December 01, 2017

The other day I was in a church with Oliver, my 13 year-old, and he looked around and said, “Dad, have you noticed that everyone here is pretty old.” 

"Yes,” I replied.

“But, like in a few of years, who’s going to be here? It seems like that’s something they should be talking about at your work.”

Oliver didn’t realize this has been a topic at my work, and at every religious judiciary in the United States, for at least 60 years.

When my wife and I first married, she got a job with the Missouri Department of Conservation in Saint Joseph, so I took a job the Saint Joseph News Press. We were hundreds of miles from anyone that we knew well, renting a no-maintenance duplex with no kids. We made use of our time by doing things like visiting every state park and historic site in Missouri (at that time there were 72) without taking any time off. Time off was for bigger trips, like Yellowstone.

But we still had free time. I had grown up attending the little country church within walking distance of my farm. We decided to go church shopping and did a pretty thorough job of it. We spanned the denominations and saw some incredible sanctuaries, most without many people in them. Some of those churches aren’t churches anymore.

I must say, when a husband and wife of breeding age showed up at one of those churches unannounced on Sunday morning, the people there couldn’t have been more excited; as if it was Jesus himself had taken a seat on the back-row. We were young enough to start repopulating their church just based on our own childbearing abilities. Then our children would marry, bring in their spouses, have more children and their church would preserve for perpetuity.

We finally settled down in a historic downtown, high-church church of the Presbyterian variety. Despite everyone’s radical hospitality, our choice was ultimately made based on the quality of the sermons. The husband and wife pastoring the church preached sermons so relevant that we left every Sunday feeling guilty about something. We loved it.

I wonder if we would have been as well received across the board if we were retirees. They might have thought, “They’ll only buy us about five years – 10 max. Hardly worth the effort.”

I think part of the reason church marketing usually isn’t aimed toward the elderly is an assumption is made that by the time someone gets to an advanced age, they would already be part of a church family if they were ever going to be. I would challenge this.

Many people move when they retire. Maybe they want to be closer to children or grandchildren who have moved away for jobs. Maybe they want to be closer to health care or more convenient living. For whatever reason, many people are starting over in a new location in their twilight years.

Others may have lost their church through church closure and just never started going anywhere else. There are any number of reasons someone may have drifted away and never found their way back.

Here’s a truth: although the very old among us will be dying in the near future, our country is in no danger of running out of elderly people. We’re making more of them every day – by the thousands. I hope to be one someday myself.

If you’ve heard anything our Bishop has had to say in the past year, you know that he’s very passionate about reaching new people. Most widely touted church marketing efforts are targeted at young families. That’s great – no one needs the church more, and we need to do more to reach them. But some congregations may be better equipped to reach out to retirees, who also need the church just as much as those 20-somethings.

On page 18 of this magazine, you’ll read about a man who retired and moved but found a new United Methodist Church when he did so. Because he has continued to be an active part of a church, hundreds of children in Nicaragua receive the fruit of his labor. May we keep our eyes open to the opportunities, and be excited for anyone who is new.