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Seniors and the Future of the Church

   
 
   

January 22, 2006
- Robert J. Suderman

Further reflections on the cross-Canada God’s People Now! Listening Tour

Winnipeg, Man. — In one MC Canada congregation, a teenage girl prefers to attend her grandparent’s small, rural, and aging congregation rather the congregation of her parents. She has few peers there, and it means driving about an hour rather than going to the big, modern, easily accessible, and impressively programmed congregation where her parents attend. Why? “The seniors in this congregation love me and encourage me,” she simply responded.

Present day seniors (born before 1946) and the baby-boom generation (born 1946-64) have an enormous opportunity to shape the ongoing possibilities of our church. The spirit displayed by these members will increasingly determine the health and potential of our church.

The demographic trend of Canadian society is similar to the church population. In the next 20 years almost 33% of Canadian population will move into the senior stage of life. In Mennonite Church Canada, approximately 40-50% of our congregations currently have a senior demographic bulge (over the age of 60). This will only increase as the baby-boom generation continues to age.

The image of a Pig in a Python helps us to visualize how the baby-boom bulge is moving through our society. If a python swallows a pig, the bulge will be evident in the snake. Because of the abnormal size of the pig it will be possible to trace its progress as it moves through the long digestive process of the snake.

Similarly the baby boom bulge can be traced as it moves through our social system. It first put pressure on hospital maternity units when the boomers were born. Then they overflowed the public school system, leading to overcrowded classrooms, record construction, and double shifts of classes. It gave a huge boost to college enrollment. When the boomers reached child-bearing age, an echo-boom of births fuelled the success of the mini-van, saving Chrysler from bankruptcy. This ‘pig in the python’ escalated the housing market in the early 1970s and is now stimulating the price of recreational property.

The oldest boomers turned 60 in 2006. This is the leading edge of over 10 million Canadians who will retire in the next 15 years. The predictions of experts have materialized.

The need for condominiums, retirement centres, and multi-level nursing-care homes is increasing. Labor shortages are becoming evident and immigration is increasing to fill the gaps. Pressure on the medical system will increase dramatically. The greatest transfer of financial wealth from one generation to the other in the history of our continent is pending. Research shows that the largest ever collection of assets is already accumulating in the hands of women over the age of 65. This accumulation too will escalate in the next 20 years.

Our church has its own ‘pig in the python.’ The arrival of the ‘pig’ at retirement will significantly increase the sense and the reality that we are an aging church.

Let me suggest a few implications of the increasing numbers of seniors in our church.

  1. At times we are apologetic about being an aging church and we talk disparagingly about it as something we need to “put-up with.” This attitude will need to change. We will need to embrace our aging as a gift if our church is to remain active and vibrant. A strong church cannot be built on apologetic attitudes. Strength must be built upon strength and if the presence of the seniors is our strength for the foreseeable future, then we will need to affirm that strength and build on it.

  2. The health of our church will depend on the spiritual health and the encouraging spirit of the seniors. It is unrealistic to think that our spiritual health can be good if the health of the ‘pig’ is not. Seniors and up-coming seniors need to be fully aware of the impact that their spiritual health (or the lack of it) will have on the future of our church.

  3. The financial health of our church will depend on the generosity of seniors. If existing and beloved ministries are to continue, this group will need to be very intentional about its commitment to keep the church and its ministries strong. Seniors will not be able to hand off this responsibility to the following generations and expect the same financial power from fewer numbers. Seniors will need to model the importance of supporting denominational causes in the midst of personal and congregational decision-making processes.

  4. Seniors will need to be intentional and pro-active in nourishing a positive and affirming spirit in church life. If they do not, the results will be very serious. Younger families, young adults, youth, and children will come, stay, or go depending on the encouraging spirit generated or not generated in the church by this group. If seniors have not yet learned how to be pro-actively affirming, they will need to learn.

  5. Seniors will have the power to resist, block or promote needed change in the church. They will need to err on the side of encouragement rather than on the side of critical discouragement. One person commented to me: “If it’s true that the CEO has to sign on to needed change for it to be successful, in our congregation the CEO is the seniors’ group. Nothing much can happen here unless they sign on.”

