Older Adults and Worship

This topic showcases opportunities for churches to nurture faith formation in, by and with aging adults.

All over the world, more people are getting old, and older people are living longer, especially those who are financially comfortable. This trend is magnified in many churches, which often have a higher median age than the general population.

In The Rise of Christianity, sociologist Rodney Clark famously explained that Christianity grew so much in its early centuries in part because Christians took care of plague victims, whether Christian or not. Churches today can make a similar impact by developing a theology of aging that counters stigmas and stereotypes of older adults. Imagine if Christians were known for their hospitality to and friendships with people affected by cognitive loss, both those diagnosed and their care partners.

Key Insights

  1. In our journey home to God, each life stage offers room for growth in wholeness, purpose and relationship. This happens best through intergenerational faith formation practices and by specifically addressing the challenges and opportunities of aging.
  2. In contrast to society, churches can honor and tap into older adults’ wisdom, experience and time. Worship planners can use songs, sermons, testimonies and prayers to highlight wisdom, growth and service opportunities in life’s second half. Churches can move toward universal design—making buildings and worship services flexible enough so that each person can receive and respond as God has gifted them.
  3. Churches can model how to value and journey with those who experience cognitive loss or other disabilities. Congregations promise during baptism to do all in their power to love, support and encourage the person being adopted into God’s family. This covenant has no age or disability limit.

Resources to help older adults keep growing

Books

Church of All Ages Annotated Bibliography. These books will help you plan worship and congregational life practices to reach all ages in your congregation.

Creative Aging book cover

Creative Aging: Rethinking Retirement and Non-Retirement in a Changing World by Marjorie Zoet Bankson. Read this to psychologically and emotionally prepare for when you can no longer define yourself by a job title.

Remembering Your Story book cover

Remembering Your Story: Creating Your Own Spiritual Biography by Richard Morgan. Individuals and groups will find this book useful for creating faith stories that help pass on faith from one generation to the next. It also helps older adults decide how to live out their lives with purpose.

Intergenerational Christian Formation book cover

Intergenerational Christian Formation: Bringing the Whole Church Together in Ministry, Community and Worship by Holly Catterton Allen and Christine Lawton. Like our society, many churches are age-segregated. This book brings together research, theology, anecdotes and case studies to explore the gifts and challenges of becoming an intentionally intergenerational church.

The Church of All Ages - Vanderwell

The Church of All Ages, edited by Howard Vanderwell, explores the practices and purposes of intergenerational worship.

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The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully by Joan Chittister. Benedictine Sister Joan acknowledges the burdens of aging but finds its blessings well worth pursuing in what she calls “the capstone years.” This is the kind of book you will enjoy reading and reflecting on, one short chapter at a time. And it’s worth reading even when you’re much younger.

Online Resources

Aging Together in Grace. This feature story gives examples of how churches are offering a countercultural message about the gifts of older adults and walking with them through the challenges of aging.

All Ages Needed for Intergenerational Worship. Though many churches offer multiple worship options, each pegged to an age or generation, this feature story makes a case for intergenerational worship that has full families worshiping together.

Read Dorothy Linthicum’s insights on faith formation in older adults (pp. 45-58).

Vertical Habits Topic Showcase. Churches that adopt vertical habits—simple worship phrases that shape our relationships with God and others—create a faith formation foundation that benefits all ages.

Resources to help older adults keep serving

Books

Aging and Ministry book cover

Aging and Ministry in the 21st Century by Richard H. Gentzler, Jr. Gather a group to read, discuss and do this short book’s exercises—so you can develop a ministry by, with and for older adults.

Baby Boomers and Beyond book cover

Baby Boomers and Beyond: Tapping the Ministry Talents and Passions of Adults over 50 by Amy Hanson. Churches can use these research-driven strategies, ideas and resources to mark faith milestones and engage older adults in ministry. The ideas can be adapted to many kinds of churches and even to adults who haven’t been all that immersed in church life.

Online resources, conferences and groups

Barbara J. Newman on Visual Hospitality in Worship: More than Large Print. In this edited conversation, a disability and advocacy expert says that the older you get, the more likely you are to experience visual loss. She describes sight-related worship changes that benefit the church as a whole.

Colleen Kwong on Using Art to Include Shut-ins. Reading this edited conversation can help your church use visual arts to reconnect with people whose health prevents them from attending worship.

