“Getting old is not for sissies!” That’s what Charlie, who’s north of 90 years old, tells me just about every time I see him. Despite his infectious smile and magnetic personality, there’s a tenderness in his eyes that says life is hard.
Driving a vehicle is tenuous. Preparing meals is a challenge. Sleeping through the night does not happen. Health challenges layer on top of one another. Tasks that used to be simple now require more effort, and new technology is frustrating.
But getting older doesn’t just come with physical constraints. Charlie and Barbara have been married for over six decades. They’ve reared three children. They were active in their church and community for decades. They traveled and built life-long friendships. Yet now because of health concerns and lack of mobility, being alone is a consistent part of their lives.
The physical and emotional isolation among the aging can go largely unnoticed and underappreciated by those who are younger and still active in local church life. As we develop programs to engage children and young families and as our ministry efforts feature online or virtual connections, we can miss the opportunity to deepen in fellowship with our more senior brothers and sisters in Christ. As winter sets in and as COVID concerns persist, this reality is only magnified.
The church community simply isn’t as accessible to senior adults, and therefore, isn’t a part of the daily or weekly rhythms of their lives. Yet, a minister’s calling to “shepherd the flock” is a multigenerational calling. It’s also an amazing opportunity to walk with seasoned believers during a spiritually formative time of their lives.
So, as we consider our ministry to senior adults, perhaps these simple practices will help our congregations grow in grace together.
Elevate senior adults by offering visible expressions of honor.
“You are to rise in the presence of the elderly and honor the old. Fear your God; I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:32).
We find this verse tucked between the commands, “Don’t turn to spiritual mediums,” and, “Honor the resident alien.” Apparently, honoring senior adults is not a tertiary matter. And the specific command was to stand in their presence. Honoring the elderly isn’t just an attitude of the heart, but it is a visible and public expression of worship to the Lord.
The church exists today because of their sacrifice, so pastors and church leaders should honor seniors in various practical ways. For example, we can ask children to write “thank you” notes, or invite the congregation to rise and pray over senior adults during a morning worship service, or recognize the contribution of a senior adult’s tenured service.
These visible and public acts of honor not only encourage the senior adults, but they train our hearts to honor our elders and emulate their devotion to the Lord.
Elevate senior adults by inviting them to serve.
We often think about serving the practical needs of senior adults, and we should. No longer is it assumed that adult children live close enough to provide daily care for their aging parents. So it’s even more incumbent on the church to provide help when necessary.
Many senior adults, however, do not need extra help. What they do need is the opportunity to continue contributing to the kingdom during this season of their lives. The psalmist asked of the Lord, “Don’t discard me in my old age. As my strength fails, do not abandon me” (Psa. 71:9). Likewise, we shouldn’t forget these older saints. Rather than just considering how to serve them, perhaps we ask for their help in planning and executing the ministry of the church. Perhaps we invite seniors to co-labor in the gospel.
Senior adults who have been walking with Lord for decades offer incredible wisdom. They have seen people and trends come and go. They have experienced God’s faithfulness over time. And while they may not be as active as they once were, their long obedience and proximity to heaven offer a perspective that is not only refreshing, but also extremely helpful as we make disciples of Jesus together.
Elevate senior adults by inspiring greater faith.
Our bodies are fading away, but the limits of our mortality do not limit our faith. The constraints on our physical usefulness do not diminish the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. This is why Paul was able to write, “Therefore we do not give up. Even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16).
Imagine the encouragement this letter was to the aging saints of Corinth. These were words of life to those who felt their physical bodies waning. In the same way, church leaders and members alike can infuse senior adults with fresh faith for the challenges they face. One way we do this is by learning to sit together on a front porch or in a living room. We can listen, share stories, discuss hopes and fears, celebrate successes, and grieve losses. And then we remind one another the Lord is near, that his mercies are new, and that he will hold us fast.
Our presence with our senior brothers and sisters serves as an icon for the abiding presence of God in their lives.
King Solomon wrote, “Gray hair is a glorious crown; it is found in the ways of righteousness” (Prov. 16:31). The award ceremony need not be delayed until heaven. It begins now in our congregations as we highly esteem the most senior among us.