Not long ago I sat in a church reception area waiting for an appointment. I couldn’t help but overhear a conversation between two church volunteers. They were active senior adults, most likely in their mid-to-late 70’s. They were lamenting the fact that not one baby boomer had signed up for an upcoming event to be hosted by the church’s senior adult group, the Amazing Grays.
Based on their conversation, I discovered that the women had put a lot of effort into planning a special dinner which was intended to welcome the first wave of baby boomers into the ranks of their church’s senior adult ministry. The volunteers had followed the suggestion of the older adult council and had identified those members and visitors who were born between 1946 and 1955. The women had even crafted colorful invitations and mailed them in anticipation of a great response.
Now three weeks later, the women were torn between being very angry and being totally discouraged.
Actually, it’s not an uncommon scenario in churches these days. As congregations begin to respond to the coming age wave, many are trying to steer boomers into current older adult ministry programs. The problem is, it’s just not working.
In her book, Baby Boomers and Beyond: Tapping the Ministry Talents and Passions of Adults over 50 (Jossey-Bass 2010), Dr. Amy Hanson tackles important truths that churches need to hear about ministry to boomers, a group increasingly known as the “new old”. In fact, I believe every church leader should read this book in preparation for the fast-growing aging population. Hanson offers great insight into both the similarities and differences between boomers and their older counterparts. She also suggests practical strategies for meeting the ministry needs of all older adults.
According to Hanson, a primary key to understanding boomers is to realize that they are keenly interested in staying young and are likely to resist anything associated with aging, old, or senior. Just consider our culture, which sends a strong message that aging well is all about remaining young, active and healthy. It’s not surprising that an invitation to join a group called the Amazing Grays would be met with little interest by boomers. In fact, boomers would likely consider such a group as something for their parents or slightly-older counterparts, but not for them. It’s not that they intend to snub their older peers, it’s just that they don’t see themselves in this role.
So what’s a church to do? Hanson points to the importance of choosing names that won’t repel people. She notes that some congregations are beginning to gravitate toward labels like “Second half ministry” or “Encore generation” while other churches are choosing to stay away from any term that reflects an age-related image.
Hanson also points to another important reality that churches often miss. As people age, they become more diverse, not less. Just think about it. At age 75, some people have traveled extensively; others have only occasionally left the town in which they were born. Some are still working, either full-time or part-time; others have been retired for decades. But the greatest difference has to do with physical and mental abilities. Some are active and healthy at 75; others are living with chronic disease or disability. Understanding this diversity is a first step in creating meaningful ministries which will meet the needs of the over-50 crowd.
Learning to think about ministry to those over 50 in today’s world requires a new paradigm. It may even require tossing out some tired labels in favor of fresh identities. As the frustrated volunteers are discovering in their failed attempt to embrace aging boomers, it means rethinking what’s-always-been-done. That’s the first step… and the most difficult.
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 now available. You can find Missy online at www.missybuchanan.com, join her Facebook page Aging and Faith, and follow her on Twitter @MissyBuchanan.