By Bob Russell
Bill Hulsey, executive director of The Forum at Brookside, a retirement community in Louisville, Kentucky, shared some eye-opening statistics about aging. Maybe these stats are of particular interest to me because I am 72. But they illustrate why future church leaders need to be intentional about ministering to their elderly:
• In 1900 the average life expectancy was 49. The infant mortality rate was also much higher 100 years ago.
• In 1935 life expectancy was 63. Social security was enacted that year. The plan was for it to kick in two years later than the average life expectancy. It’s easy to see how the government’s numbers were expected to work.
• In 1964 life expectancy increased to 70. Medicare was enacted around that time and little attention given as to how it would be paid for. No wonder the social security fund is quickly drying up.
• Now the average life expectancy is 78.7 years. Baby Boomers are hitting the culture like a tsunami. Those over 65 now make up 13 percent of the population in the U.S.
• It is projected by 2050 that the average life expectancy will be 86 for males and 92 for females. Those over 65 will make up 26 percent of the population.
Sacrificing for Others
These stats have obvious ramifications for our country. But I’m more interested in what this means to the church. Many cutting-edge churches today focus almost exclusively on reaching Millennials—the 20-36 age group. Frequently they do so at the expense of senior citizens. The impression is left, “We are using music and designing programs to reach the next generation. If you don’t share our vision then you are being selfish and maybe you should find another church.” Those words are seldom verbalized that abruptly, but those over 55 get the message.
The church does need to do everything it can to reach Millennials because fewer and fewer are believers. If we don’t find some way to evangelize that age group, our church buildings in America will soon become as empty as the church buildings in Europe.
In a healthy church the older folk need to sacrifice for the younger. Pastor Gene Appel related that one of his older elders at Central Christian Church in Las Vegas was asked, “Do you like that loud, wild music?” He said, “No. I don’t like it at all. But do you see those young people on the first three rows who are really into it? They are more important than my preference in music.” The apostle Paul reminds us, “Love is not self-seeking” (1 Corinthians 13:5).
But the visionary church must also welcome and nurture those who are older. In his book Built to Last, Jim Collins wrote about “the genius of the ‘and.’” His premise was that often the choice isn’t between two contradictory alternatives but two options where both ideas can be included simultaneously with a little creativity and effort.
I’ve attended churches where there are almost no older people and the result is a vacuum of wisdom and resources. Paul counseled his understudy Titus that the older believers were to teach the younger men and women how to live and what to believe. The good shepherd takes care to nurture and feed all his sheep, not just the young lambs.
A healthy church will need to be multigenerational. It should reach Millennials while also ministering to aging Baby Boomers. That means a variety of music styles and programming. The old heads need to learn to sing the upbeat praise choruses and the youth need to learn, “The Doxology” and “Rock of Ages.”
A healthy church gives deference to younger people while teaching them to respect the wisdom and steadfastness of the older. Leviticus 19:32 counsels, “You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man and you shall fear your God” (English Standard Version). Many in our society fear the aging of Baby Boomers, concerned that they will empty the coffers of pension plans and overrun the health care systems. Wise churches should welcome their aging as a source of resources. “Is not wisdom found among the aged? Does not long life bring understanding?” (Job 12:12).
If, in a couple of decades, one-quarter of the population is going to be over 65 years of age, the visionary church should find ways to evangelize and disciple the older generation. They will provide the infrastructure to reach the younger generation, and assure that the church of Jesus Christ continues to grow and fulfill the Great Commission.
Bob Russell is the retired senior minister of Southeast Christian Church, Louisville, Kentucky. Copyright 2015 by Bob Russell. Permission to copy this column may be obtained by writing Debbie Carper, Southeast Christian Church, 920 Blankenbaker Pkwy, Louisville, KY 40243. Find Bob’s books and sermons online (www.livingword.org).