By / Jul 19

My father died Feb, 11, 2022, in the presence of family, but in the care of strangers. He was in memory care for his dementia. Although we were with him 12 hours a day, family members were limited in what we could do. We could not provide his medications, treat his symptoms, or offer a meaningful prognosis. We were not trained physicians, nurses, or caregivers, so we had to rely on strangers. They were, to a person, professional, compassionate, caring, and competent, but they were strangers nonetheless. Prior to his admission, they did not know my dad or us, and we did not know them. This is more often the case these days than not in the context of contemporary health care.

Prior to 1880, in what seems like another world, few people had even heard of a hospital, much less an assisted living community or memory care. When family members got sick, they were cared for by their kinfolk or a neighbor. If there was a doctor nearby, he might visit the home as needed, but he might be miles away. Only the largest of cities—Philadelphia, New York City, and Boston—had a hospital. With the growth in population in the United States and the development of medical technologies, however, more hospitals were needed.

As Charles Rosenberg shows in his volume, The Care of Strangers, The Rise of America’s Hospital System, in many ways the modern hospital owes its origins to Judeo-Christian compassion. Evidence of the vast expansion of faith-based hospitals is seen in the legacy of their names: Good Samaritan, St. Vincent’s, St. Luke’s, Mt. Sinai, Presbyterian, Mercy, Baptist, Methodist, and Beth Israel. These were all charitable hospitals, some of which began as foundling hospitals to care for abandoned children.

Similarly, in Europe, great hospitals were built under the auspices of the same tradition. Indeed, an ancient French term for hospital is hôtel-Dieu (“hostel of God”). In 1863, the Société Genevoise d’Utilité Publique called on Swiss Christian businessman Jean Henri Dunant to form a relief organization for caring for wartime wounded. Thus, the emblem of the Red Cross was codified in the Geneva Convention one year later. In Britain, Dame Cicely Saunders founded the hospice movement by establishing St. Christopher’s Hospice in the south of London in 1967.

In his impressive history, Medicine & Health Care in Early Christianity, Gary Ferngren observes: 

The Christian understanding of the imago Dei, viewed in light of the doctrine of the Incarnation, was to have four important consequences for practical ethics that became increasingly apparent as Christianity began to penetrate the world of the Roman empire (p. 98).

Those consequences included:

  1. The impetus for Christian charity and philanthropy.
  2. The basis for the believe that every human life has absolute intrinsic value.
  3. A new perception of the body and indeed of the human personality.
  4. A redefinition of the poor.

The concept of the church’s care of “the poor” argues Ferngren, 

was basic to the founding of the earliest hospitals. The hospital was, in origin and conception, a distinctively Christian institution, rooted in Christian concepts of charity and philanthropy. There were no pre-Christian institutions in the ancient world that served the purpose that Christian hospitals were created to serve, that is, offering charitable aid, particularly health care, to those in need (p. 124).

The “care of strangers” is an extraordinary legacy of the Christian tradition. Caring for those who are ill is foundational to an acknowledgement of every individual being made in the image of God, an expression of Christian hospitality, and an extension of neighbor love. These are virtues both deep and wide in Christianity. After all, the apostle John said, “if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17); and James reminded his readers that “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27).

To be crude, it’s one thing to aid a family member in the bathroom; it’s something else entirely to do so for a stranger. Over and over again, I asked my dad’s caregivers why they did what they did. Every one said it was a calling. They felt called to serve in such a sacrificial way those who could not care for themselves. And more often than not, they confessed that it was their love of Christ and love for those he came to redeem that was their greatest motivation.

I thank God for the rich legacy of Christian caregiving we have been entrusted by our forefathers and foremothers. Their service has shown us what it means to love God by loving our neighbors (Luke 10:25-37). Most of all, I am for those selfless strangers who were called to care for my dad in his time of greatest need. In so doing, they faithfully upheld the inherent dignity given to him by his Creator and gave our family an invaluable peace of mind that Dad was in good, kind, and caring hands. 

By / May 25

“How many funerals have you officiated?” I asked my dad as I rifled through the “Funerals” folder in his office filing cabinet. He thought for a few seconds, sat back, and sighed, “Over 80.” 

I was preparing to officiate my first.

As I thumbed through the pages, I started to recognize certain names within the stack, and memories of those individuals rushed to mind. 

My dad, now in his 36th year as a pastor, has always pastored elderly congregations. Some of my fondest memories from my childhood are of joining him on pastoral visits to shut-ins or nursing homes. Even today, I can hear Harry tell me the story of meeting his wife at the 1935 Chicago World’s Fair, remember the way it felt to shake Gerry’s four-fingered hand (he lost his pinky in WW2), and name the passage Evelyn would recite to herself if she woke up nervous in the middle of the night (Isaiah 43). 

Youth idolatry 

Youth is powerful in the hands of the Lord and is to be commended (1 Tim. 4:12). Yet, I’m so thankful that I grew up in an elderly church. 

That’s not a common refrain today. Instead, in many churches, there seems to be a fear of “age” — a dread of looking out of step with pop culture. There is a gravitation toward the new, the popular, the young. From the music we sing to the books we read and recommend, it seems that the church is smitten with youth. Many congregants are duped into believing that a vibrant church is synonymous with youthful vigor. 

And this isn’t really a church problem. It’s a culture problem. At one point in Carl Trueman’s book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, he comments on our age’s “cult of childhood and youth,” saying, “the Western world of today generally credits youth with wisdom and sees old age as corrupt, myopic, or behind the times.”1Trueman, C. (2020). The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution., (Wheaton, IL: Crossway), 127. That sentiment is certainly pervasive, almost subliminally so. 

In my previous role as a college pastor, I had a front row seat to the perspective of youth toward the elderly. In general, the belief was that elderly people — their beliefs and wisdom — are relics of a bygone era. This is a tragic and unbiblical perspective (Prov. 20:29). 

How the elderly cared for me 

That incorrect sentiment is far from what I experienced. I count myself blessed to have grown up in an elderly church, hearing their reflections on life and surrounded by their genuine care, comfort, and encouragement. 

My experience is part of the reason why I decided to write this particular article. Throughout the pandemic, I’ve heard the constant charge that we must care for the elderly. And that’s true, right, and good. But today, I’d like to flip the script and reflect on some ways the elderly community in the church has cared for me. 

  1. They shared their rich wisdom.

It may be true that the elderly Christians in my church growing up didn’t possess a detailed knowledge of pop culture or its trends. But they were skilled in knowing how to please God. That skillful wisdom hadn’t come naturally; it was the product of learned faithfulness and repentance over a prolonged period of time. Nor was their wisdom shallow. These were men and women who knew life and loss, joy and sorrow, sickness and health, wealth and poverty, success and failure. They could speak firsthand of the joys of faithfulness, of the consequences of sin, and of the beauty of restoration. The Lord’s mercy, comfort, and discipline were their friends. 

It was this perspective and experiential knowledge that allowed elderly Christians to speak with stinging clarity into my life. Rather than seeming out of touch with today’s world, they applied their wisdom to my circumstances with precision. More often than not, the wisdom would come in the form of a five-minute conversation at church between Sunday School and the worship service, but that’s all it took for right and wrong to cut through a sea of gray.

  1. They taught me how to pray. 

“Stephen, the older people pray,” is one line my dad repeated while growing up that will stick with me throughout my life. He proved it to me by dragging me along to Wednesday night prayer meetings. 

At that age, it was difficult to keep my eyes closed for the entire hour, but now as a father myself, I understand why my dad brought me along. He did it so that I’d be shaped, not by the moment, but by the pattern of prayer (and to give my mom a break). My enduring memory is that the older people dominated attendance at those prayer meetings. And though I don’t remember the exact words of their prayers, their model of faithfulness was formative. They didn’t pray because they were strong; they prayed because even at their age, they were needy and dependent upon the Lord for provision. 

  1. They never seemed too busy to care for me.   

One of the things I try to guard against in my own pastorate is needlessly adding activities and expectations to church members’ plates. People always seem to be busy, myself included. There’s always somewhere to be and something to do. And unfortunately, in the chaos of it all, it’s easy to forget to take time to care for one another.   

Busyness affects everyone, so the elderly aren’t immune to distraction or looking past people. But, at least in my experience, the elderly Christians seemed to have developed a greater sense of the importance of slowing down. 

In my early teens, I went back to visit “home” and walked through the church my dad previously pastored. While there, I ran into Pastor Roy — a 95-year-old retired minister — in the hallway. Incredibly, he stopped his day, invited me to sit down, and, though he had a hard time hearing, spent the better part of an hour talking to me. He didn’t have to do that, but he did. He showed me that sometimes caring enough to talk to someone for an hour is more important than going to the grocery store. 

What a vibrant church looks like

Due in large part to the wisdom, encouragement, and prayers of elderly saints, I knew better how to please God in middle school, high school, and college. They taught me neediness is a sign of maturity and that dependence upon the Lord for provision never ends. And though I’m not particularly skilled at slowing down and caring for others yet, I’d like to be. Their examples challenge me every day. 

An elderly church may not be what comes to mind for most people when they consider the characteristics of a vibrant church. Maybe it should, though. Our churches — the leadership and congregations — would benefit greatly from their prayers, listening ears, and wisdom. 

  • 1
    Trueman, C. (2020). The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution., (Wheaton, IL: Crossway), 127.
By / Mar 31

Mary has been a resident of West Valley Assisted Living Center for three years. She has a new caregiver named Harvey. Harvey visits Mary’s room every morning at 8:30 a.m. sharp. He says, “Hellllooo!” and slowly pushes open her door. Harvey brings Mary her morning medication, takes her blood pressure, and asks, “How are you feeling today, Mary?” Mary responds, “Just fine,” and Harvey gives her a big wink and replies with a very happy, “That’s what we like to hear.” 

Mary and Harvey always talk about her children who live in different states. Harvey always seems interested. Then Mary gets updates from Harvey on the weather forecast and a reminder of the day of the week. After a few minutes, Harvey pivots, offers a snappy, “Well, off to my next client!” and motors himself out of the room, carefully pushing the door closed behind him and exclaiming, “Toodle-oo Mary!” Harvey is West Valley’s newest technology, a service robot.

Robots and health care 

Although the story is fictional for the moment, robots are increasingly being called on to assist in health care. According to industry magazine, HealthTech, Adventist Health White Memorial in Los Angeles employs seven LightStrike robots from Xenex Disinfection Services to decontaminate rooms after patients leave. Each robot can emit multiple wavelengths of UV rays, sanitizing the room in as little as 10 to 15 minutes without human contact. 

A fleet of six Aethon TUG robots deliver linens and medicine across the 912-bed facility at MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C. Each robot can execute hundreds of tasks daily (collectively, they traveled 2,974 miles and completed 26,574 stops last year, according to the hospital). At Hutchinson Health, a Level IV Trauma Center in Hutchinson, Minnesota, a Savioke Relay robot delivers blood samples between the main hospital lab and its onsite clinics. Named Spencer (as in dispenser), the robot can work 24/7 and averages nearly 400 in-house deliveries per month. The machine is more efficient and cost-effective than a human employee and never needs paid family leave.

Soon other aspects of caregiving will be delegated to medical robots. In a September 2020 story in the British newspaper, The Guardian, Robert Booth reported that robots will be deployed in British care homes (nursing homes) to help boost the residents’ mental and emotional health.  

The wheeled robots, called “Pepper”, move independently and gesture with robotic arms and hands and are designed to be “culturally competent”, which means that after some initial programming they learn about the interests and backgrounds of care home residents. This allows them to initiate rudimentary conversations, play residents’ favourite music, teach them languages, and offer practical help including medicine reminders.

Robots, persons, and human care 

Even if programmed by human beings, and even if very efficient, are robots appropriate for truly human care? Not in my view. Robots do not care. They cannot provide care. They do not have the capacity to do so either emotionally or existentially. That is not to say that robots cannot perform important tasks. And it is also not to say that they might not be able to do some tasks more efficiently, more frequently, and more accurately than some humans; but they cannot provide care. Human care is a uniquely human gift, just as human touch is a uniquely human experience.

Care is a person-centered virtue. For Christians, the Good Samaritan is the classic example. In the account in Luke 10:25-27, Jesus makes it clear that providing care for those who are hurting and vulnerable is a holy obligation, not an option. In contemporary conversations, being a good Samaritan is often described as going above and beyond the call of duty, but Jesus’ words at the end of the story, “Go and do likewise,” show that it is an imperative. What models are there for Christian person-centered care for senior adults?

Among some Christians, care for the sick, aged, poor, unloved, and dying is a religious vocation or calling. The Alexian Brothers, for instance, is a lay Catholic order that dates back to the Black Death in 14th century Europe. Their moto is Caritas Christus Urgent Nos (For the love of Christ Compels Us). Their articles of faith begin with the affirmation: “We believe that life is a sacred gift from God. Each person is created in the divine image with a right of conscience and from conception until death is called to eternal union with God.” The Alexian Brothers established hospitals, continuing care retirement communities, and other ministries in health care.

The Christian and Missionary Alliance, an evangelical denomination, operates Shell Pointe Retirement Community, that provides independent living, assisted living, memory care, rehabilitation, skilled nursing care, a pharmacy, and two medical centers. Rather than warehousing senior adults, Shell Pointe is “dedicated to the service of God and the care of His people by providing a broad continuum of residential alternatives and services, designed to enhance the independence and dignity of its residents through spiritual, social, recreational, and physical programs.”

Through their state conventions or other nonprofit entities, Southern Baptists operate a number of senior adult and continuing care retirement communities, including communities in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Texas, Missouri, and other states. In Missouri, “For over 100 years, The Baptist Home has provided care for the aging by providing quality care driven by a biblical perspective. Missouri Baptists are committed to supporting the sanctity of life from conception to natural death. The Baptist Home serves this commitment through Christlike, compassionate care to our aging population.”

If Southern Baptists and other Christians are going to resist the robot revolution in health care, respect human dignity, and support the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death, they will have to rededicate themselves to patient-centered care, including senior adult care, palliative care, and hospice. We must not allow human senior communities to devolve into old people factories.

By / Jan 27

Almost 70 years ago, he asked his parents for 20 dollars so he could marry the girl he loved. He chuckles as he recalls only needing half of it for the wedding—they spent the other half on their wedding night for the fanciest dinner they ever had. When they were younger, they enjoyed traveling and finding adventures. Now neither of them drive. 

The past year, the year they both turned 90, was one of increasing need for them. They required hospital care multiple times because of heart surgery, a stroke, and an infection. Recovery has been hard, as they’ve found themselves unable to perform tasks they’ve been doing their whole lives. The COVID-19 pandemic has also heightened health concerns for them, making them dependent upon others now for most anything that happens outside of their house. 

The pandemic has shed light on the plight of such elderly people. It’s forced many Americans to consider how much the elderly need others, as they’ve helped their family members with the unique needs associated with aging. But we still often overlook the fact that the elderly don’t just have practical needs––they have relational needs too.

There are countless stories of precious older souls withering away in isolation because of the pandemic, unable to see their family and friends for weeks or months. The stories of loneliness and longing are heart-wrenching. They need their families, friends, and neighbors. They need their pastors and fellow church members. But have we considered how much we need them?

When a 78-year-old friend found himself without a place to live for several weeks, we invited him to stay with our family. His health and memory didn’t allow him to contribute to the household in measurable ways, but he gave us something more in the lessons he taught us about life and what it means to be human. The children enjoyed his singing and giggled at his ability to nap anywhere, anytime. My husband and I flourished under his encouragement and kindness. And his open-handed generosity with everything has convicted me of my own selfishness and greed. Our hearts have softened toward others as his love for us has helped us love better. 

The end of a long life can seem impersonal when spoken about in clinical terms. But when you love a person with declining health in their old age, the deterioration of the body is not impersonal––it’s human, and points us to our need for a Savior.

There are also my 90-year-old neighbors, who have lived a full life surviving wars, economic crises, life-threatening illnesses, and heartbreaks. They’ve been married for more than 65 years and have raised children and enjoyed grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They understand a lot about life, about what matters, and about how to love others. The good advice that they frequently offer isn’t full of platitudes or clichés. When they tell me something, I heed their wisdom for it’s stained with blood, sweat, and tears.

I especially love when our older friends tell us about the past. One of our friends told the story of  being one of the first African-American students at a local high school when our city’s schools integrated. Other friends have shared stories about life before their childhood homes had electricity and running water. But we don’t just learn about history from the elderly. We learn about suffering and pain, contentment and joy. We learn about a life well-lived.

We’ve also learned some new vocabulary, and my kids learned about dentures when they helped a friend search for hers. We’ve learned about nursing homes, Medicare, strokes, broken hips, and heart valve replacements. The end of a long life can seem impersonal when spoken about in clinical terms. But when you love a person with declining health in their old age, the deterioration of the body is not impersonal––it’s human, and points us to our need for a Savior.

Adulthood can bring with it a false sense of security. We believe success and happiness are ours for the taking. But in spending time with the elderly in the last stages of life, all pretenses of our strength and righteousness are removed. A failing body is not something anyone would ask for, but it reminds us of our need for Christ. There is good news for the elderly; there is good news for those whose hearts ache as they watch others suffer in old age. Our strength is fleeting, our power temporary, and our independence is false. But we have a Savior who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Our bodies may age and break and fail, but when Jesus faced death, he defeated it. 

