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A gentle revolution arises among the ‘New Elders’ in the church

In a revitalized engagement, men and women aged 50-plus are looking for attention, inclusion and expression.

By Ward Tanneberg

You’ve heard of the 10/40 Window, an area of the world with great poverty and the largest population of non-Christians, extending 10 to 40 degrees from the equator across North Africa to China. But there is another window opening on the world, one that many in the church have grown so accustomed to, we don’t even think of its being there. It’s the 40/50 Window.

It is part of our daily lives, highlighting the fact that nationally 40 percent of Americans are 50+ in age. What is true in this country is happening elsewhere in the world as well. And this percentage is growing every day. Longevity’s gentle revolution has come home to the church.

The American Religious Identity Survey of 2008 reveals that Catholics are closest to this age balance. Baptists, Jews and Pentecostal/Charismatics have the highest proportions of adherents more than 50 years of age. But regardless of where we fit in the grand scheme of Christendom, aging in the church is a topic that is no longer a leader’s option — the truth is that no one expected so many to live so long.

Wisdom being ignored

It is a reality that has been pushed to the background by many as irrelevant and inconsequential to church growth or something to be ignored altogether. For ministry leaders to continue to do so, however, will be akin to acting like Rehoboam of old who ignored the wisdom of his father Solomon’s counselors in favor of his peers, with disastrous consequences.

Understanding the aging of America and its subsequent implications is essential to every church’s health and mission. Empowering 50+ men and women to answer the call and share the values of Jesus with the generations at home and around the world is one of our most pivotal tasks as church leaders.

Inspiring second half Christians to lead in transformational discipleship is vital. Preparing second half Christians for successful and meaningful aging is a critical responsibility. It is time to tackle the questions, test the assumptions, offer practical tools, provide stimulating interaction and leadership insights and take a fresh look at the 40/50 Window.

The simple fact is that an American turns 50 every eight seconds — more than 10,000 people every day. By 2015, those aged 50 and older will represent 45 percent of the U.S. population. If pastors and church leaders place adult ministry on the bottom tier of importance it signals wrong thinking.

Social impact of seniors

Today, men and women aged 50-plus represent one-third of the Internet users in the U.S. They control 67 percent of the nation’s wealth. If that fact alone doesn’t awaken every senior pastor to this powerful reality, I don’t know what will.

But there is more. This age group also represents a large segment of Americans who are currently leaving churches, not because of a loss of faith, but precisely because they want more of God in their life and feel they cannot get what they need from their local church.

The revitalized engagement of men and women aged 50-plus in the church is critical. These “new elders” are looking for attention, inclusion and expression. They are more interested in being the church than in going to church. Meaning and purpose is at the head of their list. This longest living generation is seeking answers to the questions, “Who am I?” “Who is God?” “What am I going to do with the rest of my life?”

The focus of the church remains primarily on young families, singles, youth and children as it should; but to turn away from addressing the needs and callings of men and women at midlife and beyond is foolhardy leadership.

Many at this point in their journey do not have an understanding of the calling of God as it relates to them personally. This is our job as pastors and teachers. There is a hunger at midlife and beyond for fresh meaning and purpose, for a holy adventure. This hunger is God given and often fulfilled on the way through value-added moments of everyday life. We are surprised by our own story, by the core of who we’ve become so far, by our gifts and skills and by what moves us deeply. Older adults seek spiritual guidance. They still have something of high value to give away. In numbers, they are at least 40 percent of the body of Christ. They are important.

Core factors in reaching seniors

How might we go about reaching, retaining, recharging, reinventing, restoring, reinvesting and releasing this powerful demographic in our churches, our land and our world? Remember, whatever your age as a pastor or ministry leader, the 40/50 Window is a window you will have to look through and deal with every day of the rest of your life. Here are some core factors:

Reach.
Take initiative. Show your interest. Listen. Ask questions of your second half constituents about where they are at this stage in their life journey. Keep listening. Encourage them to tell you their story—their whole story. Listen some more. Encourage them in their discovery of fresh Kingdom meaning, purpose and calling. Show that you believe in them. Reaching this age group is often more about listening than telling.

