With the increase of seniors among us has come a growing demand for local pastors, lay leaders, and ministry groups to conduct worship services in senior citizens’ centers and rest homes. Leading the elderly in worship can be a most rewarding experience. But it also presents its own challenges. Here are some things to keep in mind when addressing the elderly.
- Some of your worshipers are a bit hard of hearing. Remind yourself to speak clearly, distinctly, and evenly—a little louder and slower than you normally would. Make sure that you speak into the microphone and that your mouth stays close to it. Rev. Peter Van Egmond, chaplain of Holland Christian Homes in Brampton, Ontario, says that though guest preachers are aware that some worshipers are hard of hearing, they still often talk a bit too fast and move away from the mike.
- Remember also that some residents suffer from cognitive loss. They may easily lose the thread of your presentation. So use concrete language, use word pictures and apt illustrations, and be brief. When announcing Scripture passages and hymns, allow time for the worshipers to look them up.
- Your audience will readily relate to a time-honored traditional structure of the order of worship. So keep the liturgy simple and direct. Lead the worshipers deliberately from one part to the next. It is generally best to tap into what is familiar to the congregation. Connect them with noble memories. Singing from the traditional treasury of the church’s hymnody will be an uplifting experience to them. On the other hand, don’t underestimate your audience. Many are knowledgeable church people and seasoned listeners. Van Egmond says that a dozen years of ministry in the Brampton Holland Homes have taught him that the elderly are not adverse to doing something different or learning new songs. “Many of them have mellowed with age,” he says, “and broadened their sense of appreciation and humor.” It is always good policy, of course, to consult with the resident chaplain.
- Keep in mind that your hearers size you up as a person. You don’t only speak the gospel, you portray it. You add a lot to your message when you invest something of yourself. Worship services are very important to the residents, and they deeply appreciate your coming out to lead them in their services. So mingle with them before and after the service. Rev. Vernon Geurkink, chaplain of the Christian Care Center in Wyckoff, New Jersey, points out, “Worshipers intuitively sense whether the guest preacher wants to connect with them. Remember that many are being wheeled in by nursing personnel—sometimes as much as half an hour early. It means a lot to them to have the guest preacher come by before the service and shake their hand.” Geurkink points out that those in rest homes see a guest preacher and a performing group as links to regional church communities. A touch of personal fellowship affirms that wonderful reality. Rev. Harvey Kiekover, director of pastoral care services at Holland Christian Home, Grand Rapids, Michigan, remarked, “The better church leaders understand what is important to the elderly, the richer their own ministries will be.”
- Remember that you minister in an ecumenical setting. “Be sensitive to those of other faiths,” says Geurkink. “The basic gospel truths mostly transcend denominational lines.” He points out that some residents may not have been in church for decades; they attend the services as part of the activities offered by the home. Try to make them feel at home.
- Some groups and other visitors take children along. A splendid practice! The elderly enjoy the presence of children. And with a bit of encouragement, children will quickly mingle with all those wonderful grandpas and grandmas.
- The elderly share with us the majority of life’s needs . . . but there are also needs that become more pronounced with old age. Some are trying to come to terms with their mortality. Some have remorse for past sins, real and imagined. Some find it hard to accept life’s closing chapter. Some are shaken by the breakdown of life. Some suffer discomfort and pain. Some are not sure of their salvation and worry about their final destiny. Guest preachers do well to stress salvation by grace and God’s unfailing promises. “Bathe them in grace, assure them with passion that God forgives, that God cares,” says Geurkink. Kiekover tells of Sid Youngsma, now with the Lord, who wheeled himself around in the halls of Holland Christian Home, telling all who would hear: “God’s grace is wonderful, and, the best is yet to come.”
Perhaps all age groups have more in common with the seniors than they had imagined. . . .