  6. Initiatives and energy to assure inter-generational harmony in the church will need to come from the seniors. Whenever there is an imbalance of influence, initiatives for harmony must come pro-actively from the majority group - in this case the seniors. If this majority is not pro-active it will be perceived to be resistant, thus severely damaging the life of our church.

  7. Seniors should not plan on putting up their feet too soon. The refrain we hear so often – “We’ve made our contribution, now it’s their turn” – will need to be more nuanced, less definitive, more flexible and adaptable. The church will continue to need the gifts and the active involvement of the seniors. The new refrain should be – “This is what the ongoing but creative ministry of the seniors in the church looks like.”

  8. Studies show that seniors who have grandchildren in the congregation have a more positive and affirming attitude toward the participation of the younger generations in the life of the church. However, an increasing number of seniors will not have grandchildren in the congregation. This means that seniors will need to cultivate their capacity to embrace children of other families and shower them with the same patience and love that they would give to their own grandchildren. Seniors will need to demonstrate a hospitable attitude to the young even when their own grandchildren are not present.

It will be tempting for seniors to want to participate in church life as consumers, i.e., seeking and focusing on the personal benefits of church membership and involvement. They will be tempted to import societal norms into their participation in the church and exercise their sense of entitlement to their rights. Clearly, the church should and will need to pay attention to the special pastoral needs of seniors. However, the seniors should not see themselves primarily as consumers of benefits or as entitled benefactors, but as gifted, positive contributors to the life and well-being of the church for others. The church needs to be encouraged by the presence of the seniors, not only for what the church once was but for what it can still become. The presence of the senior members needs to be a presence of wisdom and blessing and one that equips the church for the future of its challenging vocation.

And we can take heart. What I have described is already happening in some congregations.

In one congregation several teenagers and several women in their 80s came to our meeting. We experienced a remarkable inter-generational “love-in.” The young folks were very sensitive to the musical tastes of the older folks, and were very concerned that the drums and guitars should not be too loud for them. The older women encouraged the young people and wanted them to be able to praise God in ways that were meaningful to them.

When we prodded more deeply about this harmony, the older folks said: “It hasn’t always been like this. About 12 years ago we experienced an ugly split in our congregation. We learned from that and we are determined that this won’t happen again.”

I was inspired. These seniors, over 70 years of age, were willing to set their sails at different angles when the winds changed direction. They were willing to initiate change in the corporate culture of the congregation.

But the teenagers too have been transformed. They eagerly admitted that their worship band was actually playing more traditional hymns in the worship service.

“Are you learning to love the older hymns,” I asked? “No, not exactly,” replied one young woman. “It’s not that we’re learning to love the hymns more, but we have learned to love the seniors more and they love the hymns and that’s why we enjoy playing them.”

It is remarkable that when identifiable groups begin to struggle for the well-being and guard the rights of groups other than their own, the spirit of the congregation changes.


Sidebar: More Stories from congregations

One congregation wanted to encourage more participation by young people. The younger folks responded enthusiastically by forming a worship band. They bought equipment: drums, guitars, amps, and microphones. The seniors were incensed and feared that the volume would be too loud and the music would be unfamiliar. One older woman was especially critical.

The day came when this new worship band made its debut. They did very well. After the service, the same critical older woman sidled up to the teenage leader of the group, and whispered in his ear that if the group needed more microphones or other equipment, she would secretly finance it. This changed the sensitivity of the congregation.

In an urban congregation, a large group came out to meet us. Key representatives of most age and ministry groups in the church were present. There was a great spirit. An older gentleman spoke: “In this congregation, the seniors are the most active and most organized group in the church. And it’s a great church.” “And what does your group organize around?” I asked.

His response was immediate and enthusiastic. “First of all, we are well organized for visitation. We feel it’s our task now to take some of the visitation pressure off of the pastors. There are too many of us, and there’s no reason why we can’t support each other through regular and good visits. Secondly, we are organized to let the pastors know about any urgent or specific pastoral needs there may be among the seniors. Thirdly, we are organized to pray; but we don’t just pray generically. We pray for and with persons, groups, ministries, and initiatives in our church and beyond. It is so great to be able to uphold others in prayer. Fourth, we are organized to serve. We do what we can and where we can so that the community-life of the congregation can prosper. We feel that although there are things we can no longer do, there is ministry that is critical to being the church that we can now actually do better. We are so grateful to be here.”