The Senior Adult Dilemma, Part 1

“When is the church going to budget as much for senior adults as for the youth or children’s ministry?”

“Why are we trying to reach primarily young families?”

“Does the preacher not remember who pays his salary?”

“What happened to the piano and organ?”

“We just feel forgotten.”

I call the issues arising from this mindset “The Senior Adult Dilemma.”

As the half-century mark stares me straight in the eyeballs, I am ever more befuddled by sentiments such as these. The Savior, from whom we hear “Deny self” and “Take up your cross daily,” seems extraordinarily at odds with them.

One would expect–or at least hope–wisdom comes with age. Often this is the case, but it is not assured by any means. What is any more sad than a decades-old-in-the-faith Christian who should have matured spiritually, yet remains an infant? A man or woman crowned with glory of gray hair should be helping grill bacon-wrapped filet mignon instead whisking a few ounces of powdered milk–spiritually speaking. This would jibe with Peter’s apostolic desire, it seems.

Everyone tends toward certain affinities. Some gravitate toward music from the 80s, others clothing styles from the 90s, some toward foods from childhood or travels. The problem comes when some try to promote those affinities as the right or only way of doing things, especially ministry in church. (More on this in Part 2.)

The truth is when we pursue God we must prefer the time in which we live. Right now. As it relates to time, we have only one culture we can reach: the current one. No amount of longing for a bygone era will cause it to return. Nostalgia is not a spiritual gift.

The senior adult dilemma is not universal in churches, but it is widespread enough to cause heartburn for many a leader. From changing Sunday School meeting rooms, to changing musical styles, to changing service times, it seems anything–no matter how trivial–can start waves of complaints. Not only is this grievous to watch, it is difficult for leaders to experience, as well as being thoroughly unbiblical. What accompanies constant complaining? Loss of influence among those who lead and loss of a hearing among those who will.

Here are a few observations after 46 years in churches, 30 years of salvation and 20 years of pastoral ministry:

1. Physical age neither guarantees nor predicts spiritual maturity.
After having walked with the Lord for nearly 30 years I have witnessed spiritual maturity–and immaturity–at every age. Although a constant growth track until death is desired, it does not always happen. Some of the most selfish and short sighted members of churches were not teenagers. They were people much older than I was then, even older than I am now.

Spiritual maturity is only gained through the obedience. It is not gained through mere participation in religious activities, no matter how noble or persistent. Spiritual maturity is not symbolized by a 142-year attendance pin. The youngest believer walking in faith exhibits more maturity than an 80-year old who has not exercised it in half-a-century.

2. Stubbornness is not a spiritual gift.
Too many senior adults seem to pride themselves on a mentality that is resistant to change. “I ain’t never used a _________ or owned a _________ or done _________ and I’m not about to start now.” While this attitude might be expected in some who are slow to learn, when championed by a full-facultied person it may reveal a disturbing lack of godliness.

To be used by God requires malleability. That whole “potter and clay” thing teaches us one is shaped as One is shaping. Pottery may have a purpose after receiving form, drying and experiencing a trip to the kiln. What it cannot be is further changed. If God must break a person to gain the simplest obedience, repeated usefulness is improbable.

3. Older is not necessarily better; often it is just older.
It never ceases to amaze me how many who complain about “new music” would never consider returning to days before electric power, indoor plumbing, automobiles, telephones, and store bought clothes. I have yet to see a senior adult walk out of a church restroom complaining about using toilet paper instead of pages from the Sears & Roebuck catalog.

Pining for hymns–as with most–has nothing to do with wanting to hear something with good theology. If that were the case, many newer songs (“modern worship music”) would suffice. Instead it is the comfort of the familiar. It can be hard to learn new things; that is true for all of us as we age. I am still trying to learn algebra.

I have heard, “We just need more hymn writers like Fanny J. Crosby.” Really? Fanny Crosby is reputed to have written about 20,000 hymns. We sing between 5 and 10 of them. By any measure that is more misses that hits.

Just because it is older does not mean it is better, and music is just one example.

4. Mentoring by seniors should be organic, not programmatic.
“We need to organize a way for seniors to mentor younger adults. They really have a lot to offer and younger people have a lot to learn.” Or something like that.

Here’s the problem: young people who are passionately seeking God are not interested in being “mentored” by a faithless grouch. What young believers seek is spiritual mentoring, not an hour-a-week of hearing about the failures of former pastors or the perceived shortcomings of the current shepherd.

My mentor, Al Autrey, was considerably older than the teenagers and young adults he mentored. But he was respected and trusted due to his faithfulness. In our late 40s Sonya and I befriended, were accepted by, and began mentoring a group of high-schoolers. This is a relationship that continues. We have young adult friends who ask us for advice and counsel. These are not relationships we have demanded, or expected because “we have a lot to offer.” Maybe we do. But, these relationships would never have blossomed had friendships not been planted first.

One thing we have learned is this: if we pursue God and make friends, mentoring happens. It is harder to stop than to start. This is why I say it should be organic. Programmed mentoring seems like programmed friendships–diametrically opposed to the concept itself.

None of this should be construed as being anti-senior adult, not even close. Like most who read this, I have known scores of solid, Jesus loving, kind, gentle, faithful seniors. But, none of those characteristics existed because they were old. The Fruit of the Spirit may exist in old age, but does not grow due to it. If you want to be a faithful senior adult, be a faithful, obedient younger person. Then, never quit.

In Part 2 we will explore some a few possible solutions to the Senior Adult Dilemma.

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

2 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

  • I don’t disagree, but I wonder if we create more future seniors like the one’s you describe by catering to every whim of the younger generations?

    • martyduren

      That’s a great observation. If we do not recover the discipleship that taking up the cross entails we certainly will.

