In a recent article in The New York Times, writer Motoko Rich wrote, “Asia faces a problem: Its population is aging faster than any other continent’s. A growing percentage of people in Japan, South Korea and China are over 65, and those countries’ economies are suffering because of a lack of available workers. Governments are struggling to find the money to support retirees.”
It isn’t just countries in Asia that are aging and growing older. Slower population growth has been a trend in much of Europe and in the United States for a number of years — the result of decreasing fertility and net international migration, combined with increasing mortality due to an aging population.
Rich went on to say, “Population growth in the U.S. is at extremely low levels.” U.S. citizens, like many people in developed countries, are aging and getting older.
I have often reminded participants in my workshops that, according to the U.S. Census, by 2035 the population 65 and older will outnumber children and youth under 18 years of age in the U.S. In U.S. history, there has never been a time when older adults outnumbered young people.
Preparing for an aging society is not easy. Rich further wrote, “You can compare the issue of how people used to view climate change: It was happening for many years, but we weren’t paying attention. Societies need to plan for aging, and they’re not well set up to do so. It’s not an in-your-face crisis — it’s a slow-rolling crisis.”
We are facing an unprecedented situation in The United Methodist Church — the longevity revolution in our Church. Most of our congregations are graying and have many more older members than young people. We are all growing older, not just as individuals but as members of a faith community.
Simply stated, our churches are graying. But aging and growing older shouldn’t be thought of as a negative life stage. Aging can be the path leading toward maturity, growth, and wisdom. Studies have shown that older adults are often more resilient and feel a greater sense of life satisfaction than young people.
Unfortunately, and all too often, negative stereotypes about aging persist, despite the growing numbers of healthy, active older adults in our churches and communities. While individual older adults vary in their abilities, health, and faith development, the perception of aging as a period of unrelenting decline and dependency is untrue.
Church leaders have the unique opportunity to help reframe aging in our congregations by first recognizing any ageism that may exist within our own thinking. Why are so many people afraid of becoming an older adult? And, how can we, as church leaders, help remove this stigma from our thinking and from the lives of our church members? Reframing aging by lifting up all ages and stages of life as a gift from God and acknowledging and respecting the gifts of older members are good ways to start.
The spiritual growth of the aging person affects the life of the church and is affected by the church. Aging demands the attention of the entire congregation. How the church relates to its older members — recognizing their presence and faith, encouraging their contributions, responding to their needs, and providing appropriate opportunities for spiritual growth — is a sign of the church’s spiritual health and well-being.
The sheer number of older people in The United Methodist Church and their vitality, faith, wisdom, experience, and desire to give something back to community and church should cause us all to rejoice! The United Methodist Church is not an old church — rather, it is a denomination blessed with many older members.
Here are some ideas for church leaders to keep in mind concerning the church’s intentional ministry by, with, and for older adults:
- Recognize that older adults are providers, not just recipients, of the church’s ministry. Older adults bring a wealth of experience, deep faith, wisdom, skills, and spiritual resources. Far from draining church resources, older adults are themselves a valuable resource that benefit both the church and community.
- Help older adults know that they are valued, respected, and needed in ministry.
- Provide older adults with opportunities for fellowship, learning, spiritual growth, and service.
- Encourage older adults to find meaning and purpose in their later years.
- Empower older adults to practice generativity by giving back to succeeding generations.
- Provide opportunities for older adults to listen to and learn from young people.
- Listen to and learn from older adults regarding their needs and gifts for service.
- Provide support for caregivers and older adults who are experiencing grief, loneliness, health problems, and loss.
As aging in our churches continues to grow and change, perhaps we can realize that all ages and stages of life are blessed by God and valued in The United Methodist Church. As leaders in older adult ministry, let’s help our congregations to see and know that aging is not a problem for our churches to solve but a gift to be embraced.
Dr. Richard Gentzler, director, oversees ENCORE Ministry’s mission of providing older adult ministry resources, leader training, and consultations. For more information, email Gentzler at email@example.com or call 615-400-0539.