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Beyond Singing Hymns

Engaging Older Adults in Worship

Christian churches of all denominations live in a world of constant media banter about generational differences. The progression goes from the Silent Generation to baby boomers to Generation Xers, to millennials (or Generation Y) and now to Generation Z. One can barely go a week without seeing an article about how one generation differs from another—“Millennials and the Church,” for example, or “What the Baby Boomers Didn’t Do!” One irony of these names and labels is the assumption that almost everyone of a particular generation feels the same way, especially when we say things like “I am not like the rest of my generation, but all those in that other generation are.” When we use words that generalize about habits of thinking and behaving, they become stereotypes—words that limit rather than broaden understanding.

Thus, it might not surprise readers that the title of this article was the theme for the Disability Leadership Conference for the Reformed Church in America (RCA) and the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in September 2018. Engaging both people with disabilities and older adults in worship means first of all confronting our attitudes as well as the labels we use that focus on differences rather than similarities. We live in a world that places value judgments on those differences, turning them into deficits, stereotypes, and caricatures. Real or not, those perceptions are a fact of life that people with disabilities and people who are “old,” “aging,” or “the elderly” face on a regular basis.

Looking at the Similarity of the Issues

In the realm of disability, there is also an often unacknowledged but real phenomenon of the “pecking order.” Some disabilities are deemed to be worse than others. People with one form of disability may feel looked down upon by others with another form of disability. A parent might prefer one kind of label or diagnosis for a child over another based primarily on assumptions about social attitudes.

That also happens in the world of aging. My mother spent the last decade or so of her life in an unfortunately-designed, three-tiered retirement center with small homes and independent apartments on one side of a state highway and the assisted living center and “nursing rehabilitation program” on the other. Nobody on the more independent side wanted to go across the road. The worlds of aging and disability sometimes merge, as when one hears an aging person say “Well, I may be getting old, but I am not disabled.”

Beyond labels and stereotypes, the fact is that most disability occurs as part of the aging process. Statistics say most of us will spend at least six years of our life with one form of disability or another, such as mobility issues, hearing impairments, vision impairments, or cognitive disabilities such as dementia. Many of the accommodations and supports that churches have developed to include people with disabilities in worship and congregational life are also ones that assist elderly members. A ramp or elevator for a young person with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair or for an adult paralyzed because of an accident might end up being used primarily by people who are elderly. A person of any age can be “shut in” their home, or “shut out” of the church by physical barriers. Large print can be good for people of many ages. Worship that pays attention to multisensory expressions of the Word help people experience, understand, and celebrate God’s love in ways beyond our assumptions that we worship only through the spoken, heard, or sung Word.

Any congregational project that improves accessibility and eliminates architectural barriers is going to be appreciated by people of widely varying ages and disabilities—and even by those without a disability. One of my favorite stories is from decades ago when a major state university put curb cuts all around its campus and then surveyed the campus community to see if people understood why they did that (it was in response to the 1973 Rehabilitation Act.) Bicyclists said it was done for them. Young parents with strollers said it was done for them. Vending machine operators said it was done for them. You get the picture and the parallel. Biblically, we might say that any project that makes the paths straight, the valleys filled, the mountains and hills made low, the crooked made straight, and the rough places smooth (Isaiah 40:3–5) is a project with sacred significance.

Conference participants identified many other issues and challenges surrounding the inclusion of people who are elderly in worship. Physical transportation to church is one. Lack of communication between younger and older congregational members is another. Churches, like our society, fall into the trap of trying to do things with speed and efficiency, leaving behind people who might need to move a little more slowly. A focus on nuclear families ends up leaving widows, widowers, single parents, and single people feeling left on the fringes. Older folks, we think, want worship to remain the way it has been, singing the familiar songs with which they grew up. Worship with elements designed for younger adults leaves the old folks shaking their heads and holding their ears. Younger or older people can both get left out of leadership roles. When older members move into retirement centers and perhaps lose the ability to drive, disconnection often happens, even when the center is not far from the congregation.

Sharing Strategies Tried by Congregations

We also shared some strategies that congregations had already used to address those issues. Noise needs to be okay, as well as slowing down. Organized transportation, technological aids, and accessible bathrooms work for many. Participants talked about the importance of intentionality: in invitation, in offering to sit with someone, in including all ages in planning, in finding roles for all who want to contribute, and in creating multiple opportunities and forms of cross-generational activities and occasions. A strategy that came up over and over again was making sure to involve people in change and to communicate change clearly, with multiple times and ways for people to be informed and part of the process.

For several decades one of the leading voices for inclusive worship and congregational life for people with disabilities was Ginny Thornburgh. One of her mantras for congregations in the early stages of more inclusive ministries was “attitudes are more important than architecture.” Changing attitudes through education, study, sermons, and planning is crucial. Architectural and technological accommodations can follow, but relationships are key. As Thornburgh said, “Don’t start with an $80,000 elevator.” Doing so means the first thing people see is a dollar sign rather than individuals, families, and relationships.

Foundational Building Blocks for Engaging Older Adults in Worship

Six foundational building blocks for engaging older adults in worship emerged out of shared challenges and strategies, all with parallels in inclusive ministries with people with disabilities.

Listen

First, talk with the people you would like to engage. Who are they? What are their stories and faith journeys? How might the congregation welcome, include, or bring them back into the life of the church? In the world of disability, it is called “person-centered planning,” or in the words of another mantra of disability advocates: “Nothing about me without me.” Too often we make assumptions and plan ministries to or for people without including them in planning.

You Don’t Need a Program

Start with the people you know, with whom the congregation is already connected, one by one. An organized program or initiative may grow out of that, but when it does, it is more likely to be tailor-made to the people involved. Relationships are the key.

Behind the Stigmas and Stereotypes Are Real People and Their Stories

People with disabilities and people who are elderly deal with stigma and stereotypes. Ask them how social assumptions affect them, or which attitudes or actions are most irritating. It could be as simple as people who use a wheelchair saying “I am not ‘wheelchair bound.’ I would be bound to my house if I did not have this wheelchair!” Or, “Just because I am in a wheelchair does not mean I cannot hear.” It could be more complex, like assuming elderly people or people with disabilities need more help than they really do. (Ask them how others can assist.) The best way to combat stigma and stereotypes is with real stories from the people affected by them.

Everyone Has a Gift

Learn to look first for people’s assets, gifts, and strengths. In what ways would they like to use those gifts in their own discipleship and in the life of the congregation? They might have needs, but they might rather be seen as people who can contribute. Sometimes that means helping them see gifts they do not believe they have. Sometimes their greatest need means figuring out ways we can receive the gifts they would like to offer. We say as people of faith that “it is more blessed to give than receive.” It’s also easier—few of us like to ask for help. But we might be less reluctant if we feel we are valued for our strengths, too.

People First, Gifts Second, and Communities Third

When we first see people who carry labels, and when we look for their gifts and strengths, we can find ways to use their gifts in building our congregational community and the community at large. When needs are identified, think first about how others in your congregation might find meaning in using their gifts to help out. Knowing community agencies that can help people with particular needs is important, but most of us would rather have help from friends and people we know. We build congregations and communities by identifying people’s assets and gifts and putting them into service. No congregation ever got started by focusing solely on its members’ limits or needs. That’s a major difference between communities of faith and health or social service systems.

One Person is Never Just One Person

Sometimes we think that the voice or needs of one person are more than we can pay attention to. But recall the parable of the one lost sheep. Then remember that because each person is connected to many others, a failure to listen, to welcome, and to include, or, worse yet, doing something that is felt as rejecting or wounding will travel through a person’s network. Assuming the people in that network also care about that person, you now have a number of people with a bad image of you and the church. Far too often, those people end up “unchurched.”

Truth be told, these six ideas are good for any form of congregational planning. One of the joyful paradoxes of congregational life is that when we do what we need to do to address particular needs or concerns, or to make it possible for one person to be included and to grow in faith, it turns out to be good for lots of others as well.

Addressing the Spiritual Tasks of Aging

The worship experiences of faith communities are one of the key contexts in which spiritual growth and development take place. Our spirituality and faith are never static, for we continually face new experiences and times in our lives in which our faith may be challenged and when new meaning may need to be discovered (even in very old texts and practices). Our identities shift through the major transitions in our life, from childhood to senior citizen. Answers to the foundational questions of “Who am I?”, “Whose am I?”, and “Why am I?” change as one gets older. There are opportunities for faith to grow deeper and wider in every stage of that journey.

In the late 1990s, the Park Ridge Center for the Study of Health, Faith and Ethics (see sidebar p. 17) brought together respected leaders from all major faith traditions to explore how those traditions address the spiritual issues of aging and old age. One of their key insights was describing the paradoxical experiences of aging and moving toward the end of one’s life. Both culturally and spiritually, aging is a time for both:

  • Honor and indignity, as age is both respected but also experienced as a time of losing key parts of one’s identity.
  • Blessing and curse, a time when one can perhaps enjoy a release from the demanding tasks of adulthood but also a time when abilities might decline and health issues become major frustrations.
  • Growth and decay, as we have time for new experiences and learning but also recognize the gradual loss of valued parts of life.
  • Wisdom and senility, as ancient traditions still keep alive respect for the insights of the “elders,” yet many people experience memory loss or encounter cultural stereotypes about the elderly.
  • Engagement and renunciation, as we have time to engage other interests and experiences that we could not do during our full working lives, yet are called to renounce or give up some relationships or experiences we once valued.

