With help from Pastors Mark Phillips, Scott Ehle and George King
“Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly, and revere your God. I am the LORD.” Leviticus 19:32
“Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers…” I Timothy 5:1-2a
Most of the pastors I know experience serious frustration with trying to get senior saints involved – or back involved – in their church’s ministries. We’ve all heard it: “I’ve done my time; I served here for forty years; I’m retired from doing church stuff.”
This morning, several of us engaged this topic together and came up with some helpful suggestions. With no further ado, here they are:
(1) Make sure you treat older people the way Scripture commands us to. The admonitions I shared above from Leviticus 19 and I Timothy 5 are not stand-alone commands; they are representative of the value God places upon older people. For another example, check out Proverbs 16:31 for what God thinks about grey hair.
This is a stark contrast to the value which American culture, in 2022, places upon the aged. Youth is highly valued. Older people, to a great extent, are laughed at, pushed aside, devalued, and talked down to.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t adapt your church to reach the young; if you don’t your church will die. Nor am I saying that your seniors shouldn’t sacrifice their preferences so that your church can reach younger people; it’s a godly thing for them to do.
What I am saying is that while you’re removing flags and hymnbooks and pulpits and corny sequin-emblazoned crosses, keep in mind how all of this feels to seniors.
With that said, here are some specifics on how you can honor the fathers and mothers (Exodus 20:12) in your midst, and they do not require that you shelve the importance of your congregation’s missional effectiveness:
- Don’t expect them to have the passion and energy of the young. They don’t. On days when you’re really tired, you don’t have much passion either. That’s the way many of your seniors feel every day.
- Listen to them. Listen to their thoughts and concerns for your church, but just as importantly, just listen to them. Listen to their stories. Listen to them as they brag on their children and grandchildren. Listen to their stories If you are a young pastor, it’s not your speaking that’s going to win them to your vision; it’s your listening.
- Understand that they don’t want to do church activities at night. They’re tired at night. They want to stay home where it’s safe and cozy. I know that there are exceptions to all of this – seniors who are bursting with energy and passion – but the exceptions highlight the rule: seniors and cold and darkness just don’t usually go together, and you’re going to feel the same way someday – and it will come much faster than you can imagine.
(2) Open as many doors of ministry to them as possible.
- Don’t keep them off the platform because they don’t look pretty.
- Allow them to help with ministries that they don’t have to lead. I have had older believers with me in small groups who were precious, invaluable, wise, co-leaders of the group, without their knowing that they were co-leaders of the group. Make sure they know how wanted they – and their voices – are.
- Work at involving them One pastor tells of his church’s unique youth ministry. It is for the teens, but persons of all ages, including seniors, are invited to show up at these gatherings and help to disciple the teens. What a fantastic option this is for the small church with only a few high school students! In a church I pastored, most of the church showed up on Wednesday nights to help with the Awana program (with supper) and it was a blast.
- Have a senior saint who is good at evangelizing seniors teach others how to do it.
- Returning to what I said about darkness and staying home, allow seniors to have small groups that meet in or outside the church building during morning, not evening, time slots. Seniors can be a lot of fun at Judy’s Café at 7 am after a couple of cups of Judy’s coffee.
- Recruit them to help in areas in which they tend to shine: hospital visits, phone calls, prayer teams, letters and cards to shut-ins and guests, office work such as mailings and directory updating. Empower and honor them as an official pastoral care-giving team.
- Some churches have mentorship programs through which older believers disciple and nurture children and teens.
- Encourage “good ownership” as much as possible. “Good ownership,” of course, means that I take responsibility for the coffee time or the funeral meals. “Bad ownership” means that I won’t let anyone else help me, I’ll never change the smallest detail and I’ll go to war with the pastor who tries to give my ministry to someone else.
- Treat seniors as individuals, not as a “block.” That means that you should consider unique ministries for unique individuals. One of my pastor friends told us about the ministry of an elderly bibliophile. She was asked to find the best books in the church library and present verbal reviews on Sunday mornings. Another pastor involves seniors by making them “point persons” who meet contractors and service persons at the church building when repairs and projects are needed. Fred, who knows plumbing and plumbers, meets with the plumbing contractor; Steve, the retired electrician meets with the electrical contractor, etc.
(3) Challenge seniors strongly from the pulpit. It’s not enough to gently teach the Bible. Biblical faithfulness requires some rebuking, exhorting and admonishing. The pastoral epistles of I and II Timothy and Titus demonstrate that even respectful young pastors must speak bravely and boldly as the situation warrants.