The past year has made us painfully aware of the fragility and brevity of life. When we are most vulnerable, broken, and hurting, then are we able to see how badly we need the redemption offered only through Christ. Our culture values—even idolizes—youthfulness. We fear aging so much that we do everything we can to avoid it. But unless we die young, we too will one day be old. Let us be a people who are thankful for every breath the Lord grants us, and let us love and value those whose breaths far outnumber our own. 

By / Dec 29

The elderly members of a local church are a unique gift. This is not, however, a popular position among all pastors. Some see the elderly as a burden on the church; the group in the church who cannot contribute much but hold back progress. There was a time early in my pastoral ministry I was tempted to think this way. But my opinion changed with time. Over the years, the elderly members of my church became some of the most significant blessings of my 25-year pastoral ministry.  

This shift from burden to blessing in my thinking came as I began to get creative about how to care for these longtime, faithful members who often feel overlooked by our new, younger, energetic members. This creativity required action. 

So, I walked an indoor track with Mildred, a 90-year-old widow who walked this track for five miles, three times a week. 

I worked in the garden with Jim, an 82-year-old widower who always felt lost since his wife died. 

I used my wife’s van and picked up five elderly ladies unable to drive themselves to take them to lunch (typically Cracker Barrel).  

I took a group to sing Christmas carols in the living room of Ms. Tillie, a 106-year-old widow who loved music.  

I sat numerous times at the kitchen table of Ms. Betty, an 88-year-old widow who always provided tea and cookies for our talk.  

These examples remain some of my sweetest memories as a pastor.

The elderly members of a local church are a unique gift.

But COVID-19 changed all that. In the same way, I needed to get creative on how to care for elderly members feeling left out of a growing and changing church. And I also had to channel creative, pastoral instincts to wade through this uncharted territory of 2020. How do pastors and loved ones care for a group of people who are told to stay home, not get out, and keep their distance from all others for their safety?  Here are five suggestions to still help meet the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of elderly members while maintaining a safe distance in the COVID-19 age.

1. Let them hear your voice.

When COVID-19 hit, many of our elderly members already battling loneliness and isolation experienced a new level of its intensity. I quickly learned how helpful it was for them to just hear a human voice. Phone calls became a regular practice. I even went so far as to go and stand in the middle of someone’s yard just so they could hear my voice in person. Do not underestimate how big of a difference the sound of another human’s voice can make in the extreme isolation many elderly folks have faced since March.

2. Take full advantage of technology.

I think we would all agree, the middle of COVID-19 lockdown is not the most ideal time to try and teach an 85-year-old how to use Zoom or FaceTime. But I learned it is possible. The benefits of seeing someone’s face and talking to them are significant. In fact, joining a Zoom call became a balm to the souls of many elderly in our church. I realize it can be hard and frustrating trying to help an elderly person learn these new ways of communication, especially since many of them are resistant. But we should still try. If it works, it will be worth it for them and you.

3. Find ways to be physically present at a distance.

Human beings were not made for isolation. This is the great challenge COVID-19 brought into our lives—especially the elderly. Without warning, all elderly folks were warned to avoid human contact. But because I understood this basic human need of touch and physical presence, I kept pushing for a solution. It did not take long to realize a Zoom call still did not replace physical presence. As I mentioned, I began to go to the homes of the elderly and stand in their yard and talk with them while they stood on the porch. I sat on the back deck with a mask on while they sat on the other side, providing plenty of safe distance to visit. I even stood at the glass screen door with my hands on the glass while an 85-year-old widow put her hands on mine through the glass as we talked. Find ways to be physically present, then tend to emotional and spiritual needs in that moment.

4. Drop off care packages at the front door.

This became a very practical way for anyone to serve the isolated elderly. A care package containing food, requested supplies, books, baked goods, pictures children colored, and craft materials to pass the time can safely be dropped off at the front door.  I watched this become a major blessing to those longing to be remembered by others.  

5. Write a physical note and mail it to them.

In the age of email and social media, writing a physical letter has practically become a lost art.  But for elderly people who never bought a computer and never signed up for social media—the practice remained. To this day, I still get physical notes from members of my church and calls from a landline because they have not embraced this technological age. Therefore, do not miss the meaning behind receiving a physical note in the mail for these members. This provides something they can hold, look at, smell, and read over and over again as isolation tempts them to think they are forgotten.

I have watched some pastors simply throw their hands up in the air and declare there is nothing more we can do than make phone calls. But that is wrong. Yes, it requires creativity and a refusal to give up that is driven by a deep love for these sweet saints whose needs have not changed just because COVID-19 hit. They need what we all need—the assurance we are loved and remembered, and the comfort of human presence and interaction.

By / Nov 25

November is National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month. At a past ERLC National Conference on family, we covered a variety of topics helpful to living in a way that honors Christ. One of the breakouts we hosted was titled “Finishing Well Panel: Grandparents, Widows and Caring for Family in their Final Days.” These are important topics that have a lot to do with what we communicate about the gospel, what we communicate about the Lord, and what we communicate about the dignity of everyone in every stage of life. I was joined by several panelists, including: 

Debbie Bethancourt: a mother, grandmother, and caretaker. 
Susie Hawkins: a pastor’s wife and ministry leader.
Benjamin Mast: a professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Louisville.
Daniel Darling: an author, senior vice president of National Religious Broadcasters, and a pastor. 

Lindsay Nicolet: I want to start out talking about grandparenting and grandparents. Debbie and Susie, grandparenting is so important, though it might not be elevated in our society. What unique impact can a grandparent have in their grandchildren’s lives? Why is it important as we talk about the cross-shaped family?

