Like the author of Psalm 71, many—perhaps all elderly members of your congregation—have worshiped God from their youth. And when they become old, their desire to worship God in the assembly might be stronger than ever. The psalmist’s prayer admits a concern, and perhaps the elderly in your congregation also pray, “O God, do not forsake me.” That prayer may arise not only from losses of health, strength, and loved ones, but also losses in the church, if they no longer have an active voice or are not honored for who they are and what they are still called to do.
A striking image in these two verses from Psalm 71 is the request from this aged psalmist to be able to continue to “declare [God’s] marvelous deeds” not only in the congregation, but for the sake of all the generations to come. What an amazing calling for an elderly saint to express! But then again, why should any child of God ever want to retire from our calling to worship God in community?
Here are some ideas for your worshiping community to honor that high calling of the elderly in your midst as honored and treasured members of our congregations. Many of these ideas will not be new, but some might be worth revisiting or refreshing. The goal is to spark ever more ways of recognizing God’s call to our elderly members, honoring their experience and wisdom, so that we all together proclaim God’s might, love, and faithfulness to all generations, past, present, and future.
For those not able to attend worship services
1. Include them in greetings and prayers
Already when planning worship services, remember those who are not able to attend. Worship leaders can still include them, even by name, in greetings and prayers.
2. Bring them recordings of services or help them set up technology to access live streaming
If you record services on CD/DVD/USBs, consider making a schedule of volunteers to deliver recordings to homebound people, who might also be glad for a visit. Make sure the person has the appropriate CD/DVD player or computer. Include a large-print bulletin and song texts.
If you stream services, have those with tech experience—perhaps teens—help set up that technology in homes with direct links from their computer’s home screen.
3. Bring communion to them
When communion is served, pastors and elders can consider regular opportunities to include homebound people. Prepare a printed liturgy that includes texts of some familiar hymns that can be sung without accompaniment. (See the introduction to and an example of a communion liturgy for the sick and homebound at crcna.org.) Invite a few family members or friends to come along.
4. Record people who are homebound and share the recordings with the congregation
Include people who are homebound (or those separated by distance, like missionaries) by recording or videotaping their words of greeting, or reading Scripture, or offering a prayer or testimony. Then project their contribution during a service. To begin, consider a Christmas or Thanksgiving service as a gift to them (and the whole congregation!).
Driving and Parking
1. Valet Parking
For those who can no longer drive but would love to be at worship, consider ways to extend hospitality, welcome, and safety, especially when the weather is challenging. For those who do drive, in addition to reserved parking places for those with disabilities, consider adding valet service for the elderly. Take a tip from the hospitality offered at many restaurants by asking a youth team to park a car, meet someone at the car with an umbrella, offer an arm if it is windy or icy, help people up a ramp or steps, and perhaps hang up coats. Perhaps those same people could connect regularly.
Entering the Worship Space
1. Include the elderly as greeters
Who are the greeters in your congregation? How about inviting some older members to join the schedule—even if they sit in a wheelchair!—and pair them with others, perhaps a parent with a young child. Doing so provides a visual parable of an inclusive welcome.
2. Provide comfortable seating and large-print resources
Provide comfortable arm chairs or pillows for those who use walkers or find it difficult to sit on hard pews or chairs. Offer large-print bulletins including all the song texts and spoken liturgy.
Standing and Sitting
1. Communicate that it’s okay to remain sitting
Be intentional about asking people to stand and be generous towards those who may wish to stay seated when others are standing. Leaders could say something like “Please stand in body or in spirit.”
2. Have younger folks sit with those who are older
Find ways to mix up seating so there is no division by age. Younger folks could choose to sit next to older members, keeping watch for ways to help them find a hymn or Scripture passage or hold a book.
1. Include all ages in worship leadership
When inviting congregational members to read Scripture or offer prayers or testimonies, consider all ages. And if someone finds it difficult to stand or walk up to a microphone, bring a cordless microphone to them.
2. All speakers should practice speaking more clearly and slowly
Worship leaders with speaking roles should practice projecting their voices even when using a microphone. Practice slowing down, too—often, the younger the speakers, the faster they speak. Don’t be afraid of silence; in fact, consider adding time to reflect after a Scripture reading or a prayer.
3. Install a hearing loop system
Many elderly people use hearing aids with different settings and would be blessed by the technology of a hearing loop system. Many churches, auditoriums, and public spaces are now “looped” with a coil that surrounds a space, permitting listeners with hearing aids in that space to receive sounds directly from a microphone. This provides total clarity of every consonant, every syllable. I personally am very grateful for this technology every Sunday, and even have my own living room looped and connected to my TV with similar good results. I simply click my hearing aid to that setting. To those who run sound systems: explore hearingloop.org, a nonprofit informational website created and maintained by retired Hope College psychology professor David G. Myers and his assistant, Kathryn Brownson.
