth, or young people. Ageism exists all around. By getting to know the needs, talents, interests, and concerns of the older adults in our congregations and communities, our churches will benefit from the wisdom, gifts, generosity, and faith stories of our older adults.
It is not true that only “young” churches can experience congregational vitality. If older adults are empowered, equipped, and growing in their Christian faith, a church filled with older adults can experience congregational vitality and can make a significant impact in helping to build the kingdom of God.
People are living longer today than ever before; it is an age of opportunity, not only for older adults but also for our churches. The pews may be filled with older adults, but that doesn’t mean the church is dying or dead. God is bringing about a new opportunity for ministry with more people living to old age. It isn’t that the United Methodist Church is an old church; rather, the United Methodist Church is blessed to have many older members. The wisdom, experience, and faith of older adults is a blessing for the church, not a hindrance for ministry. We are living in an age of opportunity.
The Rev. Dr. Richard Gentzler, Jr. is the author of An Age of Opportunity: Intentional Ministry by, with, and for Older Adults (Discipleship Resources, Upper Room Books, 2018). He is the director of ENCORE Ministries, a ministry funded by the Golden Cross Foundation of the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church. He is retired as a clergy member from the Susquehanna Annual Conference and is the former director of the Center on Aging and Older Adult Ministries for the General Board of Discipleship (now called Discipleship Ministries) of the United Methodist Church. Dr. Gentzler is an internationally recognized leader in the field of aging, midlife, and older adult ministries.
ABOUT THE BOOK:
A companion to the author's earlier book Designing an Older Adult Ministry (Discipleship Resources, 1999), An Age of Opportunity provides new information and outlines ways to develop and strengthen ministries by, with, and for older adults that can, and will, enhance the spiritual growth and well-being of people of all ages.
The church is beginning to recognize that there are vast numbers of older people in its membership. It is becoming aware of its indebtedness to them for the leadership, support, service, and faith that has made the church of today possible. The church is uniquely positioned to help older adults respond to the challenges of aging; to see the tremendous potentialities in the lives of older adult for making the church and community better; and to assist older people as they experience new meaning and purpose in their later lives.
Chapters include "Why Older-Adult Ministries?"; "Understanding the Aging Process"; "Aging and the Spiritual Journey"; "The New Seniors: Boomers?"; "Intentional Ministry by, with, and for Older Adults"; "Organizing for Intentional Ministry in the Local Church"; "Organizing for Intentional Ministry in the Conference"; "Congregational Care Ministry"; "Additional Ideas for Intentional Ministry"; and "Trends in Aging." Appendixes include a "Facts about Aging" quiz, information on creating and using older adult surveys, and suggested resources for further reading and study.