Walk through the halls of a suburban church on Sunday morning and you will get an idea of the challenge facing churches both large and small. Couples and singles in their fifties sip on coffee as they gather for Sunday school. Some share photos on their iPhones while others chat about yesterday’s golf scores. One member talks about her daughter’s upcoming wedding. In another circle, a man shares stories from a recent mission trip to India. When it’s time for class to begin, they pop in a DVD and settle back for the discussion to follow.
Across the hall, a slightly older group begins by sharing joys and concerns. A well-manicured woman with frosted hair announces the birth of a fourth grandchild. A balding man asks for prayers for an aging parent who is resisting the idea of moving to an assisted living center. When it’s time to read the scripture, several members pull out their bifocals and give a nervous laugh about growing old. Next door a similar group plans a restaurant take-out meal for a class member who has just had a double knee replacement. They pray for a job for a member caught in economic downsizing and ask for safe travel for class members visiting grandchildren in other cities.
Down the hall, a group of 70 and 80 year-olds take their predictable seats. Among longtime married couples, there is an increasing number of widows and widowers. Many in the class have been friends for decades. Several belong to the same RV club. Before opening their Bibles for a verse-by-verse study, they pass a sign-up sheet for the Older Adult Game Night coming up on Thursday evening at five.
In a room with an altar chair and lectern brought from a previous church building, the faithful oldest of the old gather. Some are stooped and slow, grasping walkers and canes. One man holds tightly to his wife who has dementia. Although there is handicap parking near the sanctuary, the walk to their Sunday school room leaves a few feeling breathless and weak. No one wants to sit in the chairs left vacant by longtime members who have died. With large-print lesson booklets resting on their laps, they open the Cokesbury hymnal and begin to sing.
Within a ten-mile radius of the church, there are unseen older church members who can no longer drive to church. Typically they are watching a television evangelist or sitting by the window in a favorite recliner, missing their church community. It’s been months since they’ve been served communion.
Admittedly, it’s a quick glance at the over-50 population of the church-at-large. It is a fast-growing group, with its subgroups more clearly defined by mobility and health than by age alone. One thing is clear. Each subgroup has different needs. Different interests. Different perspectives and life experiences.
Why then does the church keep trying to force a one-size-fits-all mentality onto its 50-plus ministry? Before we can expect to effectively address ministry to, for and with people over 50, we must first admit that we’ve got a problem, and the problem is us.
We are too easily drawn into an us versus them way of thinking about the 50-plus crowd, as if one group is right and the other is wrong. As if there is a raging battle between potluck and take-out. Between lesson booklets and DVDs. Between bus trips and hiking trips.
Too often we fall back into a default position because we just don’t know what else to do. So we keep trying the one-size-fits-all model of ministry and complain that it’s not working. Yes, we are an aging church in an aging society. Yes, we need to do all we can to draw young people into the life of the church. But the truth is, if we are going to create vibrant ministry among those over 50, diversity will have to be a vital part of the solution. I’m wondering, can we start by first admitting we have a problem?
Over the next few months, Missy will share insight and strategies for rethinking 50-plus ministry. Her latest book, Don’t Write my Obituary Just Yet, is published by Upper Room Books. You can find her online at www.missybuchanan.com, join her Facebook page Aging and Faith, and follow her on Twitter @MissyBuchanan.