Have Churches Abandoned the Elderly?
In an evangelical Christian climate obsessed with change, cultural trends, and trying to stay up-to-date and relevant, it's easy to undervalue the elderly. The bestselling authors, the hottest worship bands, the superstar conference speakers, and megachurch pastors are all youngish, or at least certainly not elderly, and they’re mainly marketed towards younger to middle-aged audiences.
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In many ways, Christians have suffered from the sin of apathy, being guilty of ignoring a large segment of believers — the elderly — who are continually forced into the shadows of our ministries, leadership structures, publicity campaigns, vision, and dialogue.
In an era where fast-paced technology rules the world, elderly Christians are losing their platforms for communication — and the rest of us are too busy to reach out to them. Social media, blogs, websites, tablets, and smartphones continually shrink access to an elderly population that is unable to keep up — and we aren’t waiting for them.
There are exceptions, but many elderly prefer, well, a slower pace of communication that is done through face-to-face conversations, hand-written letters, and landline phones. For the rest of society, these antiquated forms of relating to one another aren't an option, but for Christians — maybe they should be, simply for the sake of reaching out to the Westernized version of an unreached people group.
The problems go beyond restricted forms of communication. As age naturally deteriorates physical abilities, it becomes more difficult to travel and commute, and the nuances of adjusting for such things as wheelchairs, hearing loss, poor eyesight, and the loss of mobility demand a lot of work and patience — and many churches simply refuse to make these accommodations.
Elderly-related ministry is often geared towards obligatory satisfaction — maintaining the status quo. You can identify who — and what — churches value by looking at where they invest their resources. Follow the money. There are children’s pastors, youth pastors, college pastors, young adult pastors, associate pastors, outreach pastors, worship pastors, senior pastors … but who cares for the elderly? That assignment goes to whoever has enough spare time, usually an associate pastor or volunteer group, delegated to make hospital visitations and deliver shut-in meals — but few go beyond providing those basic services.
Additionally, churches don't try to attract new elderly members, especially since that age demographic is generally decreasing (through natural death) on an annual basis. When changes do happen within faith communities, they almost always cater to the younger generations.
Service times are pushed back, worship is "modernized," multi-media is flashier, information is removed from print and posted online, social media is implemented, and a hundred other stylistic preferences continue to either ignore — or alienate — the elderly.
It's easy to stereotype "old people" as complainers and people who are out of touch, but it’s time to start honoring the elderly within our churches and realizing that they have just as much value and worth as everyone else — they are God’s creation!
Jesus continually reached out to people where they were at, no matter how awkward, hard, or painful it was. In many ways, avoiding, ignoring, and abandoning the elderly isn’t something that happens intentionally, but is done out of convenience — because building relationships with them is just too hard. Christ calls us to serve and love everyone. Are we?
Stephen Mattson has contributed for Relevant Magazine and the Burnside Writer's Collective, and studied Youth Ministry at the Moody Bible Institute. He is now on staff at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minn. Follow him on Twitter @mikta.
Image: Hands of senior citizen, HixnHix / Shutterstock.com