This week I’ve been teaching a night course called Aging in America, focusing on ministry with older people in churches and institutions. Despite the high proportion of older people in our churches, programming and interest in their spiritual growth is almost nonexistent.
The class includes students from Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS), a consortium student from Luther Seminary in Gettysburg, and four Lifetime Theological Education (LTE) students. Even though no one in the group had met before and they represented a range of ages from 30 through 60, the class quickly formed a community where stories and laughter are both easily shared.
One story has stood out for me. The Rev. Paul Towers, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Montrose, PA, is attending the class at the behest of his vestry. At a recent retreat, the vestry decided to focus the church’s ministry on older people in the church, in the community, at two senior living apartment complexes and in one nursing home.
St. Paul’s, which was founded in 1831 and is housed in a historic worship space, has never really had ministry for children and youth. In 2008 they made a gallant effort to create a ministry for young people that included additional personnel, new furniture and redecorated space, curricula, and supplies. After four years, the vestry concluded that other churches in the area were better equipped to serve young families.
When Father Paul first described the situation at his church, my heart cried out, “No,” and my mind began a mantra, “you can’t have church without children.” But somewhere in that clatter of inner voices, another thought slipped into both my mind and heart.
At the eFormation Conference 2014 at VTS in June, one of the plenary speakers, Meredith Gould, asked us, “Who is your target audience?” She then said a church’s target audience should be the people sitting in the pews, not some unrepresented demographic.
From my observations, the people sitting in pews at many of our churches are nearing or over age 65. This apparently is the case at Father Paul’s church.
St. Paul’s has decided to approach their new ministry to older people carefully, beginning by asking church members and people in the community what they want or need. They intend to begin slowly, and build a ministry that can be sustained.
Father Paul arrived with a basic question, “What will ministry to older people look like?” He will return from his week at VTS with greater knowledge about older people, some resources about programming, and guidelines for adult ministry, but there are no blueprints for the ministry that his church hopes to create.
Father Paul is quick to point out that this new ministry in still in the planning phase. Changes in the worship space are already underway, including a new surround sound system designed for people with hearing impairments and the installation of cameras used to broadcast the primary Sunday worship service in high definition. Older people in the community will be able to worship weekly with St. Paul’s through a cable television broadcast.
There are many questions the church needs to answer. Will St. Paul’s no longer have intergenerational worship and community events? How will it welcome families and younger individuals that are attracted by their ministry?
The demographics of the area, which is a magnet for retirees that are a part of the baby boomer bulge, indicate that there is a strong base for both a vital church and ministry to older people. Maybe more churches should ask the question, “Who is our target audience?”
Dorothy Linthicum (@dslinthicum)