“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.