Principle 2-Older adults enter our congregations with a variety of religious-spiritual identities and needs

Post 3 of 11 in a series on the 10 Principles of Older Adult Ministry (banner image by Raul Petrie from Unsplash)

“…those who are religiously/spiritually committed and engaged in the faith community; [and] those who are less religiously committed and participate occasionally in the faith community.” In their circles of connection, our congregants will also encounter, “…those who have left established churches and religion, but are still spiritual and spiritually committed, [and] those who are unaffiliated, uninvolved, and claim no religious identity.” (From Honoring and Enriching the Lives and Spiritual Journeys of Older Adults)

It is a good reminder that not every older adult has a church background.  We may assume they grew up in church or have attended more Bible studies than the Pastor – but that simply is not true in all cases.  We must provide varying opportunities for engagement, Bible study and worship.

Middle-aged people who are having religious stirrings for the first time, or at least for the first time since they were young may find these urges confusing and even troubling, especially if they moved away from faith earlier in life.

These seekers usually believe their spiritual yearnings are unusual, but they aren’t. Research from the United States shows that religious attachment commonly decreases in young and middle adulthood, but then increases through one’s 40s and beyond. The theologian James Fowler explained this pattern in his famous 1981 book, Stages of Faith. After studying hundreds of human subjects, Fowler observed that as young adults, many people are put off by ideas that seem arbitrary or morally retrograde, such as those surrounding sexuality. They may also become disillusioned by religion’s inability to explain life’s hardest puzzles; for example, the idea of a loving God in the face of a world full of suffering.

As they get older, however, people begin to recognize that nothing is tidy in life. This, according to Fowler, is when they become tolerant of religion’s ambiguities and inconsistencies and start to see the beauty and transcendence in faith and spirituality—either their own faith from childhood, or some other. Fowler’s later research asked whether the stages he found in the 1970s and ’80s held against modern developments (such as decreasing religious participation in the U.S.); he observed that they did.

Chicago Catholic file photo

For those who embrace faith at this stage, it is a joyful epiphany; religious and spiritual adults are generally happier and generally suffer less depression than those who have no faith. And the benefits of finding faith as an adult go beyond life satisfaction, according to research on the subject: Religion and spirituality are also linked to better physical health. This could be in part because the majority of studies find practitioners are less likely than others to abuse drugs and alcohol.[1]

As we plan Adult Education classes, studies and worship it is imperative to remember our older adults may have grown up in the church, may have fallen away from the church, and are now revisiting or perhaps have never taken a Christian Education class.  We should be aware of the vast experiences and biblical understanding each participant may have.  It cannot be assumed every older adult knows who Rahab, David, Esther, Paul or Lydia are, their stories or how God used them to share God’s message of love and hope.  It may be better to circle back to the basics to help those who may not have a lot of biblical background, and while doing this you are reviewing and helping other “veteran learners” to remember without making anyone feel uncomfortable.

Jenni Whitford is a Certified Christian Educator in the PC(USA) and Director for Children’s Ministry at Worthington Presbyterian Church (Columbus, Ohio). She is also a member of the Hope4CE Steering Committee.

[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2020/08/guide-exploring-religious-faith-adult/615220/

Principle 1- Older Adults’ Understandings of Christian Faith Vary Significantly

Post 2 of 11 in a series on the 10 Principles of Older Adult Ministry (banner image by Raul Petrie from Unsplash)

I have two friends, who are post-retirement and might be classified as active older adults. They approach their faith and life in vastly different ways. We’ll call them Jean and Karla for the sake of this article. Both are musical. Both attend the same church and are active members. Jean is Caucasian and Karla is African American.

Jean finds her connection to God through her work with immigrants. She is actively involved in advocacy work and service to this population, often housing immigrants released from detention in her home and escorting them to the airport to connect with family members in other parts of the country.

Karla finds her connection to God through gardening and baking for others. She is known for her pound cakes and is always delivering them to folks celebrating birthdays or other life marker events. She is a people person and dispenser of hugs and this time of physical isolation has been difficult for her.

In the past, developmental psychology would have placed these two women in the same category, because of their chronological age, but one can see from these brief descriptions that they live very different lives and consequently likely have very different beliefs about God’s work in the world and their vocation as disciples. They may share markers such as retirement, deaths of loved ones, and health challenges, but because of their life experience and faith journey, they are likely to have differing views on God, the church, prayer, and other issues of faith.

