Evangelization & Ministry With and For the Elderly
Members of the Assembly often express feelings of disappointment that the General Assembly comes very far short of expectations, and as a result go away frustrated that their particular concern or concerns for the church and the way forward has produced little or nothing. Some may think that the changes which they believe are necessary to fulfil the Great Commission are moving too slowly and that there is a great need to be more proactive in our way forward. For myself, I have wondered why there has been little or no reference to the ministering to the elderly throughout a whole week of debate. I stand to be corrected if my recollection is wrong, but I do not remember having specific reference to ministering to the elderly since the closure of Maxwell House.
In the midst of all of the week’s debates, which I hope and pray will be accompanied with the blessing of our Lord, I would like to reflect on the evangelisation and supportive ministry to and for the elderly.
At the graduation ceremony of students of the Highland Theological College, Dingwall, last year, Professor Gordon Wenham, believing that Scottish Presbyterianism had the same blind spots as English Anglicans, made the following observation:
I cannot in the last 65 years remember a sermon that really addressed the issues presented by old age. Perhaps that is because I did not think the message applied to me. But having asked around some older friends, they too find it hard to remember any sermons directed at the old. Why this neglect? Perhaps it is partly ministerial tact; most clergy know they cannot speak from experience about what it is like to be old. But I think there is another reason. Lively churches pride themselves on having lots of young people and families. The old will come to church anyway, so we do not have to worry about them. The modern glorification of youth has crept into Christian thinking too.
But I think this attitude, often unconscious I suspect, is short-sighted, spiritually insensitive, and unbiblical. It is short-sighted in that there are now more people over 65 in our population than under 16’s. So the elderly are a very important segment of your flock.
Is Professor Wenham right in his reference to these things as pertaining to Highland Presbyterianism (or Lowland Presbyterians for that matter) as well as English Anglicans? Have we got a ‘blind spot’ with regard to ministering to the elderly? Or are we satisfied that the spiritual needs of the elderly are discussed and debated (in General Assembly) sufficiently, and that they are acted upon sufficiently by our church as a whole?
Jeffrey A Watson, Professor of gerontology at Washington Bible College, Maryland, entitles his book on helping the ageing, grieving, and dying, The Courage to Care, suggesting the idea that we don’t demonstrate a courageous biblical ministry to the elderly as we should.
During my nearly 27 years of ministry, I have become more and more convinced that our ministry has, to a greater or lesser extent, neglected the elderly. It is the belief of many who are involved in ministry to the elderly that,
For centuries religious communities have struggled to bring value to those who are devalued. Yet we still have poverty, we still have racism, we still have fractured families, we still have hunger and we still have injustice. We have not found peace and we have not learned how to love our brothers and sisters in the household of God. Perhaps we should not be so presumptuous as to think that the outcome is any different with regard to the value accorded older persons.
Contemporary images of aging and oldness are dangerous, for they cause us to lower our expectations when we encounter older people. If we see little value in the persons to whom we relate, the quality of our exchange with them has no chance to be anything more than disappointing.Darrel Watkins, Religion & Aging
I do not wish to suggest that there is no evangelisation of the elderly within our congregations or communities, especially when we consider that many congregations have over 60% elderly folks sitting under the ‘sound of the Gospel’. I am also aware of the many activities some congregations run to give support to those who are classified as aged. But when you consider the high percentage of elderly people within and outwith the church who are in a state of unbelief, ‘without God and without hope in this world’, is there not a great need to reach out to them? Should we be appointing workers with a specific remit to evangelise such an ever-increasing constituency? It is they, from a human perspective, that are closer to eternity than any other age group.
What about the elderly saints in Christ! Is there a cry from them that we might not be listening to them? Is it that some might feel like Job when he said,
My kinsfolk have failed, and my familiar friends have forgotten me?Job 19:14
Or like David in his old age, under many burdens as he prayed to God, O God, Thou hast taught me from my youth: and hitherto have I declared Thy wondrous works. Now also when I am old and grey headed, O God, forsake me not; until I have shewed Thy strength unto this generation, and Thy power to every one that is to come.Psalm 71:17-18
Could there be in David here a sense of forsakenness by his family, his friends, etc., as he comes near to the end of his life? Does he, because of neglect of those who were his ‘familiar friends’, feel worthless?
