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.