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What the Church Needs From the Older Generation

What the Church Needs From the Older Generation
  • Name
    Carey Nieuwhof
So how do you engage older church attendees…say people over age 50? The question’s been around a long time. And—as most church leaders could tell you—it’s a bit of a loaded question. It’s also a question I’m hearing again and again, particularly from churches that are doing a great job reaching young families. Some leaders want to know how to keep older members engaged, especially when a church is doing a great job reaching young families. As someone who turned 50 last year and whose kids have moved out of the house and into university and life, I can tell you I’ve thought about this question both personally and from my vantage point as a church leader. The default in many churches is simple: provide programming for over-50 adults that caters to their needs—potluck lunches, Bible studies and social gatherings for their demographic, and, of course, bus trips. The purpose of this post is to ask one simple question. Really? As in really—this is as good as it gets for people moving into their prime and then into their senior years? I don’t think so. I don’t think so at all. If I have to spend the next 30 years taking bus trips, I want the first bus trip to be straight to heaven. There’s a much better way for 50+ adults to spend their time, influence and energy. Let me explain. Here are four reasons it’s time to kill the bus trip mentality far too many churches adopt for their over-50 attenders.

1. Life isn’t about serving you

What I struggle with most about the North American dream of how to spend life in your older years is this: It’s all about serving yourself, not others. I’m not saying you can’t take a vacation or enjoy the life God has given you, but a 30-year vacation? Seriously? How many rounds of golf can you play? How many beaches can you lie on? How many 4:30 buffets can you eat? Too many churches have played into the trap of trying to cater to the needs of perfectly capable over-50 adults in their church, as though they were a demographic to be appeased, and not mobilized. When church leaders cater to appeasing needs, they miss the mission potential of a generation. You aren’t the mission. The mission is the mission. You can fill your life with activity, or you can fill your life with purpose. It’s your choice. I’m choosing purpose.

2. The next generation wants and needs the older generation

Perhaps one of the greatest surprises to Gen Xers (that’s me), Boomers and Elders is that Millennials want to spend time with people older than themselves. When I was 25, I didn’t want to spend time with anyone over 30. My goodness, has that changed. And I’m grateful for that. In my work and in my leadership world, I’m surrounded by young team members. Almost everyone on my team is 15 to 30 years younger than me. And I love it. I learn and grow, and so do they. I’m a big fan (and practitioner) of the Orange Strategy, which not only combines the influence of church leaders and families, but leverages the faith and wisdom of one generation to build into the next. Biblical community is more nuanced and powerful than hipsters ministering to hipsters and seniors ministering to seniors. It’s about pairing up the generations to learn from each other, serve side by side and build into each other. In our church, every generation serves alongside other generations. It keeps older adults young and helps make the young wise. It does more than that though. Serving together creates significance. I love the way Reggie Joiner puts it: People will not believe they are significant until you give them something significant to do. By giving senior adults something significant to do—like being a small group leader for 5th grade boys, 12th grade girls, young married couples or single 20-somethings—they realize they have a contribution to make to the next generation. Conversely, when a high school student serves at the food bank alongside a 60-year-old retired banker, they often do something more than serve food—they build a relationship, influencing one another and growing together in life and faith. Kara Powell, in her research, found that having generations serve together in a way that builds relationships between those really helps teens and young adults find or keep their faith.

3. Not mobilizing older adults squanders resources

If church leaders simply pander to the consumer mindset that characterizes an older lifestyle (cruises, relaxation and rest), they deny a powerful reality that could be leveraged for the mission. First, some workers actually don’t hit their peak earning years until their 50s and 60s. Church leaders should challenge people in that category to increase their standard of giving, not just their standard of living. As you soon discover by talking to many successful business people, there’s an emptiness that comes with success and money. The reality is that the emptiness they feel in your soul is actually filled by giving, not getting. Church leaders who are able to help people see that this is what they’re missing will be able to leverage resources to fund the next generation. It’s more than money, though. While foolishness plagues both old and young alike (some people don’t grow wiser in their senior years; they just grow older), there are decades of accumulated wisdom that get wasted if it’s not leveraged for the sake of others. There can be a significant wisdom that’s lost if years get spent only in business, at the lake house, eating potluck lunches and taking trips. As I already mentioned, Millennials love being around older adults and are wide open to insights, questions and conversations about faith and life. Leverage that dynamic, and you will see powerful transformation happen, not just in the life of younger people, but in the lives of older adults as well. Fulfillment is found in giving, not getting. The older I get, the more I prioritize being around young people. In my case, it’s mostly to ask questions, learn, and enjoy the relationship and insights. Being around the young keeps you young.

4. Sacrifice kills entitlement

Given the current decline in church attendance and engagement in North America and the West, passing the faith onto the next generation has never been more urgent. In fact, I believe the greatest thing this generation can do is sacrifice to bring faith to the next generation. This is not the time for older adults to sit back, relax and enjoy the flight given the fact that the flight is potentially headed for a crash landing. What if this one generation actually just sacrificed for the sake of another? What if they gave up their preferences in music, style and taste so that others could come to know Christ? What if they changed their methods and preferences to preserve the mission? Leveraging time, wisdom, insight, relationship, money and influence—essentially, your life—for the sake of the young is the greatest legacy you can leave.

What Do You Think?

I realize this is a countercultural argument, but I think it’s an important one. No generation in history has had more resources than the current generation over 50. Leveraging them for the sake of the next generation is perhaps the best thing we can do with them. If you want to learn more about the kind of changes churches need to make to be relevant to the next generation, I wrote about it in Lasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversations That Can Help Your Church Grow. The bottom line is this: A spirit of sacrifice is far more compelling than a spirit of entitlement. What am I entitled to as a person over 50? Nothing. But I’ve been blessed with much. It’s time to deploy what I’ve been given. What are you learning about this?