The Thing About Old People

by Steve Bezner February 23, 2016

Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days.—Job 12:12

If there is one common question I receive from young or new pastors, it is this: How do I lead the senior adults in my church?

I tend to say two things. First, you must genuinely love them. Secondly, you must realize that they have a great deal to offer you. That’s the thing about old people in your congregation: They are perhaps your greatest opportunity to be loved, taught, and appreciated—if you’ll only take the time to recognize it.

With regard to senior adults, here are some things I’ve learned over the years:

1. They love the church—perhaps (probably?) more than you do.

I love the church I pastor. It is just short of 43 years old. It was started by a group of families in their 30s and 40s with a desire to reach their (at the time) rural community with the gospel. They drove buses along dirt roads, picked up children and families, and took them to worship each Sunday. They set up church in a school. They taught Sunday school in buses. Without A/C. In July. In Texas. While wearing neckties! They loved this city and the Lord.

More accurately, they LOVE this city and the Lord. Many of them are still in the congregation. In the last three years I have performed funerals for several of them. It is an incredible honor to preside over the gospel proclamation of an individual who gave their all to make certain his or her neighbors knew Jesus.

I cannot forget this. I love my church, to be sure. But I do not have the time, energy, money, or sweat equity invested in her yet that many of my longest-standing members do. I hope one day to have done so, but until then, I look to them as models of how to love a church for the long-haul. Too many people come and go. But these people are heroes, and they are examples of long-standing faithfulness.

I learn how to love my church by watching how my senior adults love her.

2. They have a longer perspective regarding methodology.

I’m old enough now to have some perspective regarding the variety of methods in ministry. I’ve seen different forms of worship, different forms of preaching, different ways of dressing, different ways of doing evangelism.

Churches are often trying new things because they want to be faithful to achieving their mission of making disciples. I applaud originality and creativity. I attempt to be fresh and creative in my preaching and thinking. I read books, attend conferences, and listen to mentors in order to achieve the best solutions possible.

But my senior adults keep me from becoming enamored with fads. They remind me of the good parts of our deep traditions as a denomination. They remind me that we should sing the old hymns regularly because they teach a deep theology. They remind me that using a physical Bible in the pulpit is a good teaching tool for younger believers. They remind me that they have seen a variety of methods in their time and that there is little substitute for old-fashioned pastoral footwork: pray diligently; preach the gospel; listen to people; love people; go to the lost.

3. They are great sources of wisdom.

When I was 20, I wanted to be flashy and attract people. Now that I’m 40, I find that I want to be wise. I am thankful for the wisdom literature of the Bible and the emphasis that God places upon wisdom for leaders, particularly leaders of congregations.

Fortunately for me, wisdom is all around me, if I’ll only stop to listen.

Over the last 20 years I’ve had countless breakfasts and cups of coffee with older men. They have told me stories. They have warned me of mistakes. They have prayed for me. If I was lucky, they took me fishing or hunting. They loved me and guided me along the way. At the time, I didn’t understand how significant that was. But now? I realize it was enormous. Why would a 70 year-old man buy a 25 year-old breakfast every week for two years? Certainly not because the 70 year-old is gaining anything. Instead, he sees a young man who needs help along the way.

I am thankful for hours of dominoes, card games, bus trips, and the now-forbidden fried catfish and deep-dish coconut pies I have been served—all in the name of people choosing to love and grow me into the sort of man qualified to be called pastor.

If you’re a pastor, the best thing you can do is find a senior adult with a heart for Jesus and the most hopping breakfast spot in town—and start listening.

4. They are often fervent prayer warriors.

When I was nine years old, Berian Tinsley—the 4th grade Sunday school department pianist—told me she prayed for me every single day.

And she didn’t stop until she died—decades later.

I’ll get right to it: Prayer is God’s weapon of choice, and we don’t rely on it enough. I have learned over the year that when I fast and hunger for God in prayer, He starts to do things. Why don’t we pray more? I’m not sure. Perhaps we believe in our programs. Perhaps we believe in our ability.

But we need to pray.

Over the years, I have had countless people stop me and tell me that they pray for me regularly. When I was young, I didn’t appreciate that. Now? I covet the prayers.

Care to take a guess as to who the majority of those committed pray-ers have been? By now you know the answer: senior adults.

They’ve learned the power of prayer, and they use it faithfully. I share my prayer requests with my staff and elders, to be sure, but I also share them with my senior adults. Why? Simple—I know that they will pray fervently, and I know that the Lord hears their prayers.

You need a prayer warrior. No, you need lots of prayer warriors. So talk to your senior adults.

5. They want you—and the church—to succeed.

Many young pastors are under the impression that their senior adults don’t want them to succeed. I suppose there are some churches like that out there. But I have found the opposite to be true in my experience: They want you and the church to succeed radically. They are pulling for you. They are eager to assist you.

They may, however, have opinions about how you ought to get there. That makes sense, doesn’t it? They have been there a long time; they have given faithfully; they have served in a variety of ways. Why wouldn’t they have opinions?

No, they want you to succeed, but they also want you to be wise in the way you go about your business. You don’t have to agree with all the advice they give, to be sure. I don’t know that they expect you to do that. But they do deserve for you to listen to them and to honestly weigh their opinions.

If you love and listen, you’ll be amazed how loyal they will be to your leadership.

Your senior adults are gifts from God. Many of them have lived a life of faithfulness. Remember that. You will do well to draw from the depth of their love and generosity.

Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life.—Proverbs 16:31