The subject that I am seeking to embark upon here is vast and complex. What I hope to do is to set before us the subject that to a large extent has been neglected; namely, ministering the Gospel to those who are senior in our society, within and outwith what may be classified as the visible church.
Who are the Elderly or How Old is Old?
In a recent series of television adverts we have been encouraged when looking at the elderly not to focus on the age of a person but on the person as a person; ‘See the person, not the age’.
To some people (according to Robert Carlson, talking descriptively about the American view of the elderly), the elderly are a ‘bunch of rich old people living it up at the expense of the general economy. For others, they are a pitiful collection of depressed souls who have outlived their usefulness and are waiting to “pass on” in nursing home beds. For a few others, they represent a rich source of knowledge and experience waiting to be tapped. For others they are a nuisance on the highways and a bother for their slowness in supermarket lines. For still others, they are the preservers of valued traditions and family stories.’
We have perceptions of the elderly that are so often based upon some prejudice or another, maybe as a result of impatience in our drive to reach goals that might be hindered by too much attention to their needs. From a theological point of view we might believe ourselves to have a good biblical grasp of an ‘All Round Ministry’, but our performance is weak.
Society in general uses a word (ageism) to describe those at the top end of the age bracket, and it is, as one has said, ‘a word used to describe a blatantly discriminatory attitude towards older people. It can be seen in the way that older people are stereotyped in the media; older men are often portrayed as cantankerous, or useless and role-less. Older women are more often than not shown as silly, or wicked, with connotations of witchcraft...’
It was Robert Butler who first coined the term ‘ageism’ in the 1960s. He defined it as a process of stereotyping and discrimination against people just because they were old, just as racism and sexism accomplished this for skin colour and gender.
Ageism has a dramatic, detrimental effect on older people, but this is often not acknowledged. Age Concern is highlighting this as a major issue that needs to be addressed in order to ensure the fair treatment of older people.
There are a number of theories about what is old in terms of people. As children I am sure that we thought of our aunties and uncles who were in their thirties or forties to be ancient. I remember on one occasion one of our son’s friends coming for him, to the back door of the manse, to go out with ‘the boys.’ Our son wasn’t too sure whether he would be allowed to go out, but the friend responded, ‘ask the old man’; that was me in my very early forties. How old is old!
Age is often defined chronologically, being determined by the number of years people have lived. This is usually linked to the statutory retirement age, 60 for women and 65 for men. So if you have your pension book or a bus pass, you have moved into a new experience of life. Moreover, it is amazing what that experience triggers, especially on the effect it has not just in society in general, but also in the church. This is for many, as they perceive it, the beginning of life’s ‘devaluation’. Or put another way, old age or ageism is ‘past the sell-by date’.
Well do we know that this has no place in the biblical chronology of a person’s life from cradle to the grave.
The Psalmist in Psalm 31 demonstrates the experience felt under the weight of rejection by those whose negative thoughts of old age encapsulate an attitude that ageists believe they have a right to expound. Although sin has marred the image of God in man, yet nowhere is it suggested in Scripture that at a certain point in the life of a person they lose the image of God, certainly not as a result of growing older. Taking the words of Psalm 139, what we have is the human life-cycle.
The Elderly and Christian Ministry
In his book, Creber draws attention to one major factor which ‘feeds ageist attitudes’: society’s fear of death. Many believe that ageism is part of a collective and personal defence against our own demise. Creber draws from Piner (1979), who portrays this view in the following way:
It is death that haunts and fears us. The old have appeared to be its visible symbol and so have become our enemies. We have shrouded age in myths and stereotypes so as to hide our own deep fear and prejudice.