David G. Myers on Hearing Loss in Worship. In this edited conversation, Myers talks about why churches should install hearing loop systems. The older you get, the more likely you are to lose hearing. Most hearing aids and cochlear implants now come with telecoils. Your church can install hearing loop systems that deliver customized sound directly from microphones into T-coil hearing aids.

Jane Chandler on Morning Prayer at Nursing Homes. In this edited conversation, Chandler describes a ministry that’s easy for older adults to offer at senior living facilities.

Nancy Foran on a “Wisdom of Our Elders” Service. In this edited conversation, Foran describes a worship service designed to receive and honor the wisdom of older adults.

Stephen Martin on Music that Wakes Up Older Minds. In this edited conversation, Martin explains how students or small groups can use hymns and Christian songs to design meaningful, personalized worship for older adults living in their own homes or in care facilities.

Universal Design for Worship: Symposium 2016 Plenary Address. Watching this 56-minute video presentation by Barbara J. Newman will inspire you to design worship that’s planned from the start to accommodate persons of all levels of disability and ability.

Attend an International Spirituality & Aging conference, view past presentations and connect on Facebook with others interested in spirituality and aging.

Encore: Second Acts for the Greater Good is a national movement to “transform the aging of Americaone of the most significant demographic shifts of the 21st centuryinto a powerful, positive source of individual and social renewal.” Encore can help you discover and connect with social purpose organizations that will welcome your talents and wisdom.

Network with older Christians who are making a difference: Community of Hope International, CrossRoads Ministry, Ignation Volunteer Corps and older adult ministries in Episcopal, Presbyterian and United Methodist churches.

Resources to create “dementia-friendly” and “stroke-friendly” communities

Books

A Guide to the Spiritual Dimension book cover

A Guide to the Spiritual Dimension of Care for People with Alzheimer's Disease and Related Dementia: More than Body, Brain and Breath by Eileen Shamy. The author was a Methodist pastor who pioneered ministry to those with dementia in New Zealand and the United Kingdom. She noticed that pastors who found ways to lead worship for severely memory-impaired people usually come from sacrament-centered traditions. Her classic book offers excellent pastoral care and worship ideas.

Aging Together book cover

Aging Together: Dementia, Friendship, and Flourishing Communities by Susan H. McFadden and John T. McFadden. A psychologist and chaplain explain how churches can remain in community with—rather than withdraw from— those affected by dementia.

No Act of Love is Ever Wasted book cover

No Act of Love Is Ever Wasted: The Spirituality of Caring for Persons with Dementia by Jane Marie Thibault and Richard L. Morgan. These authors have professional and personal experience with what it’s like to care for loved ones with dementia. They offer ideas for individuals and churches to experience dementia-related care giving/receiving as an intentional mutual spiritual path. The brief section on dedicated suffering may be hugely helpful to caregivers trying to make sense of their lives. Each chapter ends with reflection questions, and this would be a great book for groups to read and discuss together.

Online resources, groups and conferences

Aging, Dementia, and the Faith Community: Continuing the Journey of Friendship,” a free 28-page report by John T. McFadden, is a must-read for anyone wondering how dementia might be part of the abundant life that Christ promises.

Dementia Handbook for Worship offers 16 plans for planning and leading worship in memory care units.

Nancy Gordon on Sensing the Sacred. This edited conversation explains how and why Nancy Gordon adapted the multisensory Young Children in Worship program for people with dementia. Her model deserves to be spread and developed more widely.

Peggy Goetz on Churches and Stroke Survivors. This edited conversation explains that, since stroke is a leading cause of disability, churches should explore better ways to include stroke survivors.

Peggy Goetz on Planning Worship with Stroke Survivors. In this edited conversation, a speech pathologist shares what research and experience taught her about creating community and planning worship with stroke survivors.

Spiritual Care of the Frail Elderly with Alzheimer’s Disease,” by Ngarie Beehre, is a brief essay with research-based pastoral tips. Beehre is a spiritual director in New Zealand.

Stroke Survivors in Our Worshipping Community. Listen to or download this 22-minute audio presentation by Peggy Goetz on her ethnographic study. It describes the experiences of stroke survivors in their church communities and offers two worship services planned for these participants.

Try these aging simulation exercises. Doing so will underscore why it’s crucial for churches to remain in community with the oldest among us.

 

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