Ready to Serve: Small-Town Church Re-engages Senior Adults
By Carl Stagner
The scenario is a common one. By the time it’s too late to do anything about it, the younger generation is absent from the local church and the older generation, on the decline, lacks the means to keep the ministry moving forward. A new phenomenon is emerging in recent decades, though, suggesting possible overcorrection. In response to aging demographics, churches increase the student ministries’ budget for student ministries, hire children’s pastors, and break ground on the new children’s wing—all fruitful endeavors. But, in so doing, they inadvertently overlook the senior adults in the congregation who still have much to offer, and the plentiful harvest of senior souls in the community beyond the four walls. Decatur Church of God in Decatur, Indiana, is determined not to let that happen.
Former Church of God missionaries Don and Chris Smith came to the church when it was in the early stages of transition in a variety of areas. First an interim, but ultimately the senior pastor, Don recognized opportunities with the senior adult population he’d seen before in other settings, yet hadn’t been able to seize. With 60 percent of the congregation over the age of sixty, Don saw a group of Christ-followers with a “latent” calling; what if they could be mobilized for ministry in their church, in their homes, and in their community? First, some investment of time, focus, and resources in these important individuals would be necessary.
Don began scheduling and hosting fellowship and worship gatherings especially for the seniors. Harboring no ill feelings toward contemporary praise and worship music, Don acknowledges that his preference—and that of most of their senior adults—is simply different. While Sunday morning worship at Decatur remains primarily modern in musical style—and very high quality, Don underscores—it’s been a blessing to welcome guest musicians from the area to lead their senior adults in hymn sings and southern gospel, before enjoying a time of fellowship and, of course, food.
“I see a group of people with lots of potential for ministry,” Don explains. “They’re still actively involved in their community but, sadly, in ministry there is some stagnation.”
It’s not all their fault, either. Emphasis on the younger crowd at the expense of the older is partly to blame. “They needed motivation to get on mission,” Don continues, “but we do it speaking their language.” And, like a missionary entering the field, Don knows language matters. “They miss the hymns and the way it used to be,” he explains. “We want to give them a fellowship and a worship experience with the language they understand. But we don’t stop there. We know it’s not about arguing over worship styles. We’re saying let’s go out and get others who speak our language from the community and bring them in.”
Decatur Church of God isn’t shifting the focus from the younger generation to the older. In fact, one of the latest decisions to expand emphasis was on the children’s ministry. But Don did some digging into the demographics of Decatur and discovered a staggeringly high number of seniors—a few thousand, at least—who report no church affiliation. This “unchurched” segment of the population isn’t very likely to be persuaded to visit a church by a young adult who attends a church that pays no attention to persons over the age of sixty.
“The people in this age group are closer to eternity than the younger folks,” Don reflects. “It behooves us to feel the sense of urgency before they cross over. Our seniors still have a lot of energy left, perhaps even as opposed to a generation ago. I’m seventy and I have energy. Seventy is the new sixty! So, why do we tell them to be quiet and sit still? Most are retired; they have time, energy, and resources; they have wisdom to pour into our children, youth, and young parents; but they need fellowship and they need a purpose.”
Don hopes to lead Decatur Church of God to partner with smaller churches in the area who don’t have the resources but share the desire to reach senior adults. Fellowship, worship, and outreach will be intentional and recurring. And while the COVID-19 pandemic has prolonged the rollout of the senior adult ministry at Decatur, Don insists they’ll soon be “firing on all cylinders.”
Learn more about the Church of God at www.JesusIsTheSubject.org.