The core of paradox is, of course, that both experiences are true. They are balanced, not resolved. These paradoxes set the context for deep spiritual reflection, for pastoral care, and for thoughtful ways in which worship might embrace these experiences. How might congregations and worship leaders plan for ways to enhance honor, blessing, growth, wisdom, and engagement in the lives of their senior members and address the common human experiences of indignity, curse, decay, senility, and renunciation in its proclamation, prayer, sharing, and support?

T. Patrick Hill, The Challenge of Aging: Retrieving Spiritual Traditions (Chicago, Ill.: Park Ridge Center for the Study of Health, Faith and Ethics, 1999). The Center no longer exists and the booklet is out of print but may be available at North American academic libraries. These five tasks of “normal” aging are also used to describe the kinds of supports needed for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in “Spiritual Issues and Strategies: Crisis and Opportunity,” a chapter in Sandra L. Friedman and David T. Helm’s End-of-Life Care for Children and Adults with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (Washington, D.C.: AAIDD, 2010), p. 245–260, and in a similar chapter in William Gaventa, “Spirituality, Aging, and End of Life: A Paradox of Loss and Celebration” in Disability and Spirituality: Recovering Wholeness (Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2018), p. 119–134.

At the same time, people who are aging and experiencing these paradoxes have their own unique tasks, Park Ridge participants said (see sidebar), specifically:

  • Reaffirming covenant obligations to community as one has more time to contribute to the life of a congregation and the community/society in which one lives.
  • Blessing, recalling and assessing how one’s life has been a blessing to others and how one might give a blessing to younger generations and leaders.
  • Practicing honor toward those who are aging, offering dignity, respect, and appreciation.
  • Maintaining faith in the face of loss—of friends, of ability, of family, and of health.
  • Reconciling discordant experiences, letting go, forgiving, and reconnecting.

Brainstorming each of those tasks in turn, attendees at the 2018 Beyond Singing Hymns conference about engaging older adults in worship came up with a bonanza of ideas and suggestions, including those found in the article “God’s Calling To and For the Elderly in Worship” by Emily Brink (p. 22). Some additional themes and ideas are described below.

Helping People Maintain Connections and/or Get Re-involved in Community upon Retirement

We often say some older members are “shut in.” In reality, they might be “shut out” by physical barriers or a lack of accommodations that would enable them to participate. Find some people who are willing to model use of the supports the congregation does have so others can overcome their reluctance to ask.

Intentionally planning intergenerational experiences and looking for new ways that elderly people can be involved in church life drove many suggestions, such as connecting each senior with a children’s Sunday School class to occasionally tell stories about their childhood or the theme of the curriculum. Perhaps have each class “adopt” a grandmother and grandfather. Both kids and the older members could then look for each other on Sunday mornings at worship. The kids could send greeting cards and become prayer partners with older people who are at home or in a retirement center. Intergenerational activity nights, monthly Sunday schools, mission projects or trips, and mentoring relationships between older kids and elderly members were variations on this idea.

Technology can help establish these connections in worship settings. Common technology enables worship to be shared via Skype or Facebook, or, in reverse, enables an older member at home to read a Scripture passage or share a faith story on camera, to be projected on sanctuary screens (this could be live or pre-recorded).

The keys to all of the suggestions for this spiritual task of aging is recognizing gifts, finding ways to use them, intentionally building cross-generational relationships, and keeping people in communication with the life of the church if they are not able to be present.

Helping People Give a Blessing, Receive a Blessing, or Know They Have Been a Blessing

Giving one’s blessing has deep and powerful biblical roots. One way to start a practice of blessing is to celebrate gifts and contributions. Make sure the congregation takes time to bless older people for the blessings they have brought to the congregation for a long time. Certificates celebrating key gifts and contributions are very easy to make, or a congregation could simply thank an older person as part of a worship service. Doing this while one is still active, and not just at one’s funeral, could be a real gift.

Many older people are geographically separated from their children and grandchildren. FaceTime and other communication apps are a great help, but remember that there might also be children in your church who are separated from their grandparents or don’t have any. Are there ways that those older folks and kids could be brought together in “surrogate” grandparent/grandchild relationships? Receiving the love and attention of an older person is a blessing as old as the hills.