Debbie Bethancourt: We have 14 grandchildren and a lot of my friends say, “Well, I only have four.” And I’m say, “Well, you know, it’s not a race. You get what you’re given.” So we have a lot of love to give, and we’re happy with the 14 that we have. I’m very blessed with them. When we had our first grandchild, we had triplets. So we got started off with a bang. And my first thought when I was holding little Luke in my hands and trying to get him to eat at 2.5 pounds was, How in the world are these parents ever going to be able to teach them everything they know? But you know what? They’re 15 now, and those parents have done a great job; not always like I would have done it, but I’ll be first to tell you that I’ve learned over my lifetime that there’s more than one way to do something right. And for me, I just feel like my job was to support, pray, encourage, be a good example, and to just be available for those parents.

Susie Hawkins: That’s exactly right, Debbie. I would add that I see grandparenting as a safety net. In God’s design of the family, extended family and grandparents are a safety net for parents that may be sick or incapacitated in some way. And so you’re a safety net not only just for the physical care sometimes of grandchildren, but the spiritual care as well, because you do have a little more time to pray for them, to concentrate on who they are and their interests, and to invest in them personally in some ways that parents don’t always have.

The other thing I would say about that is that grandparenting gives you a certain distance to help when your daughter or son calls you and says, “We’re having some struggles here, you know, what about this? What about that?” Oftentimes you will find your adult children have a little more of renewed interest in how you parented them, especially as it relates to how they may need to parent their children. So, I think in this day and age grandparenting is more important than ever. Invest in the children and your grandchildren as much as possible.

LN: Dr. Mast, I want to transition to talking about widows. You can’t read the Bible without realizing God’s heart for the vulnerable and being a defender of the fatherless and taking care of widows; in James, it’s true and pure religion before the Lord. Why do you think this is a key theme in the Bible? And what can Christians learn from it?

Benjamin Mast: We’re in this particular culture where we are striving for power everywhere we turn, and we hold up those who have power and those who have influence. When we look at widows, one characteristic that we can see is that they are among a category who are particularly vulnerable. Not necessarily all widows are dependent upon us, but they’re vulnerable emotionally, spiritually, financially. And it’s just as if God has a special place for the vulnerable in his care. He’s teaching us something about where we can be directing our attention and our ministry—it isn’t always about the powerful and the showy and what’s out front. This is a sort of a behind-the-scenes ministry where we’re reaching out to those who might need special care, help, and even protection.

The other thing I think about with orphans and widows is they’re both defined by either the loss or the absence of a relationship, whether parents or a spouse. And God repeats over and over in the Old and New Testament that he will be with us, that he’s present with us, and he doesn’t want us to be alone. So I think part of the reason why it’s so important and what we can learn from it as Christians is that we can be a manifestation of God’s presence and care for those people in that particular stage of life. It forces us to slow down, to look behind the scenes, and maybe look for more of what’s going on. 

LN: I think sometimes it’s out of sight, out of mind. We are around less elderly people because we are less multigenerational as a society and as a civilization. Dan, what other factors do you think lead to this lack of a multigenerational society, even in the church and family? And what do we lose in this?

Dan Darling: I do think one of the things that lends to sort of neglect of widows or even the elderly in our congregations is sometimes in the church there’s a subtle message that we only want church for young and active. We have to be careful because sometimes we actually market that this church is only for the young and the good looking. In fact, there’s a sad story from our community I wrote about in one of my books. There was a guy that was playing guitar at a big church near us for years on their worship team, and all of a sudden they took him off the team. The reason was that he had gray hair. And I just think that’s so antithetical to the kingdom of God. 

You are valued in the kingdom of God, but not because of what you can bring to the body. I think of a gentleman in our church right now who has really late-stage dementia and he can’t even remember his wife’s name. But he comes to church every week and he worships. He actually remembers the worship songs, which is amazing. And he can’t give us great leadership or giftings or even resources. But we need to communicate that he is as valuable to our body and is as important to us because he’s fully human, and God sees him as valuable as anybody else.

Regardless of where you are in terms of your life [stage and quality], you are still a full part of the body of Christ and will one day be resurrected into newness and fullness of life.

LN: Living in multigenerational community is not without its hardships. Debbie, you mentioned it requires a lot of sacrifice because elderly parents get sick or we have siblings that get sick. What have you learned in your caregiving, and how could you encourage others here?

DB: Well, there are a lot of books written about aging, but there’s no particular book written about the process that you will go through with your aging parents. For our situation, I [had] a 93-year-old dad who did pretty well. And then I [had] an 87-year-old mom who was bedridden, being taken care of by hospice. And then on top of that, I have a 60-year-old brother who, when he was 35, was thrown from a car in a wreck and had a traumatic brain injury. He did pretty good taking care of himself until the last couple of years but is in a nursing home now.  

So, I’ve learned that you need a lot of patience. The roles have reversed; you’re now in charge of telling your parents what to do rather than them telling you what to do. You’re always the bad guy. There’s a lot of confusion that goes on. You’re confused because you’re trying to learn everything. They’re confused because they’re in a new place. And every single day is a new day. 

The second thing I’ve learned is to take care of yourself. If you get sick because you sat by their bedside day and night eating improperly, there’s no way that you can care for them. I’ve had friends that spent night and day with their parents, and they just are exhausted. When my brother was in the hospital, my dad said that the doctor told them to go home every night and have a good night’s sleep because they could not help their son if they were not fresh and ready to go in the morning. So thankfully, they remember that and have enabled me to be able to do that, too. 

Another thing I’ve learned is I have to be a peacemaker. I have two brothers, and I am so blessed on this account because I haven’t really had to be a peacemaker. My brothers are happy to let me make the decisions. Then you find that you’re the mediator. You’re the mediator between doctors and caregivers. And, you have to keep everybody in check. But most of all, you have to be really nice to them because they’re in charge of your parents. 

And finally, I’ve learned I’m not in charge. And I have great faith that the Lord is in charge, and he knows what he’s doing. I just sit back and wonder what he has planned because I saw my mom laying in a bed wasting away, and I saw my dad sitting by her bed holding her hand. And my main goal out of all this is just to try to be an example for my children and my grandchildren.

