Boomers – Is Your Church Ready?
By Lisa Jean Hoefner
Baby boomers – about 76 million of us in America – are the 60–79-year-olds of 2024.
We are used to having a major impact on the culture, economy, education, recreation, politics, and living arrangements of our society. Many of us are retired, but our influence on things around us is not retiring! Is the church ready for us? We expect to be seen and valued. We want new ways to serve that use our experiences to reach our peers and connect with other generations. We can be mentors; we can teach; we can follow; we can lead. We’ve got years ahead of us!
The generations ahead of us (the Greatest Generation – those born 1901-1924 – and the Silent Generation, born 1925-1945) are already living so much longer than previous generations that they are stretching everyone’s expectations of what it means to be old. Can the church help us keep on growing physically, mentally, and spiritually? What new discipleship opportunities can be created to meet the varied needs? What is working at your church? What needs to be refined or dropped? What do you wish your church would do to support your life situation now?
I want my church to help everyone understand that aging is not a disease but an experience that starts at birth. I love the opportunities for intergenerational learning in worship, study, and fellowship settings where everyone can contribute something and learn from one another. In my local congregation, I’ve experienced those instances in our seasonal arts and crafts workshops, in weekly and special outdoor worship settings, and at a specifically fashioned intergenerational camp last summer.
I’ll never forget leading a hymn sing as we entered the season of Lent, when a five-year-old requested the song, “Ring Around the Rosie.” At first, I was stumped, had to hum it to myself, and then quickly turned to the organist thinking, “Yes, this is perfect!” “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down!” The young lad had keyed in on the announcement of the Ash Wednesday service, and singing that chorus together helped the whole congregation participate with a fresh theological insight that morning. “Ashes, ashes … we all fall down.” I could start my sermon right from there, and I did.
I want my church to help everyone understand that aging is not a disease but an experience that starts at birth.
The Gerontological Society of America met last November and brought together more than five hundred researchers to share their current work. I couldn’t help but think that some of us in the church are already experimenting with some of the practices being researched. For instance, Cynthia McDowell, a Ph.D. student, reported on a project evaluating how social singing can reduce the stigma and isolation of people with dementia and their care partners. Self-assessments following two four-month periods of choir participation revealed that “distress” dropped precipitously. McDowell calls it a “quiet intervention” – a nonpharmacological alternative to treating distress. This may sound intuitively obvious, but a study like hers gives the theoretical evidence that can be built upon to generate other programs to help. New information from age-related research affects all of us in policies, programs, and practical advice.
We can learn from these and other researchers and agencies dedicated to enriching life among older adults to address the spiritual formation needs of our communities. What can we apply right away? What can and must we do to imagine a hopeful future with an intentional discipleship process, as we plan for this new year of ministries with older adults? Let’s share best practices and support one another in our local settings. What are you learning? What’s working in your church and community? What’s missing?
I hope that this newsletter can be one way we get ideas and information shared among congregations. What can you contribute? What are your biggest questions? What next steps are you taking? Please share so we can learn together what’s possible, what’s needed, and what’s already available.
Rev. Dr. Lisa Jean Hoefner is the Older Adult Ministries Coordinator for Discipleship Ministries. She has served as a pastor of churches and director of camping ministries in the New York, Susquehanna, Upper New York, Oregon-Idaho, and Cal-Nevada Conferences from 1975 to 2020.