Silver Tsunami

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It's been called the "Silver Tsunami" -- the dramatic increase in the number of older Americans as a percentage of the total population. The Baby Boomers born between 1946-1964 were the largest generation in history; and as they have aged, they have transformed the entire nation and culture.

I remember hearing Tex Sample speak to a group of Florida Conference Christian educators somewhere around 1981, using the image of the Boomers as a large bulging mass having just been consumed by a python snake. As the generation ages, it moves through that cultural "python," completely remaking everything as it goes.

We changed public education as our huge numbers went from grade to grade. We required large increases in new schools and teachers, doctors, hospitals, houses, roads, and so much more. We changed music, art, politics, sex, gender equality, child bearing and rearing, government, healthcare, advertising, business, commerce, and industry.

In the church we've transformed what and how we think of religion, bringing along our typically questioning attitude of all institutions. Perhaps most dramatically we swept away the comfortable, staid, traditional worship, liturgy, and music of our parents and replaced them with freer and alternative styles: charismatic worship, dialog, drama, visual arts, meditation and silence, contemporary and cutting edge musical styles, projection screens, synthesizers, sound systems, lighting, guitars and drums, praise teams, performance music, video and slides, film clips, and non-Sunday worship.

And now the Baby Boomers are poised to have yet another profound effect upon the church. In 2010 there are 78 million Boomers. In 2011, 10,000 Boomers will turn age 65 every eight seconds. The oldest Boomers are reaching retirement age. As we continue to do so in increasing numbers, we will claim a larger portion of the church's attention.

Our numbers as a percentage of the church's membership will grow dramatically. Today 62 percent of The United Methodist Church is over the age of 50, and 50 percent is over 60, and those numbers are increasing.

In an informative article ("Boomers, A New Kind of Aging"), Rick Gentzler, Discipleship Ministries' Director of the Center on Aging and Older Adult Ministries, offers the following suggestions for ministry with Boomers:

  • Offer a variety of entry points where Boomers can meet others.
  • Develop activities that engage Boomers for their own sakes, not just for their children.
  • Provide opportunities for meaningful service and mission.
  • Schedule activities that nurture the reflective life (e.g., journaling, prayer, meditation).
  • Form small groups and support systems.
  • Recognize that many Boomers will be working well beyond the "normal" retirement age and may not provide the same degree of volunteer service as the Builder generation.
  • Realize that Boomers have a tendency to financially support "a cause" rather than simply give to the "general fund" of the local church.
  • Keep in mind that Boomers do not think of themselves as older adults and, as such, have very little interest in the current design of most older adult ministries.

And what about worship and music? Here are some points and suggestions to consider for Boomers in congregational worship:

  • Examine your own church's membership, Sunday school, and worship attendance to get an estimate of how many Boomers are in your congregation. Track that number and percentage as years go by.
  • Boomers have had a generation of praise songs, choruses, contemporary, and alternative music in worship. How will you balance those expectations with the expectations of younger generations in worship?
  • As Boomers are gradually replaced by younger generations in positions of leadership in the church, where can they continue to serve in meaningful and important capacities? Choir member, song leader, greeter, liturgist, usher, Communion server, worship committee, planning and writing worship resources?
  • Recruit Boomers to help with Sunday school, Bible school, summer camp music.
  • Form a singing or bell choir just for Boomers. Don't call it Older Adult Choir or Senior Citizen Choir. I once had such a choir named Rock of Ages.
  • Encourage Boomer instrumentalists to keep up their skills and use them in worship.
  • Ask a Boomer-aged Sunday school class to provide musical leadership for a particular Sunday and give the regular choir the week off. Select "their" music. Ask them what "their" music is.
  • Use research data about the favorite hymns (UM Hymnal and The Faith We Sing) of older United Methodists:

How will you and your church continue in ministry to and with the Silver Tsunami?