As a second grader, my young son stared with bewilderment as an older member of our congregation sang from memory, with his eyes closed and a smile on his face, holding the pew ahead of him for balance, “. . . amazing love, how can it be, that you my God should die for me.” As my son settled into his place after the hymn, he whispered to me, “Do you think I will ever love God as much as that man?”
It was apparent that the words of the selected hymn, Charles Wesley’s “And Can It Be,” were deeply engraved in the elderly man’s memory and held poignant meaning for him. It was also apparent that the way in which this older congregant sang from his heart motivated at least one other member, young as he was, to consider his own faith journey. After the service, the man shook my hand vigorously, commenting on what a meaningful worship service we had just experienced. Had I been bolder, I would have asked him about the hymn’s meaning for him. Instead I simply agreed with him; the moment for understanding just what it was about worship that had so enabled this man to praise God, however, was lost.
Unfortunately, little is known about the ways in which congregational worship shapes older adults’ lives. We do know that older adults who describe themselves as “religious” or “spiritual” fare better than their counterparts on a host of variables, including length of life, physical and mental health, life satisfaction, coping abilities, service to others, and so on. Studies that report such outcomes, however, usually focus on variables that can be easily measured (such as church attendance, social support networks, or number of times per day one prays); specific attention to what happens in the worship service is missing. And, as positive as these outcomes are, the purpose of worship, of course, is not to improve health or focus on narcissistic concerns, but rather to praise God and extend God’s concern for justice and righteousness to the world.
While we lack empirical data about how worship itself shapes older adults’ capacities to worship, we do know some things that have implications for planning worship that is inclusive of older adults. Two suggestions follow.
Assess Environmental and Structural Obstacles
First, worship planning teams should assess environmental and structural obstacles to worship. For instance, extended times of standing, and especially standing and singing with arms outstretched, is challenging for some older adults. Sitting down when others are standing only increases a sense of alienation. Limited hearing and vision are potential problems that can limit full participation in worship. Slippery floors, stairs with no handrails, and limited wheelchair accessibility can prevent some from even attempting to attend church. Providing care for a homebound spouse or sibling also precludes some from attending church.
Fortunately, these obstacles are not insurmountable. Careful attention to the flow of worship and large-print bulletins and Bibles are relatively easy changes to implement. Expert consultation about sound systems and building accessibility is available. And many churches are beginning to implement care-giving assistance programs that allow caregivers to worship with their congregations, knowing that their loved ones are receiving competent care from another member.
Maintain Continuity with the Past
Second, we know, from the developmental psychology literature, that older adults are concerned with maintaining meaning in their lives—especially in the face of pending frailty and death—and with knowing that they have made contributions to others. For people of faith, this kind of life review is motivated and sustained by religious beliefs and by participation in congregational life. Subsequently, worship is a critically important vehicle for helping older adults maintain continuity and meaning through religious themes that have formed and shaped their identity, and that now help them organize, explain, interpret, and evaluate their experiences.
Older adults, however, are a diverse group. If we use age 65 as a marker for old age—admittedly an artificial construction—we can immediately identify older adults who are healthy and active but also those who are frail, homebound or living in institutions, or nearing death. Social class, race, gender, and relationships are additional variables that create diversity. So it’s important not to generalize that what works for one older adult in worship will work for all older adults.
Pastoral care teams can, however, learn ways of conversing with older members about worship that can inform the work of worship committees. Let’s listen in on part of a conversation with an 86-year-old woman about her faithful twice-weekly participation in worship:
What is already happening in your worship services that you find helpful?
The sermon. For me, the Bible reading and sermon is what brings me back each week.
What is it about the Bible reading and sermon that brings you back?
Hearing the Bible read to me reminds me again of important biblical truths that I’ve known forever. It is a constant for me in my life, even though my health is failing. The sermons do the same. Things that I’ve heard since I was a little girl come back to me in new ways, now that I am getting older. Hearing about God’s grace in my weakness once more, even though on most days I feel like I’m not good for much, helps me get through the week.
Are there other ways that Bible reading and the sermon help you?
[The woman recalls times of God’s faithfulness in hard times, reminders that others in her neighborhood have needs she perceives as greater than hers, and a time when the sermon led her to reconcile a lengthy difference with a friend.]
Are there things that could be done differently to make these even more meaningful to you?
I like to get the sermon tapes and I listen to those again. I like the children’s messages too. It is a way to pass on what is important to the little ones and show them they count too in the service.
Are there other things, beside Bible reading and the sermon, that happen in your worship services that are helpful to you?
[The woman mentions receiving communion each week, seeing the children receive a blessing before leaving for Children’s Worship, and a few psalms and hymns she particularly cherishes.]
The content of such conversations (shared anonymously) can give worship planning committees insight into the themes and stories that shape and give meaning to everyday experiences of elderly congregants. It is likely that many older adults relate to the themes expressed above, and such can be the foundation for planning worship services. Effective pastoral care also uncovers the expressions of such themes—particular music, readings, preferred versions of the Bible, and sacramental practices—that further older adults’ capacities to worship.
In short, assessing the structural elements that make worship difficult, accompanied by conversational skills and supportive relationships that lead to understanding older adults’ life experiences, goes far in creating opportunities for meaningful worship. Such worship praises our Creator and provides occasions for expression of God’s faithfulness to all of God’s children.
I Have a Dream . . .
How do we make sure that our worship includes a concern for others and a hunger for justice?
I suppose there are lots of ways, but I have a dream of a church where there is a great outcry for traditional music.
The worship committee is getting letters and people are talking to their elders asking if we can sing a few more of those classic old hymns. And the outcry is led by all the teenagers and twenty-somethings. Why are they asking for this stuff? Not because they like this music, but because they’ve been watching some of the older members of the congregation and they see how much those hymns mean to them and they want to see those folks enjoying their worship.
In my dream the same worship committee is getting other letters asking if we can’t sing with a guitar once in a while, and these letters are coming from the classical music lovers because they’ve seen how the middle schoolers and the high schoolers light up when one of the songs from their school chapels makes its way into our worship.
That would be a church where concern for other people and their needs stood firmly at the center, right where Jesus wants to put them.
It’s a beautiful dream.
—Peter Jonker, pastor, Woodlawn Christian Reformed Church,
Grand Rapids, Michigan. Used by permission.