  • Brian

    That was well thought and written, I would say spot on. May all generations learn to lay aside this ungodly self entitlement that is in many churches

  • Texas Grandma

    As a bonafide SA, I worry that many churches
    are “throwing out the Grandpas with the bath.” One pastor I knew had
    the audacity to tell senior adults that because they were over 50, they
    didn’t know how to worship!! If they didn’t
    like it they could leave! Only God can judge the sincerity of a
    person’s worship. And if the style is different from the pastor’s, it
    is not “wrong” it’s just different.

    • martyduren

      Thx for your comment. I wish that all pastors displayed the sensitivity needed to be respectful of all generations in churches.

  • This comment was originally left on my friend’s FB repost of your blog entry:

    Wow. I’m not a Senior Adult, but I’m offended.

    1. Congregational Worship isn’t about “reaching the culture”. It’s about NOURISHING THE BELIEVER so she can reach the culture herself. If a believer is no longer receiving nourishment from the congregational worship experience that is something which needs examination.

    2. I loathe the trope now so popular that the younger members of a congregation are “on fire for God” while the older ones are complacent and grumpy.

    So much of what passes for “on fire for God” is the equivalent of spiritual puppy love. Yet older adults who have matured into a quieter, more contemplative approach are viewed as “faithless grump”s.

    ——Additional thoughts—–

    The music issue is one that I see brought up a lot, and I often see the “older” people (i.e. the hymn-singers) excoriated for their preferences. As a 42-year-old hymn singer who has honestly preferred hymns her whole life it isn’t just a matter of “old” versus “new”. It’s a matter of what stirs your heart to worship. Yes, we are supposed to follow God and not worry about our own desires.

    However, I don’t think that desiring to worship God in the way that God crafted you is selfish. God made each of us as a unique creation to fill a unique roll in the assembling of the Church. Part of that unique creation is that we find different methods that more strongly connect us to God in the act of worship than others. Some folks need a chorus repeated a dozen times. Other folks prefer a hymn with poetic lyrics. Still others prefer to sit in quiet contemplation and not sing at all. None of these people are being selfish, any more than those who prefer to take sermon notes are more selfish than those who prefer to simply listen.

    • martyduren

      I’m sorry you feel this post is about music. It isn’t. Even the part than mentioned music said music is one example.

      • I don’t. It was just one of the many issues where you callously dismissed the real concerns of Senior members of the body.

        • martyduren

          Ok. Thx for your perspective.

    • Sonya

      Katherine, as I have gotten older, (50) I have come to understand that worship doesn’t just take place in that one hour on Sunday morning. I love all kinds of music. I can worship to hymns, contemporary, meditative, and even, (gasp) jazz. When I am alone in the car with a CD of my choice throughout the week, I can worship. Alone in a room at home with earplugs, I can worship. Sitting outside on my deck with no music, I can worship. I do not have to wait until Sunday a.m. to have my preference of music to worship. I’ve already done it multiple times throughout the week. As you stated above, “If a believer is no longer receiving nourishment from the congregational worship experience that is something which needs examination.” You are right. But maybe what needs to be examined is why I need an “experience” to worship. I think the issue is when a preferred style (of anything, not just music) becomes a huge, ugly, ongoing argument that divides the body and takes the worshiper’s eyes off of the object of that worship. If I have to have my preferred (fill-in-the-blank) to worship during a Sunday morning service then there is something not right. As you stated above, “I often see the “older” people excoriated for their preferences”. Many times this excoriation is a result of the constant complaining and backbiting that is aimed at the music minister for not singing their preferences. I have seen this happen over and over again in churches, and yes, it is selfish. I have sat in services and witnessed a godly music minister who prays diligently throughout the week for direction concerning his music line-up for the upcoming week, then I watched in dismay when complaints fly because a hymn is used that is different in arrangement than some are used to. It does become selfishness when one group is going to complain and complain until they get their way and then blame the leaders for not respecting them.

  • CB Scott

    I was born young. I will probably die that way . . . only fatter.

    • martyduren

      A. Men.

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  • chuck

    Per your numbered observations…

    1-I think I understand what you mean—just being old doesn’t make you spiritual or wise—got that. But age is a factor in spiritual maturity—or any kind of maturity for that matter. And how are you defining spiritual maturity anyway? It seems you are saying it is a willingness to change(meeting rooms, music styles, service times, etc.)—without complaint…

    2-Maybe not all of it is stubbornness—just tiredness! Tired of a continual parade of incompetent messianic leaders with goofy ideas that didn’t work so they moved on; tired of inexperienced, immature, easily impressionable faddish “leaders” who just repeat the same old failures as those before—just in different packaging.

    Refusing to change is not a “disturbing lack of godliness,” Marty. Seniors know a lot more about change than juniors. My grandmother was born in 1913 and died in 2012, you think she had not seen change, been changed, championed change in those 99 years? At some point in church history somebody died on a hill to put robes on the church choir that the next generation fought to remove, so to speak…

    3-Older is never better as far as I can tell; seriously. My dad said before he died at
    79, “Getting old is the pits.” But is newer(or younger) necessarily better? Nope. Often, newer is just newer.

    4-Mentors are rare and few at any age. Agreed that programming doesn’t make disciples. Disciples make disciples.

    Carry on…

  • You’ve kind of hit on the reason I don’t hang around old folks at church. Don’t sing in the Senior Adult Choir once a year, don’t go on Senior Adult mission trips, don’t go to the Senior Adult luncheon. It seems they expect the church to do for them, but aren’t much involved in doing, in the church.

    I teach a class of 30-40 couples (albeit it’s open to anybody). They don’t expect the church to do a bunch of stuff, and in fact, several are usually missing on Sunday morning, filling some role that hour in the children’s or youth departments.

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