Dan Buettner, National Geographic Writer and Explorer, gave a TED talk in 2009, provocatively titled “How to live to be 100+.” In this talk he looks at Blue Zones in the world where people’s longevity is much greater than the average. One of these areas was on the northern portion of the main island of Okinawa. Here the older adults don’t have a word for retirement, but do for life’s purpose. It is “ikigai” roughly translated as, “what gets you up in the morning.” For Jean and Karla, it is clear what their “ikigai” would be based on the descriptions I have given. As you think about the older adults in your congregation, do they have a reason for getting up in the morning? Is it tied to their faith? How would this vocation link to their views on who God is and what the church should be? How might you differentiate the ways you approach older adults to more personalize the ways that you guide or walk alongside individuals on their pilgrimages of faith?

Last week, Joyce MacKichan Walker shared some resources from Lifelong Faith and elsewhere to address the growing population of older adults in our congregations. I’m adding to our resource lists with some denominational resources and curated collections and a Pew Research Study that gives a broad view of what older adults think of religion and specific questions of faith. Hopefully these offerings will build your library of resources, as we continue to think deeply about these principles of older adult ministry.

Resources for Older Adult Ministry

Some General Articles and Studies

Pew Research Study 2014 on Religious Landscape

Geller, Heather. “Seniors and Spirituality: Health Benefits of Faith” Elder Care Alliance (accessed 6/2021)

Great Senior Living publisher. “Spirituality and Aging: A Guide for Seniors on Faith, Meaning, and Connection” (accessed 6/21)

Denominational Resources

Christian Reformed Church– Various guides and tool kits for ministry with older adults and those who may be caring for them

Presbyterian Church in Canada– Various resources from this denomination including recent resources related to COVID 19 and older adults

Presbyterian Older Adult Ministry Network (POAMN)– Currently has recordings of recent webinars celebrating aging in different cultures

The Episcopal Church– Resources on Older Adult Ministry including on the topic of elder abuse

United Methodist Church– A blog post on creating a pen pal ministry between generations and the benefits for older adults

I’m sure there are many others. If I’ve missed particular denominational resources that you are familiar with, please feel free to pass these on to the learning community by commenting on this post or posting a resource within the Hope4CE Facebook group.

Kathy L. Dawson, Benton Family Associate Professor of Christian Education, Columbia Theological Seminary, Hope4CE Steering Committee Member

Honoring and Enriching the Lives and Spiritual Journeys of Older Adults

In this post-pandemic world, it is more important than ever to intentionally engage in ministry with, and shaped for, older adults. Those without technology skills and equipment feel left-out. Those without families to encourage and surround them feel left-behind. Those outside thriving, connected, senior adult centers feel isolated. The places they called home, their church and the multitude of organizations of which they were a part, despite super-human efforts to stay connected in the midst of extraordinary circumstances, are just now beginning to open their doors and welcome them into the warm embrace of friends and stories and empathy and beloved community. What an opportunity to extend the reach of God’s love into a world of grief and mourning, fear and disorientation, longing and desire for deep connection!

Photo by Gabriel Porras from Unsplash

Who are these older adults and what engages their interest and commitment? Whether you define “older adults as 60-100 years, in categories of “mature” and “seasoned,” or as “elders” or “third-thirties,” there are 6500 more people over the age of 65 in America every day. These ten principles may offer you real keys to re-opening the doors of Christian community to them with renewed purpose:

  1. Older adults’ understandings of Christian faith vary significantly.

Expect a great variety of beliefs about God, who Jesus was and/or is, the purpose of the church, how faith might affect one’s life, the aim of prayer, and what death brings, amongst others.

2. Older adults enter our congregations with a variety of religious-spiritual identities and needs:

“…those who are religiously/spiritually committed and engaged in the faith community; [and] those who are less religiously committed and participate occasionally in the faith community.” In their circles of connection, our congregants will also encounter, “…those who have left established churches and religion, but are still spiritual and spiritually committed, [and] those who are unaffiliated, uninvolved, and claim no religious identity.”[1] 

3. Faith formation is concerned with all of one’s life.

This includes one’s physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual realities.

4. Relationship and community are key to adult faith formation.

Older adults find community in family, friends, “neighborhoods,” church, small groups, and social gatherings.

5. Diversity of programming provides the depth to engage a breadth of situations and circumstances.

This includes a great variety of housing situations, and “family” relationships.

6. Older adults have a variety of preferred ways of learning; but will try new ways to engage.

Pay attention to offering choices, and plan for many abilities and needs for accommodation.

7. Many highly significant life transitions occur in the last third of life.

These are key opportunities for fostering spiritual exploration, inviting growth, empowering resilience, developing coping strategies, providing special care, and connecting to a small group with similar changes or needs.

8. Multi-generational contact for learning and relationships are highly valued by many older adults.

These contacts are beneficial to all ages and stages for life-story telling, learning to be sensitive to others’ needs, discovering ways to love and care, working together on a task, and experiencing joy and delight.