If this is the case, says Creber, and I think it is, then the implications for Christian ministry both for older people but also for anyone at any point in their life cycle are extremely significant. Surely the Christian Gospel has at its very centre the message of victory over fear and death and is concerned to bring release to those bound by the chains it brings?
What of Those ‘Living Near the Edge’?
In terms of the Great Commission, what is our interest in the elderly who are drawing near the end of life’s journey? Professor W J Maclennan (Edinburgh) says:
I tell my students that any doctor or nurse who is not interested in old people is in the wrong profession. He adds: The stricture could apply equally to candidates for the ministry or eldership.
Each of us ought to spend a large proportion of our time bringing the message of hope and love, through Christ, to that section of our society that is living ever nearer the edge. If we take the message of the gospel, realising that it is God’s demonstrative care to all who are nearing death, we might, as Jeffrey A Watson points out, picture death as a cliff and sense the tenderness of God towards those near the edge.
Watson reminds us of Proverbs 24:10-12, teaching us how God constantly monitors how we respond to people ‘near the edge’.
If we don’t try, God sees our strength as small. If we rationalise not doing what we are capable of doing, He reveals our selfish motives. If we choose not to be His agent of grace, we bear the consequences of not being in His will. After all, since God had courage to care for us in our sin, He would have us duplicate His compassion to those who are lost in their sin or who are suffering the painful consequences of original sin.
The gospel imperative for every preacher of the Word of Truth, and to all who are witnesses to His manifold grace, is to reach out to those that are unsaved. It is incumbent upon every recipient of the Grace of God to witness to those who are without Christ, and especially to those who are elderly in our communities.
The opportunities abound if we are sensitive to the greatest need of all for all people. To use an old cliché from another context, we have the ‘MMO’: Means, Motive and Opportunity.
We have the Word of redemption in our hands and in our hearts. We believe in and have firsthand experience of that Word and its power. Christ gave the promise of the Spirit to the Church so that it might fulfil the Great Commission. It is that spiritual equipment for a worldwide campaign that the Lord promised the Church immediately before He ascended into Glory (Acts 1:8).
If we are in Christ, we believe that He has provided the means to evangelise the whole world, young and old, rich and poor. Paul’s fear of coming short in this was expressed in those very familiar and heart-searching words:
For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for necessity is laid upon me; yes, woe is me if I preach not the gospel!1 Corinthians 9:16, NKJV
If we, who own the Truth, don’t proclaim the wonder of Christ’s redemptive love to those who are right on the edge, without hope and without God, then we have failed them. Every soul that the Lord has put in our pathway ought to be so precious to us that we would use every means open to us to seek the salvation of the elderly.
In the evangelisation of the elderly, have we lost every ounce of motivation? Surely not; after all there is no-one on God’s earth who should be more motivated for the salvation of the elderly than those who have been brought back from the brink of a lost eternity. When we consider, as His Word teaches us, concerning the fire from which we have been plucked, the eternal damnation from which we have escaped, and the condemnation that has been lifted, are we not motivated to cry out to those who are nearing the end of life’s journey, ‘Do yourself no harm’? The Apostle Paul, seeing what life in a world without Christ had done to the Philippian jailer and many others, was so concerned for this man and the eternity into which he was thrusting himself that he appealed to him not to kill himself. Oh yes! There’s more. The love of Christ so demonstrated in the giving of Himself for sinners is motive enough to urge us on to reach out to those on the edge of eternity, no matter their age. Peter was motivated by his Lord, as he said in his epistle:
The Lord is not slack concerning His promises, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. 2 Peter 3:9ff, KJV
The greatest motive of all is the command of Christ. Jesus said, If you love Me, keep my commandments. And: Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptised shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.Mark 16:15-16, KJV
Jesus said, ‘I came that they may have life and have it more abundantly.’ The church, therefore, needs to work towards breaking down the barriers of ageism if we are to have abundant life. Older people have a great contribution to make both within the church and within our communities. We should no longer be satisfied with presenting a gospel which encourages people, when they reach a certain age, to opt out and to think they have reached the position where they no longer need to practice a ministry and be ministered to. Jesus talks of ‘abundant life’, and that means a life which is satisfying and fulfilling right to the very end.
