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/

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.