Faith Formation with Mature Adults
Faith Formation with Mature Adults

Mature adults 1

This is the first of four posts about ministry for mature adults inspired by the Seasons of Adult Faith Formation book, symposium, and special issue of Lifelong Faith Journal.

All research and projections are telling us we are getting older; those in their later years will be a larger segment of the population than the youth. “Nearly every industry in society, from health care to entertainment, is scrambling to respond to this age wave that is crashing on our shores” (Roberto, J. “Developing Faith Formation for the Baby Boom Generation.” Lifelong Faith. Winter 2010, 35)

This series of four articles will look at key principles for adult faith formation, especially those that touch mature adults, key characteristics of mature adulthood, ages 55 to 74, which influence learning, potential themes for faith formation for mature adults, and effective practices and approaches.

We are privileged (since the work of Malcolm Knowles and many others) to have a body of research and practices which describe the ways adult learn. The following are only a few of the many principles to guide adult faith formation.

Connect to Mature Adult Needs

Adults’ readiness to learn is directly linked to needs—needs related to fulfilling their roles as workers, spouses, parents, Christian disciples, and more; and coping with life changes (divorce, death of a loved one, retirement).

“The content of programs offered in parish ministry for maturing adults rises out of the real situations in which such people live, including moments of transition and daily life” (Johnson, R. P. Parish Ministry for Maturing Adults: Principles, Twenty-Third Publications, 2007, 16). “From the idea of developmental tasks, the concept of ‘teachable moment’ emerges: the idea that one may need to learn something new in order to cope with the tasks of a certain developmental stage” (Dean, G. J. “An Introduction to Development.” Field notes for ABLE Staff, 2007, 11).

All ongoing learning and formation relating to real life needs to help mature adults grow in new understandings and new ways of acting. “Our ministry to maturing adults needs to have utility. Maturing adults asks: How can this improve my life in a concrete way?

Theory is nice, but it’s too removed from the everyday lives of spiritually maturing adults to sustain their interest. They are looking for great ideas, inspiring concepts, motivational insights, and global perspectives, but they want them in ways that make a down-to-earth difference right now.

Because today’s older adults are living longer, are healthy and energetic, ministries with them needs to be viewed as being with and through older adults rather than to older adults. Zanzig reminds us: “Build the faith community ‘from the inside out,’ not from the top down. We will listen, discern, dream, plan, and minister collaboratively, i.e. as a genuine community of disciples with a shared mission.” (Zanzig, T., “Spiritual Transformation: The Heart of Adult Faith Formation,” Lifelong Faith, Fall 2012, 5)

Incorporate Age-Specific & Intergenerational Elements

Ministry for/with maturing adults needs to be both age-specific and multigenerational. Intergenerationality and communities-of-like interest are both needed—the comfort of our own environments as well as the challenge that comes from different ways of thinking and perceiving, deeper experiences of understanding and doing.

“The church is most healthy when it offers diversity. Age diversity is perhaps the most universally recognized diversity in most churches. All the various age groups in the church are intertwined. The ability of one cohort of people in a church to successfully meet the developmental challenges of one stage provides the needed communal context for other cohorts of persons to successfully address their proper and appropriate developmental tasks as well. We are not in isolated developmental boxes; we are all in the same pot. When one ingredient doesn’t or can’t express its unique flavor, then the others cannot express themselves fully either. One part or element of the parish or faith organization system affects and is affected by every other part.” (Johnson, R. Parish Ministry for Maturing Adults, Twenty-Third Publications, 2007, 44)

Design Holistic, All-Encompassing Programming

Adult faith formation is all-encompassing: “…parish ministry for maturing adults pays attention to three dimensions of growth: spiritual, psychological, and physical” (Johnson, 15). the “content” for adult faith formation for maturing adults needs to be broad, wide, and deep.

We know from research that adult learners will choose the learning activity that best fits their learning needs, preferred modes of learning, and time constraints. In order to accomplish this, faith formation with Baby Boomers needs to provide a variety of content and learning activities, and a variety of models for faith formation that include activities in physical places and virtual spaces.

Realize that one ministry type does not meet all the needs of older adults. Some older adults will enjoy meeting together for a weekly or monthly noon luncheon program, while other older adults would rather be part of a mission team or take part in a community service project.

Some older adults will be available during the day; others will be working and available only at night or on weekends. … some older adults will enjoy singing ‘old familiar hymns,’ while others enjoy singing praise songs. Remember: no two older adults are exactly alike; therefore, no single ministry will reach everyone. (Gentzler, R. H. “Congregational Vitality and Older Adult Ministries.” Lifelong Faith, Fall 2012, 54)

To help your church discern the needs of maturing adults check out the article “What Are We Providing for Adult Faith Growth?

Opportunities for mature adults need to incorporate various methods:

• individualized: online opportunities, reading, videos, etc.
• within home life: conversations, prayer and rituals, etc.
• in small groups: taking place in various locations (church, restaurants, libraries, homes, etc.)
• in large groups: retreats, workshops, speakers, etc.
• throughout the life of the church: worship, service, ministry and leadership
• within the neighborhood, the community and world: opportunities offered by various civic, religious, educational organizations

These various methods/opportunities remind us of another important principle (which can relieve the worry and workload of s church staff): One congregation doesn’t have to do everything. Be a clearing house and a curator by alerting maturing adults to the vast array of educational, formational, prayer and reflection and service opportunities in the area.

Adults today learn in multiple ways. There was a large body of research conducted during the 1980’s about adult learning. The consensus was that roughly 85% of what adults learned then was not in a formal setting, classroom, or lecture hall. That was ten-to-fifteen years before the internet.

There has been a significant paradigm shift with adult learning today driven by the internet, online learning, online resource centers, and social media (peer to peer sharing). If 85% was the informal percentage in the 1980’s, just think what it would be today. What it will be tomorrow?

Janet Schaeffler

Schaeffler is an Adrian Dominican Sister, ministers as an adult faith formation consultant and presenter. She teaches graduate courses, and is a facilitator for online courses at VLCFF (University of Dayton) and C21 Online (Boston College).

For complete copy of the special issue of the Lifelong Faith journal on adult faith formation, click here.


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