I attended a funeral for my great aunt this past summer. She celebrated her ninety-eighth birthday right before she passed. Sitting there listening to one person after another share the story of how she impacted their life, I was surprised to see so many from her church in attendance.
Though she had been a member of a little Baptist church on the east side of Baltimore for decades, it had been many years since she was able to leave home for a service. I wondered how some of the younger church members even knew her. Yet, as I heard testimony after testimony of what my great aunt meant to them, I realized that the reason they knew her so well was because they had worshipped with her in her home.
According to the CDC, the elderly population in our nation is expected to increase over the next decade. “Two factors—longer life spans and aging baby boomers—will combine to double the population of Americans aged 65 years or older during the next 25 years to about 72 million. By 2030, older adults will account for roughly 20 [percent] of the U.S. population.”
These population statistics have an impact on the Church as well. As the number of persons 65 years and older grows, the Church needs to be prepared to serve the increasing needs of its elderly members. In a mobile society that is no longer family centric, many of the elderly live far away from their children and support systems. This means that the Church has an important role in caring for the varying needs of the elderly, including, not only spiritual concerns, but health and mobility issues, emotional needs, and other practical concerns of daily life.
In a culture that values youth and vitality, the Church can reflect this priority as well. To be honest, the elderly are often unnoticed and overlooked. Those who are less active and mobile won’t be included in church functions. Those who struggle with chronic illnesses may be unnoticed when they miss church. But the truth is, no matter a person’s age, each member of the Church is a part of Christ’s Body, and as such, all serve an important function (1 Cor. 12:27). Each member needs to hear the word preached, participate in the Lord’s Supper, use their gifts and receive help and encouragement from others in the Body.
This article seeks to address the question, how can we, as the Church, prepare for the needs of a growing elderly population? What are some of those needs? And what are some practical ways we can address those needs?
1. Engaging: While those who are elderly may not be able to serve in the same way that they once did, it doesn’t mean that they can’t be useful to the Body. We need to think of creative ways to engage our aging church members. Perhaps they can no longer sing in the church choir or teach preschoolers but maybe they can pass out bulletins or greet visitors. They can also be an active participant in praying for the needs of church members. Even those who are homebound can be given a weekly list of prayer concerns to pray through at home. Some might also be able to serve the church by writing welcome notes to mail to new visitors or birthday cards to send to children in the church.
We can also draw from the years of wisdom our elderly brothers and sisters have gained in their life. We can seek their wisdom in matters related to the church, the ministry, and Christian living. In my own church, we have a number of retired pastors in our membership who use their wisdom and experience in leading small groups and Bible studies. And in the case of my great aunt, even the homebound can be an encouragement to others. As members in her church came to visit her, they were encouraged by her faith and joy, even as she struggled with chronic health problems.
2. Connecting: Depression is a serious concern for the elderly, particularly for those with chronic health conditions, those with limited mobility, and those who can no longer live at home. Loneliness, isolation, and feelings of uselessness can make the days long and hard for them. In a conversation with a homebound brother in Christ, he shared how hard it was to be unable to get around. “I’m just waiting to die,” he said.
As the Church, we need to be present, active, and connected in the lives our elderly church members. Often, as people age and face chronic illnesses, they can’t leave home. This means that we need to reach out to them and visit them in their homes. Elders can bring them communion, provide them copies of sermons to listen to and sing hymns with them. Youth groups can come and help with needs around their home. Other volunteers can take them to doctor’s appointments or run errands for them.
3. Encouraging: As a person ages, the realities of death are more present than ever before. Pastors, elders, and other church leaders need to be intentional in ministering to the spiritual needs of the elderly, particularly when it comes to the topic of death and eternity. We need to reach out to them and have gospel conversations about the glories that lie ahead for them. No matter how long someone has been a believer, there can still be an element of fear and uncertainty about the future. Knowing that your body is failing and that you can do nothing to stop it is humbling. We need to pray with and for our elderly brothers and sisters—that they would remain steadfast in their faith and that the gospel would encourage them.
As the Baby Boomer generation ages, more of our population will face the challenges that come with getting older. The Church needs to be prepared to minister to and serve these challenges. We need to engage, connect and encourage our aging brothers and sisters in Christ until they cross the finish line and see their Savior face to face.