Ministering to and With People in the Third Third of Life

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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.

Stereotypes about older adults are alive and well, even in the church. You’ve heard them: “over the hill, out of touch, tired, weak, irrelevant.” These stereotypes have never been fair or accurate, but they’re especially off the mark for the current (and rapidly growing) group of people in the third third of life. 

Understanding who these people are—an active, often justice- and service-oriented group with numerous gifts to offer the church—is key to planning ministry and engaging them. The resources gathered here will help you get acquainted with the Boomers and other members of today’s third third.

Articles

  • “How Well Do You Know the Baby Boomer Generation?” in Faith Formation with Baby Boomers (pp. 6-30) from Lifelong Faith is an up-close look at this huge generation of seniors or soon-to-be seniors and their capacity for contributing to the life of society and the church. A great resource for church leaders and planners.

  • In the Q and A article On Baby Boomers and Beyond, Amy Hanson, author of Baby Boomers and Beyond: Tapping the Ministry Talents and Passions of Adults over 50 (see also Books section below) describes how the Baby Boomer generation is uniquely qualified to be a huge blessing to the church in the coming years.

  • Pew or Canoe: The Unexpected Black Hole. Calvin Theological Seminary professor Gary M. Burge describes his perceptions of our changing relationship with the church as we age, comparing it to falling into a black hole. He shares suggestions for how churches might better address the needs and interests of adults in the third third of life—people who are interested in justice and looking for new challenges.

  • The Faith Formation Ministries team developed a list of possible responses to “Pew or Canoe” that includes resources and opportunities that might encourage third-third adults to return to more active participation in the church community. Suggestions included challenging older adults to:

    • mentor WHILE canoeing.

    • be a leader on a SERVE trip (sponsored by Youth Unlimited and your church).

    • join a young adult hike or backpacking trip.

    • consider that maybe it’s not "pew OR canoe" but "pew AND canoe." Perhaps a small group could meet outdoors, take a canoe trip with frequent stops for psalm readings and worship, or do a retreat together somewhere beautiful as they discuss faith and other important life topics. A fresh setting is always a good idea.

    • work with Sam Gutierrez's book The Jesus Questions in an intergenerational group setting. It's a powerful alternative to traditional book study. 

    • follow communications from the Office of Social Justice and get involved in a justice issue in your area.

  • 48 Older Adult Ministry Ideas. This helpful list from the United Methodist Church identifies 48 ways to challenge and reach out to older adults. Since the third third includes a growing diversity of people and their abilities, this list will help churches think past cookie-cutter, old-style senior programming.

  • Aging Together in Grace. Joan Huyser-Honig describes ways that churches can offer a “counter-cultural message about the gifts of older adults and walk with them through the challenges of aging.” She reminds us that as people begin to live longer, the numbers of those with dementia will grow. Huyser-Honig also encourages and challenges churches to make use of “universal design” to welcome persons with cognitive decline into the community.

  • Six Ways to Engage Older Adults in Worship. Christina Tazelaar suggests ways of including older third-thirders in worship, even when they can no longer attend Sunday services.

  • Ten Ways to Encourage Faith Formation in the Third Third of Life. This handout helps churches think through ways they can better challenge the third-thirders in their congregation, inviting them to keep learning and using their gifts.

  • “The Challenges and Opportunities for Faith Formation with Maturing Adults” (pp. 37-51) in Adulthood from Lifelong Faith offers detailed guidance for engaging and ministering to third-thirders in ways that can help their faith continue to grow and bear fruit.

  • Ten Ways to Bless and Be Blessed by Older Church Members. This helpful tool from Faith Formation Ministries includes ten ways your congregation can actively love, support, include, and receive blessings from older members of the body of Christ. 

  • “Congregational Vitality and Older Adult Ministries” (pp. 52-54) in Adulthood by Lifelong Faith. Richard H. Gentzler presents eight ways for congregations to engage, equip, and empower a growing older adult population. 

Especially for Worship Planners and Leaders

  • Preaching for Life’s Final Season. Scott Hoezee offers helpful reminders to pastors as they prepare sermons. His list includes using examples that appeal to a variety of ages and, from time to time, choosing sermon topics that focus on ideas older adults wrestle with. He also includes a caveat: “There is no such thing as a ‘typical’ older adult.”

  • Beyond Singing Hymns. Bill Gaventa stresses how important relationships are in building ministry. Instead of assuming that generational stereotypes apply, he says, get to know the needs of individuals, particularly older members. He also gives guidance on addressing the spiritual tasks of aging.

  • God’s Calling to and for the Elderly in Worship. Emily Brink challenges worship leaders to honor the needs and high calling of even the oldest members of the congregation, looking for new and better ways to minister to all ages.

  • Intergenerational Worship Model Based on Scripture and Story. Residents of senior living communities often feel cut off from church life. Meanwhile, congregations often feel segregated by age. This participatory intergenerational worship model brings people together around Scripture and life stories. 

Books

  • Baby Boomers and Beyond: Tapping the Ministry Talents and Passions of Adults over 50 by Amy Hanson. This book challenges ministry leaders to let go of their stereotypes of aging and to understand that many of today’s third-thirders are active and healthy and able to make significant contributions. Hanson suggests ways of “unleashing” older adults to take on a vital role in ministry. You can listen to a podcast interview of Amy talking about her book here (please note: podcast begins at about the one-minute mark).

  • Aging and Ministry in the 21st Century: An Inquiry Approach by Richard H. Gentzler, Jr. This is an easy-to-read book with a singular vision. Chapter 4 on Spirituality and Aging as well as chapter 7 on Ministry and Aging (including congregational next steps) are especially helpful. Call-out boxes with questions are included to help the reader or reading group respond to Gentzler’s ideas. In Gentzler’s own words: “Faith communities should be less concerned about helping people age ‘successfully’ and more concerned with helping people age ‘faithfully.’”

  • A Vision for the Aging Church by James M. Houston and Michael Parker. Cowritten by a theologian and an expert in gerontology and social work, this book provides an in-depth look at where the church is and where they need to be in understanding and ministering to older adults. The book is a fine combination of theology and practical ideas for action.

Blog

  • Amy Hanson: Creating a New Story for the New Old. As Hanson herself states, the purpose of the blog is to “keep a pulse on what is being written about Baby Boomers and other older adults.” The blog includes many helpful ministry suggestions for churches.

FOR THOUGHT OR DISCUSSION

  • What percentage of your congregation is age 55 and older? How well do you engage them in ministry? After reading about who these third-thirders are, suggest some changes your church could make to more fully use their gifts.

  • What surprises you most about the facts on Baby Boomers?

  • If you are a third-thirder, what suggestions might you have for ways the church could better include you in ministry efforts?

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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