9. Helping others is a deep desire of older adults.

When searching for or creating opportunities to help, consider accessibility for many abilities, meeting needs for contribution and caring, creating relationship with others that can be life-giving, finding situations where continuing partnership is both possible and desirable and mutual benefits are optimal.

10. Older adults show increasing openness to the online, digital world for faith formation

Advantages: Personalizing exploration and learning; offering a variety of entry points into learning; connecting isolated individuals though common interests; delivering content about every subject imaginable; guiding physical exercise, spiritual practices, worship, and training for particular ministries. But not every older adult has or is willing to engage with technology.

Each one of these principles offers rich opportunities to develop engagement and programming in conversation with older adults. Choose one or two that most describe your own context and make a fresh start in this post-pandemic world. Older adults are hungry for the Spirit, and the Spirit is willing and able to offer the food of community and connection that gives life.

A note from the editor: This is the initial post of an eleven part series. Each Tuesday this summer we will publish a post by a different author focusing on one of these 10 principles. We hope this enlivens your ministry with older adults.

Resources for planning ministry with older adults:

  • Elders Rising” – Webinar “Ministry with Older Adults” with Dr. Roland Martinson (April 23, 2020)

Also, his book by the same name: Elders Rising: The Promise and Peril of Aging

“In this inspiring book, Roland D. Martinson draws on the folk wisdom and experience of over fifty persons between the ages of sixty-two and ninety-seven. He puts this wisdom in conversation with scriptural and theological understandings of elders in the last third of life and sets forth perspectives on aging for individuals, groups, civic organizations, and congregations to utilize in developing a vital, resilient, and productive quality of life for elders.”

  • The Seasons of Adult Faith Formation, Editor: John Roberto, LifelongFaith Associates, 2015.
  • 2020 Older Adult Ministry Planning Guide, Presbyterian Older Adult Ministry Network (PCUSA), which contains an annual Worship Outline for Older Adult Sunday (May 3rd in 2020). Free download on POAMN site.

Of special interest: Fall 2015 The Future of Adult Faith Formation

Winter 2016 Special Issues on Adult Faith Formation

Spring 2007: “Shaping a New Vision of Faith Formation for Maturing Adults: Sixteen Fundamental Tasks.”

  • On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity and Getting Old, Parker J. Palmer, Berrett-Koehler Publications, Inc., 2018.

Joyce MacKichan Walker, Retired Church Educator/Pastor, Princeton, New Jersey


[1] “Twenty-First Century Adult Faith Formation,” John Roberto, page 2.

Picture Books in Ministry

Our Children’s Ministry Team is trying something new this summer.  We have been meeting online for over a year (as most of you have been, too).  We are going to start slowly restarting in-person worship and Sunday School.  We are requiring reservations for worship, which means not everyone will be able to come each Sunday.  This also means that the number of kids in Sunday School will be dramatically decreased, we will have a variety of ages (4-11) and we expect sporadic attendance.  We thought – this is a great time to try something a little bit more relaxed and open-ended. 

Our plan: (about 45 minutes)

  • After the Children’s Message, the kids will be dismissed with leaders to the front lawn of the church.  We will sit on foam squares, in the grass, in a circle.
  • Open with prayer and a couple, fun, camp-style songs. 
  • Introduce the book with “See, Think, Wonder” questions: show the children the cover of the book, ask what do you see?  What do you think this book is about?  What do you wonder about?”
  • Read the book. 
  • Ask a few “Wonder Questions”:  Where can we find God in this story?  What does God have to say to us through this story? How does Scripture tie-in to the story? 
  • End time together with something fun.  Chalk drawing, parachute play, bubbles, nature walk, spray bottle (water) art, hopscotch, 4-square, etc.

I asked educators and pastors to share their “best reads”, “Top 10” or “recommended titles” for this post.  I got a HUGE response.  The whole list of suggestions loaded in the “Files” on the Hope4CE Facebook Group and found below as an attachment

A couple of websites to check out:

  •  Compassionate Christianity shares their new Children & Youth Books & Resources Database. It is a searchable database of progressive books and resources.  These resources are great for ministry leaders, pastors, parents, and Sunday school teachers.  They have been classified by theme, age range, type of resource, and scripture passage to help facilitate planning.
  • Story Path from Union Presbyterian Seminary – you can search books by Revised Common Lectionary date, Scripture passage, or theme)
  • Picture Book Theology -last post was 2019 – but you can search books, authors, themes — there is A LOT of great info on this site

Why use Story Books or Picture Books to teach Sunday School?

