Older population offers ministry challenge, potential
The aging of the large baby boomer generation means older adult ministries will grow in importance to
churches in the coming decades.
“We are at a unique point in history where the older olds are living longer and that age group is larger,”
says Patricia Sanborn. She has worked for 10 years in older adult ministry at First United Methodist Church in Santa Rosa, Calif.
“The baby boomers are coming along right behind it and they are the largest demographic bulge in history.”
According to the Administration on Aging of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, the nation had 39.6 million people aged 65 or over in 2009. By 2030, the number is expected to increase to 72.1 million.
“Philosophically what that means is for the next several decades, we are going to be focusing on elder needs like at no other time in history,” she says. “As elders age, they have a higher need for spirituality, for health care, a higher risk of disease, such as arthritis and dementia.”
The growing older population offers both challenge to expand ministry and a potential to increase church membership.
“The older olds have a commitment to church as an institution,” Sanborn says, “There is a better chance that we can bring them back into the fold.”
“We should be focusing on elders because they need the spirituality. There’s a potential for growth by targeting church elders,” says Sanborn who emphasizes pastoral care and educational programs.
The Rev. Richard Gentzler, director of the Center on Aging and Older Adult Ministries at the General Board of Discipleship, suggests churches could begin to meet the coming challenges in older adult ministry by establishing programs for people at midlife.
However, he says the key to successful older adult ministry lies in helping them grow in the Christian faith.
“The future of older adult ministries would be best served by empowering older adults to grow as disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” Gentzler says.
--Cecile Holmes is a veteran religion journalist and associate professor at the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications.