The American pulpit needs to respond to one of its newest challenges. Great preaching is never in a vacuum, but must always seek to relate to the issues of its age. The new challenge is what Ken Dychtwald calls the “Age Wave,” the single most controversial issue in the twilight of this century.
This year we begin the homestretch of this century, its final decade. Most social scientists predict that the gay ’90s of the last century will be replaced by the gray ’90s of this one, as most Americans confront middle or old age.
While only 11 percent of the population today is sixty-five or older, that number will mushroom to 20 percent by the year 2025. The Age Wave presents a challenge to the churches of America, the likes of which they have never seen before.
Most of the people who sit in the pews are getting older. Maggie Kuhn claims that “The percentage of church members over sixty is at least twice as high as the general population.”1 David O. Moberg insists older people represent 40 percent of the membership of Christian churches.2 Some churches consist almost entirely of members over fifty. In the near future, families with small children will be a smaller percentage of the membership, results of the “birth dearth” and the “senior boom.”
Even in suburban churches, still dominated by young and middle age adults, there is a growing number of older members, and adult children face special problems with their aging parents. Furthermore, the fact that older members are increasingly more active and relatively healthy means that they will not disengage themselves from worship. The “old” image of the frail elderly person struggling to get up the stairs of the church is simply not accurate. How will the pulpit respond to the graying of the pews?
Preaching in the past has barely recognized, let alone responded to this situation. Clyde Fant says that “Older members have always constituted a significant proportion of American congregations. Preaching can no longer regard them as peripheral. In the coming years preaching must include them at the center of its practice and planning.”3
Since 1975, Pulpit Digest has only published six sermons which might be construed as speaking to the needs of older members.4 Some of them even reflect ageist themes, e.g. “Nobody Hugs Me Anymore. The Problem of Growing Old.” Since its inception in 1985, Preaching has only published one such sermon.5 Msg. Charles E. Fahey sums it up when he says, “While congregations are proportionally gray, few sermons are addressed to the needs of older parishioners.”6
Changing Perception of Aging
Growing old is not what it used to be. For some time old age was equated with sickness, weakness, and uselessness. In those days, older people were perceived as “senior citizens,” and given little attention as active persons. Today over 80 percent of older people are mobile, self-sufficient, and relatively healthy.
Bernice Neugarten believes we have two generations of older people, the “young old” (ages 55-74), and the “old old” (ages 75 and older). The “young old” are active, energetic, seeking new directions for their lives. The “old old” manifest many of the chronic problems of old age. Clergy need to be reminded that the vast majority of older people in pews are not ready for the rockers. They belong to what Charles E. Fahey calls “The Third Age.”
“… a time of conscious decision making, a graceful period in which persons may return the gifts they have received, a time to reengage with broader society, not alone as a family member, and as a worker, but as a citizen of the world with heavy responsibility to give.7
The television commercial which pictures a worker saying, “All I am going to do when I retire is nothing” is misleading. Third Agers want to get involved, and find new and creative ways of investing their available time and talents.
Yet, all the hype about the active, healthy older person cannot mask the truth that the frail elderly are still with us. The happy picture of a bright and happy old age, with limitless opportunities for travel and leisure may be less of a reality for a substantial minority of elderly. For them, old age is no bowl of cherries. The problems associated with old age (failing health, decreased income, housing, etc.) are very real. The scary thing is that the fastest growing segment of our society are past eighty-five, and that number will double in size by the end of the century.
Ministry to Frail Elderly in its Infancy
Nursing homes are neglected places by clergy and congregations. Concern for frail elderly at home or in nursing homes has often been out of sight, out of mind. It is hard enough to feel abandoned in a nursing home, often perceived by residents as the last stop before death, but to feel alienated from the church is even a worse fate. As a society, and most of the time as individuals, we are doing a better job of caring for the bodily needs of older people both in institutions and homes. We do less well with the mental needs of older people and least well with their spiritual needs.
Few nursing homes have chaplains (less than 10 percent) so that any religious contact must come from outside. It is sad that people in nursing homes are often treated like members of a leper colony. The church must practice Christian compassion by “going forth to him outside the camp” (Hebrews 13:13a) and sharing the gospel with these oft forsaken people.
How Has the Pulpit Responded to the Graying of the Pews?
Granted, there have been sporadic attempts by the pulpit to relate sermons to the special needs of older members. But these have been more of a “lick and a promise” than a steady diet. In 1844, Theodore Parker preached a sermon, “A Sermon on Old Age,” at the Music Hall, Boston.8 He was only thirty-four at the time, but what he said — and did not say — is instructive today. Parker presented an almost fatalistic view of old age, and likened life to an apple that ripens, sweetens, and reddens without growing bigger. He seemed to suggest that old people selectively withdraw from life, and find little need for challenge or redirection in the later years.
In 1913, on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday, G. Campbell Morgan of London preached a sermon entitled “Fifty Years and After” at Westminster Chapel.9 His text, based on the retirement of the Levites (Numbers 8:25, 26) took a realistic view of old age as a time of losses and gains. The loss of the power of recovery was compensated for by the gain of the ability to rest; the loss of self-confidence paved the way for the gain of obedience; the loss of the power of resistance led to a gain in the ability to take refuge; and discovering a new sense of worship more than compensated for the loss of a sense of wonder.
The distinction between older and more contemporary views of aging can be seen in the sermons on aging preached by Clovis G. Chappel in 1926, and Paul B. Maves in 1963. Chappell, in a sermon entitled “Old Folks,” dwells on the frailties of old age. He laments the way old age robs “old folks” of physical beauty, mental powers, and the power to work. He paints a rather dismal picture of old age as a time of endless depression, heightened loneliness, and preoccupation with the near approach of death.10 His sermon reminds one of the rather gloomy picture of aging in Ecclesiastes 12:1-9.
Maves’ sermon is more optimistic and reflects the newer view of aging. He challenges older people to invest their talents in the work of the Kingdom,
For the aging the church will say, ‘God has given you gifts. Each new day, each encounter is a gift. You have capacities and talents. You are rich in experience, in memory, in perspective. You are to be responsible stewards of his gifts. Find yourself by losing yourself, by giving yourself away in service.’11
Maves’ sermon reminds one of some of the able elders of the Old Testament, like Moses, who began his ministry at the age of eighty, or Caleb, who, at age eighty-five, demanded that he be given the promised hill country in Canaan, since “I am still as strong to this day as I was in the day that Moses sent me; my strength now is as my strength then …” (Joshua 14:11).
A recent sermon by Patricia E. Davis, “The Best Is Yet To Be,” is a good model of affirming older people.12 Using the Gospel role models of Anna and Simeon, two old people waiting patiently for the Messiah, she describes three beautiful qualities of older people which need to be imitated, (1) Patience; (2) Honesty; (3) Gratitude. However, occasional sermons on aging will not fill the bill in the gray ’90s.
Kinds of Sermons Needed
We are not suggesting that preaching to Third Agers means we make “aging” the new hobby horse for topical preachers. Nor are we suggesting that an annual sermon on Aging for “Senior Citizens Day” is the answer.
Preachers are called to proclaim “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27b). The great events of the Christian Year, what George Buttrick liked to call “The whole orbit of the Christian faith,” need to be proclaimed “in season and out of season.” One is neither too old or too young to hear the “Old, Old Story.” Whether by use of the lectionary, or by preacher selection of texts, there is no substitute for the Word. Paul urged the young preacher Timothy to “preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, exhort …” (2 Timothy 4:12). As preachers, that is still our task in any age, or regardless of the age of our listeners.
While an occasional sermon on aging might be profitable, what is really needed are sermons which speak to the special needs of older people. Gray and Moberg state it well,
The most effective teaching and preaching pertinent to aging and older people is that which occurs week in and week out, rather than that which is the focus of an annual sermon on the subject, good and desirable as that is.13
If the clue to dynamic preaching is standing within a biblical text, listening with the eyes and heart of the people, why not let the eyes and heart of older people enlighten our task? As we listen to them, aware of their needs, all manner of biblical texts will cry for our attention. As we meditate on the Word, keeping older people on our hearts and minds, God’s Spirit will apply His Word to those needs.