From Picture Book Theology: (author Hanna Schock) We all learn through making connections. This very human strategy never ends. Ideas have to have something to attach to. The more attachments we can muster, the stronger the learning. Likewise, the more varied a concept’s attachments, the broader our understanding will be and the more likely we’ll be able to generalize our learning to new situations. Repetition of ideas leads to deeper learning. Strong, broad, and deep learning occurs when concepts are easily and quickly accessed in a variety of situations.

Below you’ll see the attached file curated from a variety of sources:

Whitford Recommended Books 2021

Jenni Whitford is a Certified Christian Educator in the PC(USA) and Director for Children’s Ministry at Worthington Presbyterian Church (Columbus, Ohio). She is also a member of the Hope4CE Steering Committee.

A group of youth on a mission trip with a quotation from Lewis Carroll above their heads

The Mission of Our Mission

With COVID-19 vaccines being widely distributed, more and more churches are considering taking groups of youth on trips to engage in mission (aka “the mission trip”).  Like with so many things  at church that we had to stop because of the pandemic, we are now in a position to consider, Do we want to go back to “business as usual” or do we want to take the opportunity to think about this differently? 

We at Youth Mission Co encourage our colleagues in youth ministry to use this time to consider

the “Mission” of our Mission.

Often when I talk to adults about our work of engaging youth in mission, they remark about how important it is…

Because our young people need to know how others are living

Because our youth should learn to be thankful for what they have

Because giving feels good

Because Jesus told us to do such things

All of these responses are valid.  All of them are true.  But they only represent half the picture. 

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Youth Faith Connections for Mental Health

In a previous article I lamented how this pandemic had exhausted me. At one time it had energized, but now I was just done. Not only are we dealing with our own emotions and fatigue, we have congregations to hold up, including youth and children that have gone through a traumatic year.

Milestones missed. Grades at risk. Athletic seasons wiped out. Friendships lost. An entire school year that did not match any that came before it. This is a lot on top of the stress that the tween and teen years can bring all on their own. We check in with our kids and youth, but sometimes we do not have enough time or the right timing to get into the deeper feelings they are having.

In my ministry I struggle with assuming needs. I absolutely want to fill needs, but I don’t ever want to assume what they need. What I see from the outside may not be what they are feeling inside. A few years ago I received a call at 10:30 pm on a weeknight. It was our parish nurse and she was with the family of one of my youth whose father had been released from the hospital to pass away at home from a glioblastoma. They figured it could be a matter of hours and our nurse thought I should be there for my youth, an only child at 14 years old. I went into panic mode. What was I going to say? What was I going to do? This was my first touch with death from one of my youth with a beloved parent and it sadly would not be my last.

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Is Everything Fine?

Everything’s fine…

That is what I keep telling myself. The truth is that it is not.

I have no new ideas.

Asian woman with post-it notes all over her and her computer

 

I see your ideas on Facebook and hear them in Zoom meetings. I do. They’re great. I read them and feel like I am in 8th grade again and am jealous of Kristin’s Guess Jeans. I want a triangle on my bum, but my mom says I have to pay for half and I am lazy. I am jealous of the ideas, but am so burnt out right now.

 

Am I down on myself? For sure, but after meeting with the Hope4CE Steering Committee I know that I am not alone. We are all feeling it. Maybe you can’t pack one more bag, do one more porch drop off, edit one more video, look at one more poorly attended Zoom meeting. I am here to tell you that it is ok.

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Micropracticing

“What is the simplest this can be and still be effective?”

Over the last twelve months I’ve found myself asking the question above over and over. I’m exhausted by the realities of day-to-day living during a pandemic, and I’m guessing many families around the world would say the same.

As I was brainstorming what to offer for Lent in Vibrant Church Communications, the question of simplicity was front and center in my thoughts. As my thoughts tumbled around, the rough edges knocked against each other and smoothed into shape: micropractices.

directions for planting seedlings

On the surface, micropractices are simple. They are an action that can usually be taken in the moment or easily done at some point in the day. They follow the three pillars of Lent: praying, fasting, and giving. There’s an additional fourth category called “more” for practices that don’t fit into the first three.

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Puppetry and The Pandemic

I have learned many new technology skills during this time of physical isolation and virtual ministry. I’m sure you have, too. I’ve also discovered that I could reach back to skills that I haven’t exercised in a while that find new life in these challenging times.

One of those skills is the art of puppetry. I’ve always been enamored with puppets, since my time growing up with the likes of Captain Kangaroo, Shari Lewis, and later Fred Rogers and the Muppets. There is something magical that happens when you animate these pieces of fabric and stuffing into a living character with particular personality traits.

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