Charles Arn is editor of Lifeline, a newsletter for leaders of older adult ministries.

Win Arn is honorary chair of the North American Congress on the Church and the Age Wave. He is founder and president of LIFE International (1857 Highland Oaks Drive, Arcadia, CA 91006).

Most churches in North America are following a course that will miss one of the greatest social changes─and greatest opportunities─in the continent's history: the coming age wave. Like beach residents unaware of the approaching tsunami, most congregations still seem to assume that "the future of the church is its youth." Today, tomorrow, and well into the twenty-first century the more accurate description is "The future belongs to the old" (at least in Western countries).

Common Church Problems

  1. A survey we recently conducted among pastors indicated that their most common frustration is a lack of dedicated laypeople to do the work of the church.
  2. Financial shortfalls are the most common reason for not adding a building, programs, and/or staff.
  3. Members transferring jobs and/or moving to another community account for 3-5 percent membership loss in a congregation each year.
  4. Low institutional loyalty is a common characteristic of baby boomers. Most churches find it difficult to solicit membership or even long-term commitment from this age group.
  5. Biblical illiteracy is common among laity in many churches. As a result pastoral teaching often remains at the elementary level.

The Hidden Treasure

  1. A separate study found that senior adults average two to three times as many available hours for church-related activities as any other age group.
  2. In a given year, one senior adult church member will give seven times the amount of money that a baby boomer member will give in the same church.
  3. Senior adults change their address an average of once every 12 years, compared with the national average of once every seven years.
  4. High institutional loyalty is a common characteristic of senior adults. When they join, they stay and they are committed.
  5. Most senior adult members have been Christians for years. Having experienced life's mountains as well as its valleys, they have a wealth of maturity and wisdom they can share with others.

Of course, most churches have a token senior adult class, and perhaps a monthly potluck or field trip for their older adults. But such approaches are woefully inadequate, if not entirely irrelevant, to the task of reaching and ministering to the rapidly growing community of persons who are older than 50.

Why are most churches so senior-insensitive? It is generally because of one or more of the following reasons.

1. Ageism. This disease discriminates against, diminishes, and demeans age. Unfortunately, it is alive and well, not only in our society, but also in our churches.

2. Ignorance. A minuscule number of today's church leaders have been trained in the unique needs of, opportunities for, and outreach strategies required for persons older than age 50.

3. Irrelevance. Most existing senior adult church groups are operating on assumptions about senior adults that grew out of a different time and place. Today's senior adults are far different from their parents or grandparents.

Isn't it ironic that in the midst of decreasing resources, most churches don't realize the hidden treasure inherent in the senior adults of the church? (see box on previous page).

There indeed are effective ways for churches to respond to the challenge of an aging population. The graying of North America provides an enormous opportunity for the church, perhaps unique in this century. But without a major retooling of strategy and tactics, the church will be left behind. To restate: The approach most churches presently have for ministry to the aging adult population is woefully inadequate, if not entirely irrelevant.

So, what can be done?

Realize that all seniors aren't seniors

A new generational grouping has emerged in our society during the past generation. Their members are called "middle adults" and include those people between 50 and 70 years of age. They are, as U.S. News and World Report says, "a new generation, different not only in size, but in vitality and outlook." Older adults are living healthier, more active, productive, and longer lives. In reality, a person of 50 or 60 can expect to live 15, 20, or 30 more years. It is, indeed, their middle years. They are not, certainly in their own minds, "senior adults."

Realize that age does make a difference

People 30 years old are different than people 60 years old, not only in the hair on their head but in the mind inside. Older adults think differently than younger adults. 

David Wolfe, a knowledgeable researcher and marketer, draws some fascinating contrasts:1

Mature Adults

Declining influence by peers

Declining materialistic values

More subjective

More introspective

High sensitivity to context

Perceptions in shades of gray

More flexible

More individualistic

More discretionary behavior

Less price sensitive

Complex ways of determining values

Whole picture-oriented

Young Adults

Heavily influenced by peers

Highly materialistic values

More objective

More extrospective

Low sensitivity to context

Perceptions in black and white

More rigid

More subordinated to others

More predictable behavior

More price sensitive

Simple ways of determining values


Christian Implications

What does this changing demographic landscape mean for the church? Most important, it means that the old ways of doing senior adult ministry must be reevaluated. It is our belief that even the term senior adult will become politically incorrect. As more and more baby boomers inch toward that age category (the first boomers will turn 50 next year), the stigma attached to the term senior will make it a liability to effective ministry.