Preaching to the needs of older people – the growing majority of our listeners — will in no way bypass others in the congregation. As the gray ’90s descend upon us, and American people realize the “Age Boom,” we will realize we are all aging together. We age the moment we are born. The challenges and blessings of the later years are ones we all share. We are all struggling with questions of self-esteem; we all need to find our real worth in who we are, not what we do; we all know failure, loss, and grief, and face limitations. We puzzle over our purpose in life, and wonder what has lasting value. Spirituality is everyone’s concern, and we all have questions about life beyond death.
A Fragile Attempt
As pastor of a small rural church where the average age of our membership hovers around sixty, and a high percentage of members are homebound or in nursing homes, I have tried to be intentional about preaching to the needs of older members. I have tried to affirm the presence of older people, and urged members not to feel guilty about “not having enough young people in the church.” I have reminded them that the major work and service of our congregation is being done by members past sixty.
Arthur H. Becker differentiates the theological issues of older people. He claims that, “in pastoral ministry with older people we are guilty of a subtle form of ageism that we are not even aware of, i.e. the tendency to assume that all spiritual or theological problems of those over sixty-five are of the same cloth.”14 Becker differentiates those issues in the following manner: Young Old — “What Shall I Do With My Life?”; Middle Old — “What About My Dying?”; Old Old — “Why Must I Suffer So?”15
The following suggestions are a fragile attempt to relate sermons to the unique needs of older people, who sit in our pews, or stay in their homes or who live in long term care centers.
Preaching to Third Agers in the Pews
The Sermon (The Text)
Facing Retirement (Joshua 1:1-9); Growing Older, Not Old (2 Corinthians 4:7-18); Saving the Best Until Last (John 2:1-11); Hoeing to the End of the Row (Luke 9:57-62); Where Expend All That Time and Talent (Joshua 14:6-12); Living All Our Lives (Psalm 90); God’s Purpose for Old Clay (Jeremiah 18:1-6);
Useless Becomes Useful (Philemon); Learning How to be Alone (John 16:25-33); Learning to Pray in Old Age (Psalm 92; Psalm 71); What Has Lasting Value? (Philippians 3:7-16); What About My Dying? (1 Corinthians 15:51-57).
Albert Meiburg has said this about the needs of “young Third Agers,” who sit in our congregations,
Significant transitions are likely to occur during the late fifties, sixties, and into the seventies which challenge one’s self concept and require a new sense of direction. Challenging the “young old” to grow socially, mentally, and spiritually — to discover the excitement of caring for themselves, their world, and other persons — will forestall stagnation, loneliness, and self-pity.16
Indeed, many people in the pews are full of creative energy and power, rich in experience and wisdom, and crave new challenges, not comfortable rockers.
A sermon on the faith journey of Abraham who left his “father’s house” in Ur of the Chaldees, and at age seventy-five began a new pilgrimage of faith would resonate with the needs of many Third Agers. As for Abraham, this venture was a redirection of life, a new pilgrimage of faith; so for them, retirement and aging can mean new directions, further growth, and renewed experiences in faith.
Another example of a balanced approach to preaching to Third Agers is a sermon on Jeremiah 18: 1-6. As Yahweh did not discard the old clay, but reworked it into another piece of pottery, so God can redirect and rework the lives of older people. Opportunities for ministry by the elderly are only limited by our vision. Older people can be redirected and recycled into creative use of their retirement years.
Preaching to Third Agers in Nursing Homes
Although frail elderly in institutions only represent 5 percent of the elderly, that number will grow astronomically in the next twenty years. Worship is crucial for people in nursing homes. Like the ancient Hebrews in Babylon, frail elderly in nursing homes often wonder, “How can I sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” They feel uprooted, transplanted, if not abandoned. Like the priest and Levite, we have crossed by on the other side, while closing our eyes to this geriatric segregation, and allowed systematic removal of frail elderly from society as a whole.
Churches could adopt a nursing home in their community, provide oversight, and offer spiritual services. Individual residents could be “adopted” as members by congregations. It is a travesty that all too often our churches have allowed offbeat revivalists to take over preaching in nursing homes and use their “scare tactics” to further intimidate or threaten old people. One elderly resident once said to me, “What was wrong with that preacher who spent so much time talking about death? Was he having a problem with dying?”
There are serious problems in preaching to residents of nursing homes. Clyde Fant has outlined some of these problems.
– The dynamics of a multigenerational audience are changed
– Worship is often conducted by various clergy on a rotating basis, thus providing little continuity in preaching
– Because some clergy perform the task grudgingly, they are poorly prepared
– Many such clergy, especially the young, seem to think that what people want to hear is a sermon on death. Sermons and homilies on the meaning of life are more needed
– Many institutionalized folk have physical limitations which the preacher must take into account. The need to speak clearly and project one’s voice is especially important for a group which may have various levels of hearing impairment; Also, the prophetic charge to “go out and do something” may be painful to those who cannot go out.17
People confined to wheelchairs with multiple handicaps do present unique challenges to preachers. Messages must be short and positive. People will leave if they think the sermon is too long. One lady stunned the group one Sunday when she interrupted the homily with these words, “Well, that’s the nearest to nothing I ever heard in my life,” and promptly wheeled herself out of the room. Her honesty was refreshing. Perhaps other older members in the pews would say likewise if they had the courage!
Wheelchair congregations are an appreciative congregation. They need to hear reassuring words of comfort and be affirmed as persons in what may well be the “total institutions” in which they live. I urge our volunteers to make a point of touching the residents, holding their hands, and giving them a hug. Many feel unloved and unwanted. We speak their names, for often they never hear their names. The physical touch and speaking of their names remind them that they are persons. This ritual of friendship reminds me of Paul’s words, “God making his appeal through us.”
In many ways, the residents of nursing homes are like the Syrophoenician woman, seemingly unnoticed and rejected by Jesus and His disciples. Yet, they cry, “Even the dogs get some crumbs from the table,” and it is time that we take their needs seriously in the Body of Christ.
The following meditations and texts have been used in a preaching ministry at nursing homes.
Meditation (Text)
Handling Our Handicaps (2 Corinthians 12:1-9); Knocked Down, But Not Knocked Out (2 Corinthians 4:7-12); The Everlasting Arms (Deuteronomy 33:26-29); The Touch of the Master’s Hand (Mark 1:40-45); The God Who Carries Old People (Isaiah 46:3, 4); Making the Best of Where We Are (John 21:15-19); The Prayer of an Old Person (Psalm 71); God’s Support in the Valleys of Darkness (Psalm 23); Love Is All That Matters (1 Corinthians 13).
A homily on Paul’s words to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 12:1-9) about his “thorn in the flesh” can be related to their own frailties. As people in later age struggle with chronic illness and pain, they have three options: They can become stoic and hardened to their pain and “keep it to themselves”; they can become chronic invalids and constant complainers; or they can begin to reach out and work on their suffering in some creative fashion, using their handicaps as a means of blessing others. Like Paul, they can learn that “My grace is sufficient for you; my strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
The gray ’90s are here. Drastic social changes which impinge on congregational life are nearer than we realize. Some claim that the American churches have only thirty years to prepare themselves for the drastic changes which will affect congregational life. As of now, the needs of older people have not become a major concern for preachers. Forty years ago Maves and Cedarleaf said,
It has not proved possible for us to study the extent to which aging and older people are referred to in contemporary sermons. Our general impression is that only rarely is there even an oblique reference to aging, and even then euphemisms are likely to be used.18
Not much has changed since those words. One wonders why the pulpit has been so slow to realize the need, or act as if older people were not present in the pews.
