Beware the “graying” of the church – says the common wisdom. I have been among those sounding the alarm as the average age of mainline congregants has surged past 60, making it harder to attract younger constituents.
I am reassessing my warning. Age isn’t the issue. A congregation can tilt heavily toward retirees and elderly and be perfectly healthy. I admit to a bias toward balance – good representation of all age cohorts – because I think we have much to learn from each other. But that age balance, I now realize, isn’t critical for health.
When a preacher looks out and sees gray hair, it’s no cause for panic. The concern isn’t grayness; it’s the empty places between people. Churches won’t die from having large elderly segments; they will die from not having enough new members.
The problem is attrition. Every year some die, some move to be near family, some move to retirement communities, some move for career reasons, some go off to school and the military and some drift away. In a typical congregation, 20 percent of those who start the year with you will be gone by year’s end, with some outflow related to aging, some not.
Just to stay even, you need to replace those 20 percent during the year. For a 300-member church, that means 60 new members just to stay at 300. It takes hard work to attain 60 new members. Most congregations don’t have enough drop-in visitors to support such a replacement pace. They need to reach beyond their walls and connect with populations they don’t know yet.
Reaching the elderly is no more or less difficult than reaching younger cohorts. If your congregation feels called to a ministry focused on aging, there is no shortage of folks needing that ministry. But doggedly hanging on to your current group and hoping they live forever isn’t a sound strategy.
You want to enlist the active elderly in reaching beyond the walls. Put them to work assessing community needs, ways seniors are being poorly served, anxieties such as finances and affordable housing, and opportunities for socialization. Help the elderly to find volunteer roles in town, support networks, retirement activities. Some of the elderly will want to start businesses, and you can help by providing incubator space at church. If you have land and some money, build affordable housing for seniors next to the church.
It won’t be enough just to invite the elderly to Sunday worship. As with younger age cohorts, interest in Sunday worship is far less than you might think it is.
In these ministries, you want to avoid any hint of pitying the elderly or seeing them as a problem needing a solution. See them instead as people with strong capabilities, skills to offer, rich and active lives, even if they are infirm, maybe lonely but maybe not, maybe anxious about health but maybe not.
The issue isn’t “grayness.” The issue is newness vs. oldness. Not enough newness – in the sense I am using it – will sink your ship.
TOM EHRICH is a publisher, writer, church consultant and president of Morning Walk Media, based in New York.