Refuse. Say no to marginalizing older adults. Repel ageism in your church. Cultivate a sense of belonging and respect and nurture deeper intergenerational relationships. Seek ways to inter-generate. Jonathan Alexander, senior pastor at Northshore Baptist Church, Bothell, WA, has a goal of having “gray hair” visible in every department and ministry of the church. In other words, he is promoting among staff and congregation the fruitfulness of intergenerational ministry.

Retain.
Study issues that surround the second half of life. Investigate. Read. Consider the online CASA Academy, an exciting new educational component of CASA’s 26 -year ministry, beginning in September 2009, with a focus on Second Half Adult Ministry. (See sidebar.)

Recharge.
Fuel spiritual life among second half adults in your church and community. Help them overcome spiritual or emotional malaise and apathy. Lead by word and example. Inspire fresh thinking about the present and future of their lives. Bring your best and brightest together to explore the possibilities that they see among themselves. These can be their greatest, most productive and most joy-filled years.

Reinvent. Brainstorm new “legacy ideas.” How can each individual make an effective and useful contribution of God-given gifts, acquired skills and accumulated resources? What passions are in their hearts? Do they see themselves nearing the end of life or ready for a new beginning? Often it is up to the pastor/leader to inspire fresh thinking, to encourage second half adults to dream again. Involve them in strategic planning for ministry among their peers and the generations. For those with a passion for world missions, FinishersProject.org is an ideal way to connect.

Restore. Give attention to special discipling opportunities with those entering their 40s, 50s and 60s. Will this take time? Of course. Is the igniting of fresh passion in hearts of less importance than tending the politics and administration of the church? Midlife is a period in which significant life change is taking place. It is a season in which “office” should give way to “influence,” when relationships are increasingly important and a renewed sense of divine calling is vital. If you want to invite someone to participate in a ministry, start at the top of what you think is needed for that project and what they might give, not at the bottom. People want to be challenged, not coddled.

Reinvest. Give and receive affirmation and respect. Invest in others. As you show genuine interest in them, it inspires them to pass that interest on to others you will never touch. Demonstrate the sense of personal worth and value. Being valued is something often missing in the lives of older adults, even in today’s church. In a culture focused on youth, beauty and productivity, older Christians often feel left out of the picture even though this season in their lives could be the most beautiful and productive of all.

Release. “Let my people go!” When you show interest and confidence and a willingness to discover what God is saying to them (as opposed to simply filling holes in something you’ve already planned), you can almost feel the fresh wind of the Spirit blowing. Sometimes their dreams and vision will augment that of your church’s mission. Often it may exceed what you yourself have imagined. Your job may simply be to help clarify realistic objectives, strategies and action steps and let them go. Will it be messy at times? Of course. Will it be a holy adventure? Absolutely!

There has been a great deal of conversation about today’s “emerging church.” Looking through the 40/50 Window, I see another emerging church, one that blends tradition with daring and experience with the unknown. It is an emerging church with great power and potential and more than a little gray hair. If you lead well within it, you will be abundantly blessed as will every generation that is coming after.

Dr. Ward Tanneberg is executive director of CASA — Christian Association Serving Adult Ministries. [www.goCASA.org]


CASA Academy: Learning, Growing, Finishing Well

  • Designed for pastors and leaders in second half ministry
  • Unique approach to online education
  • Academic excellence, accessible world-wide
  • Complete each course at your own pace
  • Network with faculty and other students
  • Biblically based and creatively presented

For more information and registration for the Academy visit www.goCASA.org or call 888-200-8552. CASA Academy is a division of Christian Association Serving Adult Ministries, 2880 Vision Court, Aurora, IL 60506-8886.

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