The church must take a positive approach to providing spiritual care for older people. Ageism should become a word of the past. It needs to be abolished within the church so that we, as Christians, can learn from the experiences that our older people bring to us, and enjoy with them that abundant life, both here and beyond death, which our Lord Himself promised for all those who follow Him.
As I have said before, we all live in communities where a large percentage of the population are un-churched, but they are not unreachable. Let us pray that the Lord would open doors within our communities. How many elderly do we know of that live in our back yard, so to speak, whom we have never approached with the gospel? Would there be criticism of the local church by many elderly people who believe that the church is not interested in them? Visiting the elderly in their homes, hospitals and nursing homes gives opportunities to develop a ministry with them.
What of those who have suffered great loss? Many old people are crying out for someone to help them in their grief. They are not part of a church which would normally give support to those of their number. In a situation like this, most of us would respond to such losses by reaching out for someone to show love and compassion. We reach out to family, other friends, ministers – anyone who might share the burden of sorrow and sadness of life’s increasing pain. Do we identify with such situations? Has the Lord ever given us the opportunity to tell the good news to a very frightened, lost individual?
‘What about’, as one writer has put it, ‘the unloveables? How do we relate to those who are paralyzed, incontinent, stroke victims, or those whose appearance is dirty and unkempt?’ Remember that we were unloveable, but Christ loved us even when the stench of this world of sin was upon us. The greatest fear of many older people is the possibility of becoming unloveable, and as a result, being abandoned by family, friends and society as a whole. But surely, never by the church!
Why do we spend so little time with the old folks? Why does the church as a whole continue to produce volume after volume and ream after ream of papers on children and youth when over half the membership, in most congregations, is aged sixty or over? Why do we, as ministers, tend to talk about ministry to or for, rather than with, older people? Why are older adults rarely thought of as persons in great need of evangelism – especially at a time in their lives when personal losses can occur in rapid succession?
We should be the first to ‘reach out, latch on’, and make room for the un-churched elderly in our zeal to advance the Kingdom of Christ. The opportunities for growth in the Kingdom are there because the elderly surround us.
Spiritual Care of the Elderly Saints in Christ
Throughout the Bible we learn that God has a deep concern for older people. He even says that they should continue to be guided in the church, so that they too learn more and more about God as they get older. In old age we are, or will be, still part of His people – part of His church. Although older people may have weaknesses and at times feel like outcasts from society, God never forgets them. He values them and regards them as a vital part of his church.
As believers in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of Glory, we must never treat people in different ways according to their outward appearance. You will be doing the right thing if you obey the Law of the Kingdom, which is found in the Scriptures: ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself.’ But if we treat people according to their outward appearance, we are guilty of sin (James 2).
How can we make older people more aware of God’s love and concern for them?
Let me present a case in point, which is repeated over and over again throughout the denominations:
Helen says: ‘I have one thing I should like your people to reflect on. I am sorry to sound like an oldie, but I am now on my eleventh minister, and so you might say that I have seen some change in and around the church! My complaints (if that’s what they are) follow:
‘I regret the lack of depth and intelligence in church life. I wish we could work harder at making sense of our experience and struggle more creatively with what faith is for us’.
‘As an older person in my church I feel sometimes overlooked – and misunderstood. I don’t feel that people make any effort to understand my pastoral and religious needs. I love the children and would like to help with Sunday School, but there are other people in the congregation besides young families. From time to time I wonder whether the church is only interested in me when they want some money...!’
I wish my church could be more positive about us old ones.James Woodword, Valuing Age
Do we as a church continue to support and encourage the saints in Christ with that same testimony? As many grow older with failing health, loss of memory and various progressive illnesses, they need assurance.
Old Age and Ministry
Old age is a blessing from God. The numerous references to the ministry of the elderly in church abound. ‘A hoary head (a synonym for old age in scripture) is a crown of glory, if it be found in the way of righteousness’ (Proverbs 16:31).