4. Preach on older heroes of the faith
When preaching, consider mentioning the ages of some of our heroes of the faith who were elderly even before being called for great service. Abraham, Moses, and many more never “retired.”
5. Include the testimonies of older adults
Elderly members have lived through a great many changes. When considering milestones and changes in the lives of younger members, also offer opportunity for older members to testify how they lived through challenging times, thus testifying to God’s faithfulness in the face of change.
A Particular Note about Singing
Since moving recently to a retirement home, I’ve learned again how much singing means to many older people. They show up to hymn sings, enjoy song services before evening worship, and sing beloved hymns from memory. Some have mentioned their desire to sing the older songs especially because they are no longer sung in their churches. Honoring the communion of the saints includes remembering everyone in our midst, young and old, as well as the heritage of song from past generations and openness to our own and future generations. So choose songs for young and old alike, from the heritage as well as by living composers, plus songs from around the world that unite us as the living body of Christ of today. There is wisdom in choosing diversity in a “balanced diet” not only for the sake of the older generation, but for their calling to still speak to the generations to come.
For congregational worship, use traditional language for treasured older hymns. After a generation of language change, many recent hymnals have returned to using older language as a way of honoring those who have committed hymns to memory. (Embedded here is a confession: I served on a hymnal revision committee that “updated” too many beloved old song texts in an attempt to communicate better to an increasingly unchurched culture. But those updates represented a loss for many elderly who had committed many traditional hymns to memory. Most subsequent hymnals, and many young people, are open to singing the “thee”s and “thou”s of older poetry.)
If your church uses screens but still has hymnals in the pews, provide information so people have a choice of singing from the screen, from a hymnal, or from a large-print bulletin.
Older folks often keep hymnals in their personal libraries for devotional use as well as for singing at home. A welcome gift to them could be a book of hymn stories, especially those that include song texts. Search online for “hymn story devotionals” for a wide array.
Even better, pastors, worship planners, and leaders can check out hymnary.org, a growing resource with a wealth of information about thousands of hymns and worship songs, including background stories, little biographies, and related prayers and confessions.
Older people face many losses: employment, children and grandchildren who live far away, health and strength, or family members through sickness and death. When an elderly (or any!) member is grieving the loss of a loved one, musicians could mark the date and send a card indicating their intention to play a piece or sing a song from the funeral on the anniversary of a death.
In pastoral visits, ask the elderly about their favorite Scripture passages and hymns. Asking them early might be helpful in thinking together about what will comfort them in future times of illness, or in thinking about their funerals. Take notes to keep in a church file.
Remember that most songs are prayers and can include lament, petition, and intercession. Consider introducing hymns of lament or sung refrains to spoken texts, perhaps inviting the elderly to comb through their hymnals and communicate with the musicians in your congregation. That could even become a meaningful adult education class! Here are some sources to consider:
- From Psalms for All Seasons (PfAS): Settings in the Index on p. 1110 under LAMENT: Illness and LIFE STAGES: Death, Old Age.
- From Lift Up Your Hearts (LUYH): Settings in the section “Trusting the Triune God” (#354–469), which includes songs for “difficult times” and “in death and dying.”
- From Glory to God (GtG): Settings in the sections “Lament and Longing for Healing” and “Living and Dying in Christ” (#775–836).
- From the Psalter Hymnal (PsH): Songs in the section “Walk with God” (#543–579).
These carefully chosen songs provide a diversity of music to honor the communion of saints from many times and places. Many are undoubtedly known and loved already. But there are also new and accessible psalm settings, hymns, and prayers expressing pastoral concerns that have not been addressed until very recently. Here are three examples:
- “O Lord, Hear My Prayer” Taizé, LUYH 462, GtG 471, PfAS 102A is a short refrain from the Community of Taizé combined in Psalms for All Seasons with “A Litany for the Sick and Dying,” PfAS 102B written by Leonard Vander Zee based on Psalm 102.
- “Pues si vivimos/When We Are Living” Escamilla, LUYH 452, GtG 822 is a beloved traditional Mexican song, based on Romans 14:8, that carries with it a prayer for the living and the dying. It is simple and memorable.
- “When Memory Fades” Bringle, LUYH 449, GtG 808 is a poignant prayer acknowledging dementia, written by Mary Louise Bringle and set to the well-known tune FINLANDIA.
Many of you could add much to this list to fit your own context. Just keep in mind that all God’s people are called to worship God, and the great hope before us is to join with all God’s saints from all times and places when we gather around the throne in the new heavens and the new earth. May all our worship services provide ever-richer glimpses and tastes of the great welcome and calling God has given all of us, young and old together.