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Coming to Grips With an Aging Church

by Frank Hutchinson

Frank Hutchinson, formerly on the staff of Church World Service, has been involved in aging issues since his retirement in 1975. For the past eight years he has served as a volunteer consultant for the IRL/AARP. He lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico. This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 22, 1988, p. 206. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The rapid decline in birth rates from 1960 to 1980 and the extended life span of people 65 and older have changed the face of many religious institutions. Not many of the aging churches yet match the situation of one church I know, in which 90 percent of the members are 60 years and older. But each year the graying of the congregation increases in synagogues and mainline churches. Only in conservative and fundamentalist churches do younger ages predominate.

In the U.S. today people are generally living longer than in previous years. More than 10 percent of all citizens are over 65. And the elderly population itself is growing older: in 1985 the 65-74 age group was nearly eight times larger than in 1900, the 75-84 group was 11 times larger and the 85-plus group was 22 times larger. All older groups will continue to increase, with aging persons making up one-fifth of the population shortly after the year 2000. By 1990 there may be as many as 50,000 100-year-old Americans.

The Census Bureau projects that the 1986 figure of 29.2 million people 65 and older will jump to 34.9 million by 2000. Ten years later there will be 39.2 million seniors.

In their 1987 study American Mainline Religion: Its Changing Shape and Future (Rutgers University Press) , Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney point out that the percentage of members 50 years of age and older has increased sharply in mainline churches. From 1957 to 1963 the number of 50-and-over Episcopalians increased from 36 to 47 percent; the rise for United Methodists was from 40 to 49 percent; for Lutherans 36 to 45; for Presbyterians 42 to 49; and for Baptists 33 to 40. White Protestants are older than black Protestants, and liberal Protestants are older than conservative and fundamentalist Protestants. Black Protestants and conservative Protestants have both maintained larger numbers in the 18-34 and the 35-54 groups.

The United Church of Christ and the Church of Christ, Scientist, have the oldest constituencies, with mean ages of more than 50. Pentecostal and Holiness church members, on the other hand, have a mean age of 41.2. Whereas almost 40 percent of the nation’s population belongs to the 18-34 age category, only 26 percent of the Reformed Church, 21 percent of the United Church of Christ, and 26 percent of the United Methodists fall into that bracket.

The spectacular growth in the number of people of mature age in our country has been accompanied by a parallel increase in organizations and service agencies concerned about aging. Groups such as the American Association of Retired Persons have had a marked increase in numbers and importance. Congressional actions have broadened and enlarged Social Security, Medicare and other benefits.

But the churches and other religious groups lag behind, rarely responding to the changes in their membership. For example, the Religious Education Association (REA) , an organization supported by the mainline churches, recently conducted a study on the relation between religious faith and human development. The survey divided people into age categories of 20-29, 30-39, 40-49, and 50 and above. To a gerontologist, such a breakdown is misguided, for there is as much difference between 50 and 60 or 70 and 80 as there is between all those age groups and any younger category. Those who set up the study apparently didn’t recognize that even people "over 50" have different lives, expectations, problems and outlooks. The REA’s conclusions concerning the "50 and above" group are bound to be faulty, and its assumptions seem symptomatic of churches’ and synagogues’ general ignorance of the fundamental changes taking place in their own organizations.

A small number of national churches and synagogues maintain special aging offices, with staffs and budgets, and some of these Orthodox, Jewish, Protestant and Catholic bodies are members of the National Interfaith Coalition on Aging. But they represent less than 10 percent of the more than 250 U.S. religious bodies. One Protestant church is currently phasing out its Office on Aging, and will later incorporate gerontological concerns in its Education and Congregational Nurture Unit. A rough sampling of denominational publications reveals only occasional references to the aging situation.

There is also limited concern about issues of aging at the local church level. While serving as a volunteer consultant for the Interreligious Liaison (IRL) office of the AARP, I wrote to 20 leaders of New Mexico’s denominations concerning programs they might wish to setup. I offered to provide films, literature, speakers and even promotion funds to help them put on a conference on the church and aging. I received only two-replies.

Perhaps churches identify aging with failure, dying churches, or even death itself. As membership totals decline, older people may be seen as the culprits. But the healthiest segment of today’s church is its senior membership. Membership decline can be blamed on secularization, on the breakdown of earlier loyalties, or on the greater freedom and independence, of the younger generation, but not on aging itself or on the aging.

Those clergy inclined to blame or ignore the aging may know little about them. Only a very small number of seminaries offer solid accredited courses on the implications of a graying church for ministry. Earl N. Kragnes of the IRL/AARP estimates that perhaps only 20 seminaries even offer pastoral courses on the topic. A few seminaries consider these courses basic to the theological education of prospective ministers and rabbis, and therefore require them for graduation. Occasionally they are incorporated in courses on pastoral theology. One seminary student responded to my inquiry, however, by saying: "Sure, we have courses on the implications of gerontology for the ministry. We do the same thing medical schools do with their classes on geriatric medicine: they are scheduled for 8:00 AM. Saturday!" In an article on ministry and aging in a recent issue of the Connection, published by the American Society on Aging, James Seeber listed only three outstanding seminary aging programs.