Even now we are finding that when churches offer a "senior adult" program, at most only 15 percent of the church members who qualify to be there actually are. As we have researched this phenomenon we have found that most do not want to be lumped into the category of senior citizen, either in the minds of others or their own.

The new and still emerging strategies that will be necessary for effective ministry to middle adults have many implications for programming and evangelism, and for scheduling of church activities. The church that is age-sensitive will be providing a variety of groups to appeal to the diversity of interests and needs of and activities appropriate for each age group.

Getting Started Right

We are often asked the question "If you were to develop an age-sensitive adult ministry, how would you begin?" Here are five components:

1. Find, select, train leaders. The success of your adult ministry will be directly related to the quality of your leaders. Someone needs to own the goal of ministry/outreach to young, middle, and senior adults. The leaders who will be most successful in each group have a genuine love for people in that group. It's not a job─it's a ministry.

In research we conducted with 500 churches that had a full- or part-time senior adult staff member, we found that the leaders who had received specific training in this area were far more effective and their adult ministries were more likely to be growing than were leaders who had received no training. (Eighty percent of all older adult staff members had received no training whatsoever in their field.) We also found that retired pastors are generally ineffective as middle and senior adult leaders unless they have been retrained in the unique issues and challenges of senior adult ministry in the 1990s.

2. Get the facts. Here is a proven principle: "Abundant, accurate information, properly interpreted and applied, enables churches to be good stewards of the grace of God and effective communicators of the gospel of Christ."

What are the actual statistics in your church? How many members are older than age 50? 55? 60? 65? What are the age groupings in your community? How many are homebound? What percentage are male, female? What are the various needs and interests represented in your prospective constituency? Effective programs and activities will be based on the findings of your research.

3. Begin with an adult ministry, not a senior adult group. This distinction is important. If you have a "senior adult group," you limit the potential involvement to those individuals who see themselves as senior adults. Many other adults in your congregation and community will not identify with "those old people." In contrast, if your paradigm is an adult ministry, all kinds of groups can develop, many of which would not even be identified as senior adult. A church of 300 members could have 10 to 15 various adult groups responding to the variety of needs, and touching the lives of many more people.

4. Develop a Purpose Statement. A clearly written purpose statement will be the guiding light for a successful older adult ministry. This purpose statement should be owned by the members and be a yardstick to regularly measure progress. If a clear purpose statement is not established and used early in the ministry, the activities will become increasingly self-serving and self-centered. In the box is one purpose statement developed by an age-sensitive adult ministry. Use or adapt it if it describes the purpose you desire for your adult ministry. If not, create your own.

5. Build your adult ministry on adult motivators. Marketing researchers have spent considerable time and money seeking to identify the reasons today's older adults buy or don't buy certain products. Their discoveries are of value to church leaders seeking to reach this same generation, and encourage them to buy a new lifestyle in the Christian faith and community. According to these studies, older adults are motivated by one or more of five values that form the foundation of most of their meaningful activity. 2 Those values are:

  • Autonomy. They desire to be or remain self-sufficient.
  • Social and spiritual connectedness. They respond to people more than programs.
  • Altruism. They desire to give something back to the world.
  • Personal growth. They desire to continue developing as human beings.
  • Revitalization. They respond to activities that bring fresh and new experiences. Effective older adult ministries of the 1990s and twenty-first century will be those that integrate these values and motivators into a creative variety of activities and experiences.

The age wave is swelling! The 60-plus age group is growing three times more rapidly than the population at large, and for the first time in American history there are now more citizens older than age 65 than younger than age 18.

The age wave is rapidly approaching! Those churches that are not prepared will be swamped by the sheer numbers, diversity, and impact of these older adults. Or if they are prepared, they will get out their surfboards and catch the ride of a lifetime!

1 David Wolfe, "Targeting the Mature Mind," American Demographics, March 1994, pp. 32-36.

2 For a more comprehensive discussion of these values, see the above-mentioned article by David Wolfe in American Demographics.

Win Arn is honorary chair of the North American Congress on the Church and the Age Wave. He is founder and president of LIFE International (1857 Highland Oaks Drive, Arcadia, CA 91006). Charles Arn is editor of Lifeline, a newsletter for leaders of older adult ministries.

Charles Arn is editor of Lifeline, a newsletter for leaders of older adult ministries.

Win Arn is honorary chair of the North American Congress on the Church and the Age Wave. He is founder and president of LIFE International (1857 Highland Oaks Drive, Arcadia, CA 91006).