DD: I think the other side of it is that we have Christ as our ultimate caregiving model. So everything we’ve said is we’re giving up something of ourselves, sacrificing something of ourselves to love and care for someone else. And it’s always struck me that when Jesus is about to depart this world, one of the last things that he does is wash his disciples’ feet, which had to be a smelly, unpleasant task and one that they thought he shouldn’t be doing because he was too great. But then he teaches us to do likewise and tells us we’re blessed. So I think in caregiving we see this Christlike, sacrificial love that we’ve been called to. But what I often encourage is that you are a caregiver, not a savior. You have your limits.

One of the things that really surprised me when I began pastoring was that there were times where I would have an elderly parent in my church, and it was really hard for me to get the children to come and even be present and give care. And it really struck me and upset me and made me think deeply about our responsibility to care for those who are elderly. You see this cycle in the life of Jesus: he is first a dependent, vulnerable newborn who is being cared for by his mother. And then he sort of pushes away at the age of 12 and is independent. But then at the end of his life as he’s on the cross, he’s bleeding and dying for our sins, and he makes sure that his mother is cared for and assigns this to John. I think that’s such a powerful example for us in the church that this is not really an optional thing— this is something that God has called us to do. 

LN: Dr. Mast, we see and hear more about Alzheimer’s and dementia these days. Will you clear up some of the misunderstandings that we might have? And will you tell us, as Christians, how we might be set apart in how we minister to those with Alzheimer’s or dementia?

BM: This is an area that I care quite a bit about. There’s just a real contrast in the way that we can think about and have hope for people who are dealing with Alzheimer’s and dementia. It’s a neurological disorder that affects the brain. It’s irreversible. It’s progressive. And our treatments aren’t that good. The way the world thinks about this is a person gets this disease, they can expect decay, disability, and death. And frankly, in our culture, when somebody no longer can contribute, when they can no longer remember, when they’re now becoming confused, they sort of cease to be a person slowly. And, in terms of hope, there isn’t much. 

But I think, it’s important for us to remember what God has told us about what it means to be a person and who we are. And so, sure, that’s a person who’s affected by Alzheimer’s disease. Their brain is slowly being ravaged by these microscopic changes. But that’s still a person that was created in the image of God. That’s an image-bearer who deserves our honor and respect. We continue to talk to a person. We continue to try to engage them. We continue to try to minister to them. So even though we see these changes, we’re image-bearers. We’re children of God. We mattered enough that Jesus Christ would die for us and promises that he is going to make us new one day. 

So what difference does it make that we’re image-bearers and children of God? I think it makes a huge difference in terms of our hope and the way that we approach someone. A passage that we use often in pro-life circles is Psalm 139, and it starts out by talking about how God searches us and knows us, knows the depths of us, and even before we speak he knows our needs and what’s on our heart. Romans 8 talks about how the Spirit searches us and intercedes in prayers on our behalf. Revelation tells us that one day he’s going to make all things new. 

We think about all these things, and it isn’t just theoretical then. This is a person who matters, so when they can no longer contribute to our churches, they’re still a part of our body. We can still reach out to them. We can engage them with music, with prayer, with familiar Bible passages. And sometimes we even seek to minister to them not knowing whether we’re reaching them, and we trust the work of the Holy Spirit. I think a big part of it is that we continue to show up, to be present, and to see that person as somebody who has value and dignity. In our culture these days, dignity and value come with productivity and responsible behavior. And what we can do for the world is to show that when we approach people in grace, we bestow on them dignity, recognizing who God created them to be, even when their behavior maybe isn’t as appropriate as it used to be. 

In talking with families, I ask them, “What’s the best thing that the church could do for you?” And the number one answer over and over is, “I just wish that somebody from the church were present on this journey with us and willing to go the long haul.” Here’s a story about a simple thing that you can do: a colleague told me about a family whose father got Alzheimer’s disease,  and the church didn’t know what to do. So they just kind of kept their distance. 

And the same man, two years later, was diagnosed with cancer and everybody immediately showed up with casseroles because there was a way for ministering to that family. And that’s still available to us in Alzheimer’s disease. We have to be the church. And as it’s harder for people to make it to the church service, which is definitely an issue in Alzheimer’s and other dementias, we need to be the church that goes to them. The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.” We need to be unified and have diversity not only of our age, but also in terms of our ability and our cognition.

LN: Dan, Dr. Mast mentioned pro-life terminology. When we think about being pro-life, we often think about babies. But, how is caring for the elderly, caring for the sick and the unable, a part of a whole life pro-life ethic? And what kind of opportunities does that open up to us?

DD: It definitely demonstrates how we feel about human dignity and about the fact that every human being is creating the image of God. But when we neglect the elderly, we’re actually going against what we say we believe because we’re saying that people are only valuable to us as long as there’s something that they provide for us. In our churches, almost all of us would disagree strongly, thankfully, with the “death with dignity” movement that says we should just end the lives of people who are in that state. But sometimes, by our neglect of people in that stage of life, we’re almost agreeing with that philosophy and saying that they are not useful to us. So, I think we just need to combat that with our care and by going to them and treating them as people, as valuable members of our body. For those of us who are young, one day we’ll be in that condition and we’ll want someone to care for us as well. Regardless of where you are in terms of your life [stage and quality], you are still a full part of the body of Christ and will one day be resurrected into newness and fullness of life.

LN: Dan, will you, once more, give encouragement as to why these issues are so important in helping us be the body of Christ and put on display how great our God is?

DD: One of the things that [these issues] teach us is the fragility of life. I think some of the reasons we don’t often want to be around people in the elderly stage of life is because it reminds us of our own frailty and weakness. And we don’t want to think about that. But it’s really the life cycle. And we learn to depend on Christ in our weakness. I also think it’s a picture of the kingdom of God, which is made up of the weak and the less than noble. This is what should make our churches otherworldly—that [everyone is] valued here because [they’re] valued by God.