It was Augustine who wrote:
Innocence will be your infancy; reverence, your children; patience, your adolescence; courage, your youth: merit, your manhood; and nothing other than venerable wise discernment, your old age.
We all need to take and apply the teaching of the Apostle Paul to heart when considering the benefits of the ministering of the elderly: ‘...but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day’ (2 Corinthians 4.16); or, as the Psalmist has assured us with respect to the elderly saints in Christ and the benefit of their age and experience:
And in old age, when others fade,
They fruit still forth shall bring;
They shall be fat and full of sap,
And aye be flourishing.
We have a huge resource of witnesses to the grace of God. Let us use them to the full. They are the most qualified to teach others about God and to pass on the inheritance of faith. The elderly saints in Christ certainly provide the potential for an active witness to the word and redemptive works of God, and the older saints have the wisdom to teach and to encourage at both the personal and community level. Those in later life, who embrace the ‘unsearchable riches of Christ’, have an all-pervasive and important contribution to make to our development as a Christian community.
Are there not, within the church of Christ, older men and women who have the same zeal for the advancing of God’s eternal purpose as those of Caleb in the Old Testament, who, although advanced in years, had the same enthusiasm for God and His purpose for Israel as he had when he was 45? There was Simeon, whose witness and testimony is a huge encouragement to many, and others who fought the good fight of faith till the very end.
The modern church has tended to ‘pension off’ our elderly saints at a time when the Lord could see the great potential of their ministry. The early church had an order of widows, one of whose tasks was to pray.
The experience of Anna and Simeon (says Prof. Wenham) is surely recorded to show us how the elderly can see God’s salvation despite their age and infirmity. Perhaps we should establish prayer groups or times of prayer that the elderly can participate in.
Care Home Ministry
Although there has been a massive increase in the number of residential and nursing homes in the last 20 years, only about 4% of elderly people live in care homes. When the Lord’s people have to give up their home and move into residential or nursing homes, it is a huge wrench. For some it means having to move a long distance from their comfortable environs, where the church and Christian fellowship was of a primary necessity. Although there are some care homes that provide many of the things to which they were accustomed (and for this we are extremely thankful to God), especially in relation to spiritual care, these are too few. It has always been a desire of mine that our church would provide such a facility. It is sad to see many of the Lord’s people losing a degree of their spiritual dignity because the church believes it can’t afford such a venture. It was the Lord who told John to take care of His mother. The Apostle Paul wanted to make sure that those who laboured with him in the gospel would be cared for in their old age.
I have on many occasions gone into a nursing home or residential care home where a death has occurred. Looking at the folks there going through their loss, I have often had a sense that what is going through their minds is, ‘who will it be next – will it be me?’ What a need there is to bring the comfort of Christ into that heightened, highly charged emotional situation. Have we the courage to care from ‘the cradle to the grave’? Have we the vision that would use old as well as well as young to fulfill the Great Commission?
So how should we minister with, to, and for the elderly?
How can you make the last years of their earthly life happier and more fulfilled? I am no expert, but here are some of the ideas that have occurred to me. I think older members of the congregation should be used to the full. By retiring from their secular job, people lose their place and status in society and many social contacts ... Indeed, in an age when many younger women work, there is a need to exploit the talents of the retired to the full to keep the church running. Using the elderly wherever you can will not simply provide vital church workers, but it will help them, providing them with friendship and social contacts.Professor Gordon Wenham
Brethren and friends, governments are receiving a wake-up call as a result of the, at times, abysmal lack of care for the elderly. What of the church and our denomination in particular? Will we review and implement our spiritual and social care of the elderly within and outwith the church? The challenge is in the Great Commission.
Show us ways in which we can encourage and help older people to discover their ministry within the church, showing them that they still have a vocation to serve you. And Lord, please give your whole church the courage and generosity needed to allow older people to practice their ministry amongst us and those whom they meet outside the church through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.from Mission Shaped Church