According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there will be more people over age 65 than children by 2035. This swell in the aging population is what some are calling the “grey tsunami.” But I think Jesus would call it the white harvest. In the coming years, onr in every five residents in the U.S. will be elderly. Our neighborhoods, churches, and hospitals are filling with the boomers of the 1940s to 1960s. But is the church looking to reach them?
I have had a general malaise brewing in me the last year about the overwhelming need of the rapidly growing elderly population in the U. S., both as a nurse and a Christian. I work as a nurse in a hospital in Sun City West, Ariz., where the mean patient age is 72. Every day I’m overwhelmed by the needs of our elderly population. Stroke, heart disease, infection, diabetes and disability leave almost all of my elderly patients in need of 24-hour care when they discharge from the hospital.
Most of my patients do not have younger family members available to help them. Many are being cared for by their elderly spouses because their adult children don’t live in the same state. Many are without financial resources to pay for the care they need. These long-retired citizens, moms, dads, teachers, service men and women, nurses, secretaries, engineers, and more all find themselves in need of help with no one to give it.
I often hear from these elders, “Why is this happening to me?” and, “Don’t get old!” Many have a history of going to church and might even call themselves Christians, but is the gospel of Christ giving them hope as they face the rapid decay of their bodies?
There is a mission field surrounding the church in America. Many of them will not enter our gatherings because they can’t. They fill long-term care facilities, group homes, rehab facilities, skilled nursing facilities, memory care facilities, hospitals, and, if they are wealthy, 55+ resident communities. The poor often live in trailer parks on the fringes of our towns and in homes with their relatives who are tired and weary of the constant care they require.
So what can we do? Where should we start? I suggest at least three avenues we should take to work at harvesting souls among the elderly in the U.S.
1. Christian healthcare workers, use your gifts to heal and serve the elderly
I wanted to be a midwife when I went into nursing 18 years ago. I worked in a labor and delivery unit for several years and couldn’t bear the thought of doing anything else in nursing. When I began working in Arizona at my local hospital, I kept wanting to go back to women and infant nursing. Babies are cute. Old people aren’t always cute. But the draw of the Holy Spirit on my heart to serve these bent and broken, infirm and often bitter elderly image-bearers overwhelmed me.
Yes, there is a need for healthcare workers in serving women and babies, but there is an even greater need for healthcare workers to serve the old, the least glamorous part of healthcare. Caring for the needs of a human body decaying from age, disease, and memory loss is undignified and laborious.
When Jesus set out to preach the coming of the kingdom in Matthew 9, he went about healing and addressing physical needs. Seeing the lack of help and guidance the people had, he called for his disciples to see the harvest of souls surrounding them and pray for workers to go there. I pray God will call your attention,Christian doctors, nurses, therapists, assistants, to the lost and helpless elderly and send you to work in that harvest.
2. Repent of not sharing the gospel with the elderly just because they’re advanced in years
I lived for awhile with the subconscious idea that when you’re old you don’t sin anymore. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I don’t think I’m the only one who falsely—or subconsciously—assumed the elderly aren’t in need of the gospel. But working in the hospital with the elderly, I see a prevailing sin among many: pride. There is pride about being old, having paid their dues, and now expecting life and people to treat them well. They can be bitter, entitled, and angry.
While complaining about the ugliness of the sin I was seeing in my elderly patients, the Holy Spirit convicted me that I was assuming they shouldn’t be sinners just because they’re old. The truth is, sin doesn’t go away with age; it sometimes gets more entrenched. The elderly, as a result, need the gospel just as much as anyone; they need their sin to be exposed and forgiven.
One centurian patient I had was so angry that she was still alive in her fractured body that we had to put her on a suicide precautions. As I assessed her, asking the standard questions we healthcare professionals ask to screen for suicidal thoughts, she expressed her anger: “What’s the point of being here? I don’t want anyone to take care of me!” At that moment I got on my knees beside her bed and asked if she’d heard the story about Jesus. “Have you ever thought about the fact that God chose to send his son as an infant, totally dependent on others to care for him?” I asked. “Have you thought that maybe it is God’s will for you to be dependent on others now?” A little light flickered in her clouding eyes, and she thanked me for making her think about something she hadn’t thought of before.
3. Connect your church’s kids ministry to the elderly
This serves a dual purpose: it renews the vitality of the old and brings hope to the young. Psalm 71 is a psalm I call “The Heart of the Silver-Headed Saints.” The psalmist remembers God’s faithfulness to him from childhood and expresses his desire to keep living by that faithfulness even into his elderly years:
“Do not cast me off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength is spent. . . . But I will hope continually and will praise you yet more and more . . . So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come.” (Psa. 71:9, 14, 18)
I serve as the leader of our kids ministry at my local church. We are a growing church plant and have lots of young families, but we have a handful of healthy retired folks, and our building is next door to a retirement facility that includes a locked memory care facility. In general, connecting the kids and young families to the elderly, even those with dementia, is not the first step in getting your members involved in kids ministry. It should be, though.
In Titus, Paul teaches the older women and men to turn from their retirement mentality and invest their lives in those young families that are always marching noisily back to their classrooms on Sunday morning. We need elderly saints to proclaim the power of God to us. Mothers and fathers with toddlers need to hear of the faithfulness of God from aged lips. They need to be reminded that God is working all things together for their good to conform them to the image of his son.
Young church, go to the elderly ones who are confused, infirm, and shut-in. Sit with them. Listen to their stories. Read the Psalms to them. Pray with them. Sing with them. Give them the opportunity to remember the hope of the resurrection of Christ our Lord! Surely we are closer than we were before to the day of our Lord’s return. Pray that the Lord of this harvest would send his workers to bring his older children home.
“. . . even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save” (Isa. 46:4).