“I listen to sermons in my local church and I hear about the next generations; the elderly are hardly mentioned. This saddens my heart as these people have served the community for many years and some have made sacrifices of their own, especially with regards to war and hardship.”
Quote from a student’s evangelism strategy report
Marking assessments is usually the bane of all teachers’ existence – not quite a black hole, but certainly a vortex-like blur. Yet, sometimes in the midst of this vortex, a student will make a point so poignant that it catalyses several days spent in deep contemplation. This article is a result of one of these instances.
The final assessment for the online evangelism class this semester was to write a strategy report, where students identify a demographic of people in their local community often overlooked by churches. Students then had 1500 words to outline a hypothetical strategy for communicating the Gospel to this group of people in word and action in a culturally sensitive and relevant manner.
I love this assessment for two reasons. Firstly, it gets students to think creatively and propose a strategy that, if done well, could actually be used in their community – and that excites me. Secondly (and this is a purely selfish reason), no two assessments are ever the same, which makes the whole task of marking a whole lot more enjoyable.
In the past, I’ve had students proposing strategies for a wide range of people, from Italian Catholic grandmothers in the inner-west of Sydney to young, unemployed men in rural towns. Students have proposed not only appropriate ways in which to verbally articulate the Gospel to these groups, but also practical strategies that effectively demonstrate the inaugurated arrival of the Kingdom for these demographics. In this, I guess the key question is: ‘what does the good news of the Gospel practically look like for these people?’
This week, while in the vortex, I came across a strategy report that has resulted in numerous reflections and conversations. This student, while sitting in the doctor’s waiting room, noticed that the majority of patients waiting were elderly – and most of them seemed to be alone. Upon mentioning this, her doctor estimated that roughly 50% of his elderly patients didn’t actually need to see a doctor. For many, family weren’t close by and their spouses had passed away – and so going to the doctor was one of the few chances they got to interact significantly with another person.
Realizing the isolation felt by this demographic, this student outlined a strategy that would seek to connect with elderly people in their homes on a regular basis, with the hope of sharing the Gospel and restoring a sense of community that would in turn, alleviate pressure on local medical services. Amidst this, she noted that for many older people, mobility and health issues prevent them from regularly attending and participating in church activities – and so suggested that if we are serious about creating Christian community for the older generations, we must be willing to think more creatively.
There are several things that struck me about this notion. Firstly, this student noted that in church, the rhetoric often being emphasized is to train and empower the next generation of Christians – which one might cynically note is more reflective of a contemporary, consumerist mind-frame that tends to value the newest and the latest. While the next generation is of course important and essential for the long-term survival of the Christian community, something is lost when we only focus on those to come. Such rhetoric can often shape ministry models that sideline those who are full of life wisdom and indeed still have much to contribute towards the Christian community (and, of course, in mentoring the next generation of Christian leaders) – but are perhaps unable to consistently and physically be in the place where much of this dynamic occurs.
Secondly, I was struck by the notion that if we truly were looking to what is to come, we would realize that the current challenges of including elderly people in Christian community are only a foretaste of what is to come. In actuality, we are worried about light snowfall, when a blizzard is about to hit.
Why do I say this? Well, war does interesting things to birth rates. Obviously, when soldiers are away fighting for years at a time, it is much more difficult to settle down and have a family (though illegitimate children are certainly perhaps a heightened reality). Consequently, while we can note a significant economic boom in the west following WWII, a more pertinent boom to note in this context is in terms of the number of babies being conceived and born.
Considering longitudinal data, we find that between 1910 and the Depression in the 1930s, the birth rate dropped from 30 births for every 1000 people to around 18-19 per 1000, which remained fairly consistent throughout WWII. Following the end of conflict, this rate then suddenly boomed to “24 or 25” per 1000 between 1946-59, gradually dropping to 15 per 100 in 1973 – a rate that “remained… through the end of the century”. In other words, in the decade and a bit just after WWII, a lot of people were born – and so exist the Baby Boomers.
While we might be more impressed with the large birth rate in the first decade of the twentieth century, the National Vital Statistic Reports indicate that in the US, the life expectancy for someone born in 1910 was only around 50 years of age – and indeed, we know that most of this generation has died out. Comparatively, an increase in nutrition, health and living standards that inevitably accompany economic growth has equated in conditions where the Boomers are likely to live well beyond this.
What does this all mean? Well, in 2012 the oldest baby boomers have been turning 66, while those born in 1959 are 53. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that in ten years, we will have a rather large population of 63-76 year olds among us. And a decade after that? A rather large population of 73-86 year olds.
The impact upon public health is and will continue to be huge, with a significant proportion of the workforce requiring increasing assistance, in terms of social services and healthcare. Indeed, for those looking for the next big thing in business, aged care services may prove to be a sweet ride.
For those in pastoral ministry, the implications of the aging Boomers will also be huge. In the next two decades, a significant proportion of our congregations will be retiring and finding themselves less and less able to participate in organized church activities – including Sunday services and serving.
Practically, this could mean a further decentralization of ministry – because if older people cannot get to church, then it is imperative that church is created in their context. This may mean that those more mobile intentionally conduct small groups with older people in their homes, or older people living near each other commit to ‘do church’ together in a way that is feasible. Overall, this is not a bad thing for the church – in fact, if done well, this decentralization has an incredible potential for the inter-generational sharing of wisdom, as well as minimising the burden felt by pastoral leaders. Furthermore, by locating church activities for a large section of a congregation outside of official premises, the potential for truly incarnational ministry could increase.
Yet, in saying all of this, we must be careful to not perceive of ministry to aging Boomers in the exact same fashion as to their parents. Indeed, it isn’t just the size of the aging Boomers that poses significant challenges for Christian ministry – there are also unique characteristics that mark this generation.
Markedly different from their fiscally-minded parents who grew up through the Depression, the Boomers grew up in a time of economic increase, as well as rapid social change marked by increasing pacifism, second-wave feminism and the decrease of racial segregation. Arguably, these social changes have led to a mentality of greater freedom and autonomy for Boomers – and an understanding of retirement as a time of relaxation, enjoying the fruits of one’s labour and economic growth.
Yet, this sense of fiscal security has been rocked significantly for many with the advent of the GFC. Many – only years away from planned retirement – have lost much of their savings, leaving them in a vulnerable position. For some Boomers, this requires them to work for longer, or to simply live out the rest of their years as fiscally as they can manage. For others, an active decision has been made to enjoy retirement, sacrificing money originally intended for their kids’ inheritances (hence the term ‘SKINS’ – Spending Kids Inheritance Now).
Either way, the church needs to be prepared for what is to come. We have a large generation of aging adults who are going to need genuine community when they find their independent selves immobile in a world that continues to move. Beyond lamenting about the damage that this could do to our Sunday services, churches need to see this shift as a time of growth and creativity.[toggle title="Work Cited"]
 Robert Wuthnow, After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty-and-Thirty-Somethings are Shaping Future of American Religion, (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2007), 25.
 E. Arias, “United States Life Tables, 2001,” National Vital Statistic Reports 52,
no. 14 (2004): table 11.[/toggle]