By / Jul 9

Shepherding during a global pandemic has taught me a lot of new skills as a pastor that seminary could not have prepared me for. I had to learn how to preach to a screen, operate my own camera, and edit my own videos. I became the I.T. guy for senior adult Sunday school classes meeting over webcams. I have presided over a Monday afternoon business meeting in the church parking lot with a quorum of six, all sitting comfortably in their cars. And our greeters are now equipped with masks and no-touch thermometers. 

But the hardest thing I have had to do in the age of the coronavirus is minister to the dying and grieving who lack the ordinary channels of saying goodbye.

Earlier in the spring, I officiated in an outdoor funeral for a member of my church who passed away with COVID-19. I stood there, Bible open in the shadow of a south Louisiana mausoleum, preaching to a small group of family members whose faces I could not see. The bandana-covered bereaved looked more like a gang about to rob a stagecoach than mourners at a funeral. Even by normal funeral standards, it was an unusual and uncomfortable affair.

Like everyone else in America, I am tired of the coronavirus. I am bored with television, anxious to travel and see family, and nervous about what the future holds for the people of God. I have also seen the devastating effects of COVID-19 firsthand. Our parish (or county, for people who live outside of Louisiana) has been the most affected parish in the state of Louisiana, a state which, as of late May, had over 34,000 confirmed cases. Eight of my church members have tested positive for the virus, and two have died from complications with it.

Ministry to the grieving has always been one of the hardest parts of pastoring. But ministry to the grieving in a pandemic requires extra sensitivity and care for the new and unique burdens they face.

Sensitivity to the situation

In this politically charged medical crisis, people have often been reduced to statistics or partisan talking points. I have heard well-meaning Christians say things like, “The virus only affects the elderly,” or, “The only ones who die are those with underlying medical conditions.” True, the data says the people who are most affected by the virus fall into these categories. Both people who have died from the virus in my church were in their 90s and had preexisting medical conditions. But neither of these congregants died because they were ignoring the quarantine or violating stay-at-home orders. The virus was transmitted by someone coming in and out of the assisted living facilities where they lived. They became victims of the virus along with many others living in these facilities.

While there is a temptation to reduce such individuals to CDC statistics supporting one political narrative or another, I learned very quickly to restrain any such language or thought when I was talking to their grieving children. No one would dare say, “Well, they were just old,” or, “I’m sorry for your loss, but they had preexisting conditions.” Regardless of their age or medical history, they left behind hurting children and grandchildren who loved their moms and grandmothers. One of these women, a beloved Sunday school teacher, left behind a class of grieving women she had been ministering to for more than four decades.

Though we may feel alone, we can rest assured that the God who created us will continue to sustain us in every situation until the end of our lives.

Each of these individuals was made in the image of God and worthy of the basic human dignity we can bestow on them. So, for example, if me wearing a mask when I go grocery shopping reduces the risk of someone else’s grandmother going through this, it would be worth the small sacrifice on my part. More importantly, I can be careful about the words I use when venting my frustrations or concerns about the present cultural and political climate. I never want to reduce these sweet saints to political talking points.

Embracing at a distance

The practical realities surrounding funerals have changed for the time being. During the initial phase of the stay-at-home orders, many funerals were restricted to groups of 10 or smaller. By the end of May, funerals had been increased to a 25% capacity service as long as strict social distancing practices were maintained. While many of these restrictions feel like necessary evils, they have changed the grieving process for friends and family members, as well as those who are ministering to them.

A few of my church members with larger families have opted to have graveside goodbyes strictly restricted to family members. Consequently, I was left out of a few services I normally would have conducted. Many of our families have planned future memorial services at the church—whenever we have the freedom to conduct them the way the family would like to have them. We have had to be extremely flexible and provide alternate means for those grieving to celebrate the lives of these individuals.

For those services I have participated in, a lot of my normal pastoral routines have been disrupted. I have not made in-home visits or looked through the Bibles of the deceased to take a look at their favorite verses. Worst of all, for the first time in my life as a pastor, I could not put my arms around those who were suffering. The preacher in Ecclesiastes speaks of “a time to embrace and a time to avoid embracing” (3:5b). In one of those latter times to avoid embracing, I have had to learn ways in which I could embrace at a distance. At funerals, I have stood at a distance and attempted to communicate my empathy as much as I could with my words and body language. None of it has felt natural or comfortable to me. I have had to be quite intentional about communicating with the grieving, routinely checking in with them, and offering whatever assistance we as a church were capable of providing.

Letting go without touching

Over the last four years, my in-laws have lost all four of their elderly parents. I have learned a lot about the importance of touch from my mother-in-law, who was clasping each of her parents’ hands in the moments they took their final breaths. Physical touch is as important for the person dying as it is for the person they leave behind. Reassuring touches help people who are dying to go peacefully into the arms of Jesus. Even in their unconscious states, they feel the presence of love as they leave this world and enter the next. But because of state and local regulations restricting or reducing the number of guests from hospital rooms and hospices, many sick and elderly people are dying without anyone they know at their side.

The greatest pain many family members have had to face during this time is separation from their loved ones in their final days. I have been told by some that they had to say goodbye to their loved ones through a window or an iPad screen. They have had to deal with additional feelings of guilt or inadequacy. They have worried about their loved ones dying alone in cold, sterile hospital rooms without someone there to hold their hands. They have had to let go of their moms and dads without ever touching them.

The only encouraging words I can muster for family members who feel this come from Scripture: “Even when I go through the darkest valley, I fear no danger, for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me” (Psa. 23:4). Even in life’s valleys where death casts its big, ugly shadow, those who know the Lord continue to live in his presence. God has repeatedly promised never to leave or forsake us (Deut. 31:6, 8; Josh. 1:5; Heb. 13:5). Though we may feel alone, we can rest assured that the God who created us will continue to sustain us in every situation until the end our lives.

