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Older Adults and Resilient Faith: Three False Narratives and an Invitation

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I recently wrote a Network blog about how “Generation P” (for “pandemic”) is struggling these days, but it’s important to remember that folks at the other end of the continuum are struggling as well. In the 65-plus crowd, loneliness and feelings of being disconnected are at an all-time high as travel, visiting, and in-person worship are restricted. One of the biggest challenges during this pandemic is how to build resilience during what is changing from a crisis to a chronic event. 

Folks in the “third third of life” need their church fellowship to both support and even boost their resilience. For many there are no more seniors’ coffees, fall leaf tours, or nursing home visits. Pair this with the inability for pastors and elders to do typical pre-pandemic pastoral care, and you find that many congregations are noticing gaps in spiritual connection to some of their members who need it most. 

Ministry to those in the third third of life requires a hybrid approach of reclaiming some old-school strategies and pairing them with new technologies. But to take that approach, we must first put to rest a few false narratives. Let’s focus on three of them. 

False narrative #1: We don’t have to worry much about how this pandemic is impacting our “seasoned saints,” since they have been walking with Jesus long enough to weather the storm. 

Most people wouldn’t say this aloud, but the thought may hover beneath the surface in some of our ministry planning. Many congregations are rushing to get Sunday school or youth group online, but fewer are asking how they might serve their older members. But as noted above, the pandemic is painful for people in the third third of life. Even the most seasoned Christ follower who can give testimony to how their faith grew during other times of crisis would be blessed by a card, a phone call, or a package to remind them that others within the congregation are thinking of them. Think of ways to involve your youth group or Gems/Cadets in reaching out to those in the third third of life, and also of ways to help older adults connect with each other. Now is a great time to invite those with more life experience to tell their faith stories! 

False narrative #2: People in the third third of life have no capacity to learn new technologies, so they won’t take advantage of our church’s online opportunities. 

Recent research suggests that the issue isn't the capacity to learn, but a combination of desire or willingness to learn and the willingness and patience of those who understand technology to teach older adults. Research also shows that seniors actually have a greater capacity to learn new technologies than we have given them credit for.

Congregations who have done this the best have made a detailed plan to supply technology and basic training to all of their seniors. Often patience and non-familial training can be the key. It is worth the effort to find creative ways to encourage our seniors to use technology and to invite them into a variety of connecting points beyond Sunday morning. 

False narrative #3: Older adults aren’t interested in interacting online. 

We have evidence for how this pandemic has helped us engage young techies or how Zoom worship allows us to engage people across the globe, but we often hear that online ministry has not been good for older members. That may only be a partial truth. 

One thing I have noticed is that as older adults begin to be comfortable with new technologies, they are actually engaging in more activities than previously. There are many positive opportunities for people in the third third of life to interact online:

  • One pastor I know is doing a Zoom hymn-sing which is turning into a robust and growing small group. It’s made up of folks who never would have attended an evening event and who had previously never attended any other small group offerings. What changed? A felt need to connect and the ability to do so via technology. 

  • Online council meetings, discussion groups, and even worship are drawing folks in who previously did not have the capacity to drive to such gatherings. And they are inviting their friends like never before. 

  • One church has noticed that older former members of the congregation are returning to Sunday morning Zoom church because now they can attend from a nursing home many kilometers away. 

Want to Learn More? Join Our Peer Learning Cohort! 

Faith Formation Ministries will be hosting a virtual peer learning cohort for ministry leaders and individuals who would like to explore how to support and encourage robust faith formation in the third third of life. 

This cohort will run from January through June 2021 and will include resources, coaching, and opportunities for shared support from churches across the denomination. Click here for details on joining the cohort, or contact me at [email protected] or Laura Keeley at [email protected].

And here are some helpful links to check out:

Another article from Barna on the importance of relationships in building resilient faith

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