Honoring and Respecting Older Church Members

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This article is part of The Third Third of Life Toolkit—a collection of resources for ministry to and with people ages 55 and over, brought to you by two ministries of the Christian Reformed Church in North America: Disability Concerns and Faith Formation Ministries.

As the number of people in the third third of life continues to grow, it’s essential that we recognize the treasure of the older people in our community. They have much to offer: 

  • years of work experience, child-raising experience, and life wisdom

  • time, talents, and money that they can share with the congregation

  • the ability and willingness to serve in prayer, to visit the sick, to volunteer for mission efforts, and a variety of other tasks

In short, third-thirders are one of the church’s most valuable assets! The resources gathered here will help you discover new ways to honor these folks and welcome their contributions.

Telling Our Stories

How do respect and honor grow? These important values develop and flourish when people get to know each other better! The following articles describe the place of telling our stories in building stronger understanding and appreciation between the generations. Particularly important are the stories of older members, who have lived through many difficulties and have seen God’s grace in very real ways.

Articles

  • In What’s Your Story? Robert J. Ritzema offers compelling reasons for church families to hear and remember stories of faith, particularly from their older members. He suggests inviting third-thirders into storytelling by reminding them: “If what matters is what God has done, not what I’ve managed on my own, my life review takes on a different character. It’s less about how I’ve lived and more about the life of Christ in me.” 

  • One Generation Will Call to the Next” describes a successful approach that Jubilee Fellowship CRC in St. Catharines, Ontario, used to invite older members to share their faith stories with young people. 

  • 60 Seconds Storytelling contains one simple idea for starting a faith-forming conversation.

  • The Stories That Bind Us is an interesting read on the identity-shaping power of sharing our stories. Although the article centers on our nuclear families, you’ll quickly see parallels to your church family. 

  • See also the use of milestone markers to engage people in storytelling (Celebrating Milestones section). 

Video

  • The Art of the Interview. This valuable TED talk focuses on interviewing people, especially older people “who know how the story turns out,” to create a living portrait of these people and their wisdom that will guide others. 

Books

  • In The Spiritual Practice of Remembering, historian Margaret Bendroth encourages Christian communities to keep alive the memories of our ancestors in faith. Noting that historical societies erect markers to commemorate significant events, she envisions church buildings filled with do-it-yourself historical markers—of a donor’s generosity, of a life-changing sermon, of baptisms, of funerals, of members who regularly occupied this or that pew. Bendroth notes that “the past tense is essential to our language of faith, and without it our conversation is limited and thin.”

Toolkit

  • Faith Storytelling Toolkit. Check out this resource-filled toolkit for ways of shaping and sharing stories intergenerationally in all of your church’s ministries. 

Quote

  • “In the past, nothing is irretrievably lost, but rather, on the contrary, everything is irrevocably stored and treasured. To be sure, people tend to see only the stubble fields of transitoriness, but overlook and forget the full granaries of the past into which they have brought the harvest of their lives, the deeds done, the loves loved, and last but not least the sufferings they have gone through with courage and dignity. From this, one may see that there is no reason to pity old people. Instead, young people should envy them. . . . Instead of possibilities in the future, they have realities in the past, the potentialities they have actualized, the meanings they have fulfilled, the values they have realized. And nothing and nobody can ever remove these assets from the past.” —Viktor E. Frankl, 1984 postscript to Man’s Search for Meaning. (This quote pairs well with the apostle Paul’s reflection in 2 Timothy 4:7: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”)

Other Ways to Honor Older Members

  • A “Wisdom of Our Elders” Service. Using a worship grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Nancy Foran developed a worship service for an adult-living facility in which the participants (most between 80 and 85) were invited to share their stories. Dividing into small groups, each led by a member of Foran’s home congregation, the older adults were asked a series of questions and shared some amazing faith stories. As you read, think of ways a similar approach might work in your congregation.

  • Keep Older Adults in the Church. Ed Lewis began wondering why the church was losing older people, so he talked to them. Read about his findings and how he worked to reverse the trend. His ideas should be extremely helpful to other church leaders who are dealing with this reality.

  • The Changing Role of the Elderly in Society. Robert Ritzema describes the impact of autonomy and individualism on our society, often welcomed by the older as well as the younger. He challenges Christians and churches to avoid “mindlessly pursuing what the surrounding culture values.”

FOR THOUGHT OR DISCUSSION

  • In what context might your church begin or broaden a way to share stories of faith? A worship service? Small groups? Adult faith formation groups?

  • If you are a third-thirder, think of two or three examples from your own life story that might help grow or bolster faith in others.

  • Rate your congregation on how well you’ve used the gifts of people in the third third of life. How might you improve? 

QUESTIONS?

If you’re part of the Christian Reformed Church in North America and you have questions about how to strengthen your church’s ministry to and with people in the third third of life, one of Faith Formation Ministries’ Regional Catalyzers would love to talk with you about ideas and strategies.

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