The Importance of Ministry to Senior Adults

by R. Lucas Stamps October 21, 2015

“Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father” -1 Timothy 5:1

Senior Saints or Church Curmudgeons?

The @ChrchCurmudgeon is a parody Twitter account that chronicles the thoughts of a fictitious (we think) elderly church member who has some strong (and hilarious) opinions about modern church life. Here’s a sampling of his tweets:

Since everybody just stares at their phones and quotes famous pastors anyway, this year we're holding a Men's Retweet.

Shirt untucked, 3 days unshaven, hair sticking up: Pastor = Relevant. Me = Nursing home escapee

Due to our inability to find VBS clean-up volunteers, tomorrow's wedding will be jungle-themed.

Q: How many Baptists does it take to change a light bulb in the sanctuary? A: They can't. That would involve raising their hands in church.

We laugh at these satirical observations, but there’s a reason that these kinds of jokes work: there is a kernel of truth in them. Sometimes the Church Curmudgeon’s punches land squarely on younger Christians, who often fail to see how ridiculous they and their methodologies must look to those who have been through the wars for decades. But sometimes the jokes turn back around on the Church Curmudgeon himself, whose elderly cynicism is almost cliché.

If you are a young person in ministry, sooner or later (and probably sooner) you are going to run into someone who approximates the Church Curmudgeon—an older man (or woman) who likes things done the old-fashioned way and will resist your new-fangled ideas come what may.  I’ve had my share of these experiences in my own ministry. Wounds from a curmudgeonly deacon can be trying and sometimes devastating to a young pastor’s zeal for gospel ministry.

But in my relatively young ministry, I have also developed deeply meaningful and mutually beneficial relationships with senior adults.  At several different stops in my ministry, I have had the blessing to minister to and receive ministry from seasoned Christian laypeople. It’s difficult to express in words what these relationships have meant to me and my family, but I offer below a few lessons learned in senior adult ministry.

Lesson 1: The Importance of Empathy in the Body of Christ

Barring some traumatic experience, young people rarely think about death. They rarely fret about their closest friends’ health and longevity.  This is not the case for senior adults. The pains of sickness and death are an existential reality for them. They’ve seen their peers go through painful bouts with disease. They’ve buried not just their parents but their spouses and siblings and sometimes their own children.  Because we are one body in Christ, these burdens aren’t localized to one demographic in the church; they are to be borne by all of us.  We are called to “weep with those who weep,” perhaps especially with those who are in the twilight of their earthly pilgrimage.

I remember as a young pastor feeling especially frustrated at prayer meetings because it seemed that all of the prayer requests that were being made were about physical sickness and death. I wondered self-righteously, “Why don’t these people ever mention the lost or the nations or the glory of God in their prayer requests?!”  These are obviously valid prayer concerns and pastors ought to teach and demonstrate these priorities to their congregations. But what I missed was just how unavoidable and threatening the dangers of sickness and death are to senior adults. It’s not that they are less spiritual or less faithful than younger Christians. It’s just that the end of life is no longer some abstract concept kept at a safe temporal distance. It is an ever-approaching, personal reality. We would well to remember this when we minister to senior adults.

Lesson 2: The Wisdom that Accrues to Old Age

“Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days” (Job 12:12). Boy, is this true. I wish I knew what the senior men in our church know about how to build a deck, how to flourish in the seventh decade of a marriage, how to bowl 300, how to spot a valuable coin and know why its so valuable, how to weep and pray for wayward children or grandchildren, and much more.

With age comes perspective. For instance, the seniors that I minister to on a weekly basis sometimes laugh at my parenting anxieties. It’s not because they think parenting is unimportant or trivial or that this younger generation is overthinking it. It’s just that they’ve been there, done that. They’ve seen it all—not just with their own kids but with their grandkids and great-grandkids. Senior adults have a generational perspective that young parents like myself desperately need to hear. And this wisdom is multiplied a hundredfold in all kinds of areas. We just need to be willing to take the time to listen and learn.

Lesson 3: The Beauty of Grace

With differing generational perspectives, however, comes the potential for generational strife. Senior adults can be prone to finger-wagging and to pining for some long-forgotten (and fictitious) golden age. Younger adults, on the other hand, can be prone to judgmentalism and self-righteousness at the recalcitrant tendencies of their elders. Sometimes these concerns may be legitimate. Both older and younger Christians can be blinded to the ways in which the culture of their upbringing has shaped and often distorted their worldviews.

Racial prejudice must be confronted.  Moral laxity must be rebuked. But these encounters also give us an opportunity to extend grace to one another and to be patient with one another. I have bristled at the tacit racism of some of the seniors I have ministered to, but I have also been encouraged by the progress I have witnessed in some, who came to see their former prejudices as sinful and inconsistent with Scripture.  And I am very grateful for the grace that has been extended to me, especially during the fits and starts of my early years in ministry.

The Body of Christ

The New Testament vision of the church as a body is more than a mere metaphor; it is a Christological and eschatological reality. In the mind of God, our union with Christ, our Head, is real. We are already raised with him and seated with him in the heavenly places (Eph 2:6; Col 3:1). And, therefore, our union with one another in the body of Christ is no less real. We belong to one another covenantally in the deepest and most significant ways imaginable.

God is in the business of breaking down racial, class, and generational barriers in order to build up one new man in Christ Jesus (Eph 2:14-15). In Christ, we are knitted together with people with whom we might not otherwise associate—even naïve young pastors and curmudgeonly old deacons.