One reason may be the continued denial of our own aging process. We still cling to youth, and fear getting old. Being in the presence of older people means we have to confront our own aging. To be present to the needs of older people, show compassion for their pain, means that we will be in touch with our own mortality. When an older person asks, “I just don’t understand why God has left me here so long,” he or she may confront us with a question we have not dealt with ourselves; struggling with an older person who faces chronic illnesses or admission to a nursing home forces us to face our own aging. So we withdraw.
Paul’s high view of preaching that “We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20) has special meaning for preaching to older people. Nouwen and Gaffney say that “Although old people need a lot of practical help, more significant to them is someone who offers his or her own aging self as the source of their care.”19 Preaching to older people means that we listen to their needs, feel comfortable in their presence, and speak the word that they need to hear. But it begins with our acceptance of our own aging.
Older members can no longer be on the periphery of sermons; dislocated members, confined to homes or institutions can no longer be forgotten. As the gray ’90s dawn upon us, these older Christians will ask of us, “How can we hear without a preacher?” It is time for older people, whether vibrant with energy or victimized by weaknesses to realize that they, too, are a chosen generation.
1. Margaret E. Kuhn, Maggie Kuhn on Aging (Philadelphia, Pa.: Westminster Press, 1963), 13, 14.
2. David O. Moberg, “The Ecological Fallacy: Concern for Program Planning,” Generations 8 (1983): 12-14.
3. Clyde E. Fant, “Homiletics,” in Aging Society: A Challenge to Theological Education (AARP Publications, n.d.), 13.
4. Robert Allen, “Growing Old Gracefully,” Pulpit Digest LIX (July/August 1979): 55-58.
Eugene W. Brice, “Growing Older,” Pulpit Digest LXIII (May/June 1983): 63-66.
Robert M. Cromie, “Nobody Hugs Me Anymore: The Problem of Growing Older,” Pulpit Digest LXIV (September/October 1984): 65-68.
Gordon I Zimmerman, “God Goes Before You,” Pulpit Digest LXV (March/April 1985): 37-40.
Clifford Ansgar Nelson, “The Best Is Yet to Be,” Pulpit Digest LXVII (September/October 1987): 57-62.
Richard L. Morgan, “The Potter’s Purpose for Old Clay,” Pulpit Digest LXVXI (May/June 1988): 65-68.
5. Maxie Dunnam, “Lean Thine Arm: Growing Old Gracefully,” Preaching I (September/October 1986): 13-20.
6. Charles E. Fahey, “Toward an Ethic for the Third Age,” in Affirmative Aging: A Resource for Ministry (New York: Winston Press, 1985): 19.
7. Ibid., 14-15.
8. Theodore Parker, “A Sermon of Old Age,” from a pamphlet published by the Fraternity, Boston (1859) and sold by H. W. Sweet and Company.
9. G. Campbell Morgan, “Fifty Years and After,” The Westminster Pulpit 8 (December 26, 1913): 413.
10. Clovis G. Chappell, “Old Folks,” in Home Folks (Nashville: Cokesbury Press, 1926); 13-144.
11. Paul B. Maves, “Senior Citizens and the Household of God,” in Pastoral Preaching, Charles F. Kemp, editor (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1963): 181.
12. Patricia E. Davis, “The Best Is Yet to Be,” in Spinning a Sacred Yarn, Women Speak from the Pulpit (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1983): 52-57.
13. Robert M. Gray and David O. Moberg, The Church and the Older Person (Grand Rapids: Wm. Be. Eerdmans Press, 1977): 190.
14. Arthur H. Becker, “Pastoral Implications of the Aging Process,” Journal of Religion and Aging 2 (1986): 14.
15. Ibid.
16. Albert L. Meiburg, “Pastoral Care with the Aged,” in Spiritual Dimensions of Pastoral Care, Gerald L. Borchert and Andrews D. Lester, eds. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985): 96.
17. Fant, p. 19.
18. Paul B. Maves and J. Lennart Cedarleaf, Older People and the Church (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1949): 219.
19. Henri J. M. Nouwen and Walter J. Gaffney, “Aging and Caring,” in Feed My Sheep: Sermons on Contemporary Issues in Pastoral Care Gregory Johnson, ed. (Ramsey, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1985): 114.

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