There may be multiple ways in which elderly persons need some simple support, but they might also like to help others. Some who would like to be a blessing don’t know what is needed. Find someone who can get to know an elderly member well and serve as a liaison. Learning how to recognize, give, and receive blessings from one another is a rich arena for congregational growth as a caring community.

Helping Restore Honor and Respect to the Aging

Restoring honor and respect to people who are aging is countercultural, which is all the more reason it should happen in congregational settings. Take the time to listen to people who are elderly and provide multiple ways for them to share their life stories and/or faith journeys. That can happen at church anniversaries, in worship, in settings where intergenerational groups talk about a common subject, or even by having a weekend in which all of the church’s elderly are invited into younger members’ homes. Observe milestone birthdays, have an elderly married couple bless newlyweds, and create spaces and times for conversations between younger and older members.

Respecting the need for seniors to continue growing as they face new questions means thinking about how educational programs, small groups, and worship can be contexts for discussing those questions. Sometimes older persons are tired of being the “worker bees” of a church, but sometimes they might feel overlooked. We may forget to ask for their wisdom, involvement, and leadership. In aging studies and supports, there are writers and programs that reframe “aging” as “sage-ing.” There is much wisdom in those decades of experiences. Think about creative ways for that wisdom to be recognized, shared, and respected.

Maintaining Faith in the Face of Loss

Loss in the process of aging occurs in so many ways: loss of ability, a job, a spouse, friends, health, and more. Over and over again, participants in the Beyond Singing Hymns conference cited the importance of recognizing those losses, taking grief seriously by giving it time rather than trying to fix it too quickly and move on. Visitation, listening, presence—simply being with people in times of loss can make them times of sacred significance.

Loss is often addressed during worship in prayers, sermons, and Scripture. But we often overlook the need to lament, to question, to share anger in the context of faith, and to search. Therefore we miss the richness and the sanctification of lamentation as an act of faith, memorialized in parts of the Bible like Job, the psalms of lament, and indeed a whole book called Lamentations. Lamenting is a gift unto itself. It cannot be fixed. It can only be heard and received. But the very process might enable mourning and grief to move forward. Services such as “Blue Christmas/Longest Night” services for those who feel their own losses when others are celebrating can also be reminders that the faith journey is not always an easy one. (Search Christmas or Advent Lament or Longest Night at ReformedWorship.org). As the psalms show us, we need worship filled with songs of praise, but also songs of lament.

Congregations can also address the losses of aging through religious education, speakers, and times to help seniors think about wills, end-of-life care, and planning for their own funerals. People so often feel alone and unable to address those issues and tasks, but doing so in a community of friends and faith may provide a safe space for that kind of emotional and spiritual work.

Reconciliation with Others, with Families, with Church, and with God

If we truly take the time to get to know older members, we will learn something about the regrets or unfinished tasks they feel are still part of their lives. Perhaps the sense of disconnection is with the church itself, and that needs to be voiced and heard. Issues in relationships that are unresolved before death can erupt afterwards. The hospice movement talks about five final emotional and spiritual tasks: (1) I forgive you; (2) please forgive me; (3) I love you; (4) thank you; and (5) goodbye. Addressing these tasks in sermons, in prayer, and in good pastoral and congregational care enfolds them in acts of faith, hope, and love, thus taking away the power of resentment, grudges, and guilt to bring even more grief and loss to the end of one’s life.

In Sum

Engaging elderly persons in worship and in the life of the church is about much more than finding the right balance of older and newer styles of worship. It is about relationships. It is about maintaining connections and re-membering people who far too often feel on the periphery of or even cut off from their family of faith. It is about finding ways to tell stories, to listen, and to hear how faith has grown and changed over a lifetime.

The ideas that arose out of the Beyond Singing Hymns conference are not prescriptions. They came from taking time to listen to the Holy Spirit, to brainstorm, and to think outside the box. If you have already implemented ways to include others who might be on the margins, such as those with disabilities and their families, you might already have some ways of acting out love that could simply be applied to a different demographic.

Most importantly, finding new ways to include and engage older people in worship means having faith in the capacity of your church community to come up with its own answers to some of these issues and questions. Ideas that come from community conversations and prayer are much more likely to be carried out by those who feel called to do so.

So take these questions and issues, raise them in your own context, and nurture what begins to grow.

As I wrote this, I noticed some parallels in the creative work done around the “vertical habits” of worship. Those could be another creative way to speak to the experience and issues of aging in our communal worship. Search vertical habits at ReformedWorship.org and worship.calvin.edu for examples, or read Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship by Barbara J. Newman.