Even if no one else saw this crisis coming, God did, and he knows exactly how to walk his people through it. Peter reassured a church in crisis with this message: “Even though now for a short time, if necessary, you suffer grief in various trials,” and, “though you have not seen him, you love him; though not seeing him now, you believe in him, and you rejoice with inexpressible and glorious joy, because you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Pet. 1:6, 8–9). In the same way, may we model trust in and faithful speech about the one who we do not presently see, for he is still at work in our midst. He is present with the dead, the dying, and those who are left behind.

By / Apr 1

“What am I going to do with my retirement?” 

The anxious question came from Anne Bell, a recently retired researcher at the University of Northern Colorado. As a staff volunteer for the 5280 Fellowship, a young leaders program in Denver, Anne decided to give her first year of retirement to young professionals struggling with questions about calling. Bright and soft-spoken, wearing dark-rimmed glasses and carrying her teacher’s bag, today Anne came to the office with her own questions about calling. 

As our staff team discussed our weekly reading, Anne looked out on the snow-capped mountains from our seventh-story office. “What do you think, Anne?” I asked. She paused. Her voice began to quiver. “I just don’t know what I’m called to,” she confessed. “I need to know what’s next.”

The world is undergoing a massive demographic shift. Nearly 80 million Baby Boomers will retire in the next 20 years, at a rateof nearly 10,000 per day. By 2035, Americans of retirement age will exceed the number of people under age 18 for the first time in U.S. history. Globally, the number of people age 60 and over is projected to double to more than two billion by 2050. 

But today a growing number of Baby Boomers like Anne Bell – both Christians and their neighbors – are discontent with current cultural assumptions about retirement, and are asking better questions about work, calling, and purpose later in life. 

Today, the dominant paradigm of retirement is about vacation – how to afford it, and then how to make the most of it. A Google search for the word “retirement” shows articles, ads, and tips on how to save enough money for it, and a host of books on how to enjoy it. Retirement gifts follow suit: a coffee mug that reads “Goodbye Tension, Hello Pension.” A kitchen wall-hanging with the acronym R.E.T.I.R.E says Relax, Entertain, Travel, Indulge, Read, Enjoy. The wine glass that reads, “I can wine all I want. I’m retired.” 

Yet cracks are showing in the hull of the never-ending vacation view of retirement. More Boomers are questioning whether living in a Corona commercial can satisfy the heart’s longing for purpose over a lifetime – even if they could afford it. Mitch Anthony, author of The New Retirementality writes, “Retirement is an illusion because those who can afford the illusion are disillusioned by it, and those who cannot afford the illusion are haunted by it.”

Some church leaders have responded by saying retirement isn’t “biblical,” (which is of course true, since retirement is a modern construct. The closest the Bible comes is Number 8:25.) “Lord, spare me the curse of retirement!” says John Piper, the former pastor of Bethlehem Baptist in Minneapolis and best-selling author. The late Ralph Winter, founder of the U.S. Center for World Mission, said, “Most men don’t die of old age, they die of retirement…Where in the Bible do they see [retirement]? Did Moses retire? Did Paul retire? Peter? John? Do military officers retire in the middle of a war?”

Yet the problem here is that most people can’t imagine working 30, 40, or even 50 years without more than two weeks off. Work is often painful. Mind-numbing tasks, humiliating bosses, a lack of autonomy, crammed schedules, co-worker conflict, new technology, oppressive hours. The author of Ecclesiastes writes: “So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind,” (2:17). Work can be creative service. It can also be toilsome pain. 

Might the gospel lead the world’s aging population to a new way forward, which both questions the “dream vacation” view of retirement and a life of unbroken work?

Becoming elders, not elderly 

A new generation of older Americans are seeing retirement as a chance to take a season of sabbatical rest in order to listen to God’s voice, rethink work, and commit to serving their families, neighbors, co-workers and communities as elders.

Bradford Hewitt retired in November 2018 from his role leading Thrivent Financial, a Fortune 500 not-for-profit financial services organization with a faith-based mission. “After being in an executive leadership role for 25 years, I’m planning for the next stage of service,” says Hewitt. “Before I start, I decided to do a sabbatical. The pace of being in leadership is intense. My idea of a sabbatical is just the opposite. I know I need to slow down and listen to God’s voice before I jump into something else.”

More Christians like Hewitt are spending early retirement in an intentional 3, 6, or 12 months of worship, feasting, silence, service, reflection, and learning in order recalibrate their hearts to hear the voice of the Caller.  

Rather than buy into a culture that sees old age as a problem to be solved (think of “anti-aging cream”), a new generation of older Americans is also embracing aging as a “crown of dignity,” wrinkles and all (Proverbs 16:31). 

Far from being an insult, the term “elder”was once associated with wisdom, character, and leadership ability, the assumed fruit of experience and age. “Stand up in the presence of the aged,” says Leviticus (19:32). The term elder (zaqen) is used in the Old Testament as an indication of one’s nobility. The elder taught wisdom at the city gate, the ancient place for public dialogue (Job 32:6–10). 

Gordon Smith, president of Ambrose University in Calgary, believes two ideas – wisdom and blessing – are the biblical model for fruitful living in retirement. “To bless is simply to affirm the other, to take particular delight and joy in the other in a nonjudgmental manner,” he writes. 

Smith tells the story of speaking at a family camp for Christian doctors and dentists. “These men seemed to have no other agenda than to enjoy the teens at the camp. And they had an immeasurable influence on my two [teenage] sons,” Smith remembers. “It seemed like they never used the word should, which all teens hate, and had no other plan than to bless my sons and the teens at the camp.” 

The psalmist writes, “The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the LORD; they flourish in the courts of our God. They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green,”(92:12-14). Retirement may not be biblical. But becoming an elder filled with life, hope, memory, and wisdom for a coming generation certainly is.

This is an adapted excerpt from Jeff Haanen’s An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life (Moody Publishers, May 2019). Jeff is the executive director of Denver Institute for Faith & Work and lives with his wife and four daughters in Denver, Colo. 

By / Feb 7

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).

By / Jan 14

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.