The National Interfaith Coalition (NICA) and the IRL/AARP have worked together to educate seminaries on the need to include this new discipline. In 1985, 50 seminary professors and deans gathered to consider what courses should be taught and how they could encourage and stimulate the seminaries to teach gerontological insights in theology.

More recently the IRL/AARP office published a substantial document: Aging Society -- A Challenge to Theological Education. Twenty-four scholars in eight disciplines prepared stimulating material suggesting a theological basis for seminaries to consider and later provide courses in the church and aging field. Both NICA and the AARP hope that gerontological insights will someday pervade the entire seminary curriculum.

It will probably be some years before most national religious bodies set up offices on aging, or before a significant number of theological institutions add gerontology-informed courses to their curricula. Even more years will pass before trained seminarians move out into the local parishes and engage in a ministry fully sensitive to all age groups in the congregation and the larger community. What may arouse the churches to new efforts is the coming wave of aging baby-boomers. But it is crucial that local leaders -- lay as well as clergy -- begin to lead churches in an enlarged ministry, one that takes full measure of the age structure of the congregation.

Leaders must see the graying of their churches as both a serious responsibility and a golden opportunity. The responsibility is to render service to older parishioners and to other seniors in the community. The opportunity lies in the mature manpower and womanpower within each church that can be inspired, directed and put to work in the local church or in a creative neighborhood ministry.

Perhaps the first thing a local church can do is tackle the issue of how aging is viewed. Far too many limiting and condescending stereotypes about aging still exist. Women and men of advanced years are not the grannies or funny old men depicted in the comic strips or on TV. They are not even what parents and grandparents were a generation ago; they are a new creation, something unique in history. They have a vital present and a hopeful future. They have much to give both to their families and to the larger society.

More accurate assessments of aging must also touch older people themselves. Whereas many of them are fully emancipated from the stereotypes -- Shakespeare’s "sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything" -- demeaning characterizations are still too common. Some churches are helping people of advancing years recognize their range of possibilities. Churches genuinely concerned about a rich and abundant life for all persons can begin a vital ministry with the aging.

The relation of the church to its older members has been seen mostly as a one-way street: ministry to and for seniors. But as Arthur Flemming suggested to the NICA/AARP conference for seminary faculty in 1985, the church can minister not only to and for older persons but by, with and through them. Some churches now see themselves as service agencies whose aim and purpose is to use all their members, old as well as young, in serving the frail elderly and other older people in need. In The Role of the Church in Aging: Implications for Policy and Action Michael C. Hendrickson wrote:

The appropriateness of the religious sector serving as a principal provider for the elderly can be supported for a number of reasons. First, it represents a multi-institutional, strategically dispersed set of facilities and agencies which are in close proximity to where the majority of older persons live. . . . Second, churches, collectively, have been the main gatekeepers of the volunteer resources in this country. As such, they are strategically poised to organize and equip the volunteers needed to serve as informal care givers for the frail elderly.

Many churches are training older volunteers to engage in a unique ministry. A survey of the local congregation determines what members or neighborhood people are housebound, needing companionship or more detailed attention like Meals on Wheels, grocery shopping or transportation to the doctor. Included here are regular visits to nursing homes, whose residents are usually the most neglected and the worst-off of the older age groups, sometimes forced to endure shocking conditions. These important services require no special training beyond serious concern and faithfulness.

Meeting some needs does require special training, however. Social agencies can counsel religious leaders as to how their people may best serve others with special needs. Retired Senior Volunteer Persons can provide a community list as to where church volunteers are needed.

Perhaps the most acute aging issue today is long-term care: keeping the frail elderly in their own homes and out of nursing homes. This topic is now before Congress, but it is also a local concern, and religious bodies can provide creative alternatives such as homemaker services and adult day-care centers to enable older folk to continue their lives in familiar surroundings.

Churches can obtain books on the aging issue, as well as "how to" manuals through denominational channels and secular sources. There is a new Journal of Religion and Aging, and raw materials are available through NICA (Athens, Georgia) and IRL/AARP (Washington, D.C.) Haworth Press in New York also has a small library of excellent recent books on the broader theme.

One hopes local efforts will set in motion a trickle-up effect, inspiring more home boards and committees to look squarely at the fact of an aging church. Both enlarged and refined community and national efforts are essential. Does the church know it’s aging? Has it acted on that knowledge? Only in part. There is much yet to be done to meet the new opportunity for service.


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