The Importance of Seniors….
One of the interesting realities that sociologists are reporting is that there is a growing interest in spiritual things in our wider communities. People are looking for something more. People are even looking for God, but that does not translate into an interest in church. As we were talking last week we have a huge issue with the institution, and a feeling that church will suck life out of me rather than helping me find life. I think people have a fear they’ll be required to believe certain things like gays are going to hell. They fear that if you set foot in a church you’ll be hit up for money or put on a committee. They wonder if time is so precious why bother with church. You’ll have to give up enjoying life and conform. We have plenty of work to do to be a community that promotes life as Jesus intended!
However I remain interested in the reality that people who have been hooked into consumerism and materialism are searching for something more because these religions don’t offer life. I think the image of Zacchaeus is an important one for us. Zacchaeus was a rather unpopular fellow who had become an outsider within his community because he had grown rich at others expense. He was a lonely man despite his wealth and he was someone who recognised a hole inside. There was a hunger for something more, a gnawing sense that something wasn’t right, peaceful. People were talking about Jesus and he hid up a tree to catch a glimpse of him as he passed through Jericho. He wanted to engage but actually he didn’t feel comfortable facing Jesus, so he watched from a distance – hidden and unnoticed. But he was noticed by the one who valued all people. Even hidden in the tree Jesus noticed him and said ‘let’s have a talk’. Over a coffee and lunch they engaged in conversation and Zacchaeus decided to become a Jesus follower in his life. I wonder….. are there Zacchaeus’s out there in our wider society? Are there people who have some sense of hole, some sense that maybe they are missing something… some sense that church isn’t all bad and might just be a place where they could find life. How might we engage them in conversation? Who might engage them in conversation?
I want to dig a little. One of the things I’ve discovered as I’ve looked at the future is that there is a very interesting change occurring in our demographics. In line with most western countries Christchurch is seeing the effects of the growth in numbers of older adults. In the past century the number of adults over the age of 65 has increased by about 10 times. People are living longer and we are feeling the effects of the boom in population post the Second World War. That’s the group that is called the boomers. Those born between about 1945-1964. In Christchurch in the year 2000 the median age was 35. Half the people were under 35 and half the population over 35. By 2043 this is projected by Statistics NZ to have climbed to 43. That’s a very significant increase. The 65+ age group used to be the smallest grouping but now it’s climbing fast. In fact the numbers in this age grouping are going to almost double in the next 20 or so years. The next most significant increase is the 40-64years age group.
What does this mean for us?
As we have more people in the older age groups, or another way of saying this is people who are entering the third phase of life, this will present challenges and opportunities for churches. While the knee jerk reaction in many traditional congregations is to say we need to focus energy on developing our youth ministry so we get more young people, a better reaction may be to say we need to have a focus on our ministry to older people. This is where we currently have ‘strength’ and it is where we are most likely to connect with others. It is also a growth market as the projections above indicate. If we do want to focus energy on families and younger people (and hopefully we do) we probably need to do this with a new and different discipleship and worship format.
People who are entering the third phase of life were traditionally called the retirees. The generation before the boomers were a generation who looked forward to hanging up their boots, but boomers want to keep active in some fashion after they retire. They have better health prospects and many will have part time jobs. Actually many boomers want to work at things that they have a personal interest in, and where they feel they can make a difference in society. Having worked for the past 40 years in a defined job they see the so called retired years as a chance to live out their inner dream in the third phase of life. This is not a time to hang up boots but potentially is the time to make a difference. Often they are financially secure and have skills of influence. They may want the flexibility to travel, spend time with family, take time for leisure, but many are wanting to give something back. One of the drivers for boomers is that they are searching for purpose. They want their lives to be productive and meaningful, and rather than seeing life slowing down they see the third phase of life as holding exciting possibilities. Some at least are looking for a spiritual ‘beyond me’ dimension. Some are looking to serving their community in some way.
It’s probably helpful to divide the third phase into two areas. I hesitate to put any age onto these areas as exceptions abound. Malaysia has just elected a 92 year old Prime Minister! But seniors are generally in the 80+ age group. They may no longer be driving but they have wisdom and can offer great encouragement and prayer. They know death is just around the corner because constantly those around are dying. They are often isolated and lonely. As a church we have a responsibility to care and to speak often of the enduring love of God. Around Christchurch I see a number of churches running short midweek services for people sometimes with a simple meal and other activities attached. Maybe a sit and keep fit class, maybe a game of cards. Human interaction is vital. I see such groups develop a strong sense of companionship. Stories are told, pictures shared of grandchildren and great grandchildren. Memories are valued. There is an underlying message that lives are valued. I see real potential to develop our Homeshare Plus or as we now are calling it South Elder Care programme. I wonder what it would look like if we employed someone to run it and develop it, not just for those with dementia or other issues but for all the 80 pluses?
The 60-80 year olds have more energy. They are changing focus. They are discovering life outside of work and outside of having kids at home. There may be a new focus on grandchildren, and elderly parents, but there is often a looking at life as an opportunity to do the things that are really important to me. There is an opportunity to engage with the God dream or soul within. So for example we could encourage groups that engage the physical, mental, relational, and spiritual. We have a waking group, but what about a tramping group, a book/movie group, a travel group, a men’s shed, a mission group, an art group, a singing group. But what is essential is to keep a spiritual focus and to keep asking questions about listening to one’s soul, discovering the God dream, serving with purpose to shape a better world. Some mentioned in our little survey last week of the desire to have a discussion group. What is the Bible about, what does retirement look like for a Christian, how do we invest wisely, and other ethical issues. A mission group could be a regular trip to Vanuatu to undertake an activity that builds bonds with locals but also offers assistance. Along the way there would be a bike trip to have some fun. A mission group could have a creation focus eg caring for a stretch of the Heathcote, providing assistance with low cost housing and teaching skills of gardening. Groups begin with conversations about dreams and passions of God. Remember back to the story of Pentecost and the observation that a little flame came upon every person. There is a God given passion or flame within each of us. A God dream within each of us. Sadly those flames are usually starved of oxygen and never get beyond a gentle smoulder as we wait for someone else to do something. Again a major stumbling block always seems to be leadership and maybe we simply need to employ someone to lead, or maybe we start with more conversations about our passions and God dreams. What is does our unique flame look like?
There aren’t too many big sycamore trees around our area thank goodness where people like Zacchaeus may be hiding, but there are people like Zacchaeus who are hearing God whispering into their lives. Plenty of those people are over 60…. Plenty of those people are hungering for community not only with God but with others. Our church, you and I surely have to speak and invite those people into conversation and connection.
Dugald Wilson 20 May 2018
The Importance of Seniors….