Why Aren’t Senior Adults Being Evangelized?
Win & Charles Arn
If demographers are correct, the magnitude of the coming “age wave” will be so significant that every social institution will be affected. Ken Dychtwald, noted business and management consultant, believes that “the age wave is going to be of a significance that matches the dawn of the industrial age or the invention of the microchip.”1 This “age wave,” as sociologists are now referring to it, describes the fact that America is rapidly aging, and will continue to do so. The statistics are mind boggling:
* The number of people in the U.S. over age 65 is now larger than the entire population of Canada!
* The number of “senior citizens” is growing three times more rapidly than the national population rate!
* Of every dollar spent for consumer goods in the United States, 41 cents is spent by older adults!
* Two thirds of all the people who have ever lived to age 65 are alive today!
As the number of senior adults in congregations continues to grow and the senior adult population outside the church increases, a most fruitful opportunity for outreach/evangelism is emerging. Unfortunately, at the present time, the great majority of churches are unprepared to respond to the aging of America. One might think that because many congregations are already composed of a considerable number and percentage of older adults, evangelism and additional growth among this age group would be an easy process. Not true!
In fact, we have apparently been unsuccessful for some time in effectively evangelizing older adults. Several studies indicate that few people who are Christians today came to their faith during their later years.2 One of three differing conclusions might be drawn:
1) The older a person grows, the more “hardened” or resistant he/ she becomes to the Gospel, and thus very few people “convert” in their later years.
2) Youth and younger adults typically receive the priority of churches in programming, outreach and evangelism, and thus a greater number are reached.
3) The evangelism strategies currently employed are effective for youth and young adults, but ineffective for persons in the second half of life.
While more research is sorely needed in effective evangelism strategies for older adults, my personal observation from 20+ years in the field of church growth leads me to believe the first possible conclusion is completely untrue, the second is frequently true, and the third is almost always true. Let’s look more closely at why more older adults are not being reached and assimilated into local churches in their later years. There are at least three reasons:
1. The church’s outreach emphases have traditionally focused on youth and young adults. In research conducted in 500 churches, we found that 8 of 10 churches had youth directors (volunteer or paid), but only 1 in 95 had a senior adult director! This over-allocation of staff and dollars for youth deserves a closer analysis of stewardship and “return on investment”…
* Only one in ten participants in the average church youth group will be an active member of the same church ten years later.
* The youth department typically requires resources (time, effort, money, people) of a church, rather than being a source of resources for the church.
* The loyalty of young people to a particular church is usually shallow — if /when a successful youth pastor leaves and is not immediately replaced, the youth leave, as well.
* Senior adults have more time available for volunteer activities, including church ministries.
* Senior adults typically have the largest amount of discretionary funds of any age group and financially support the causes and institutions they believe in.
* Senior adults tend to be less transient and stay in the same church for longer periods of time.
Certainly it is important to have an effective youth outreach strategy. Energy needs to be spent on providing an excellent and attractive ministry for young people. But it is equally important to have an effective senior outreach strategy. Churches should emphasize both. Unfortunately, ageism (discrimination against older adults) occurs in many churches and limits those churches’ potential for growth. It is time for a more balanced emphasis.
2. Outreach does not take into account “windows of receptivity” with senior adults. Research has shown there are times in people’s lives when they tend to be more open to becoming a Christian…and there are times when those same persons tend to be resistant to the Gospel. Not only is it good strategy to focus evangelism activity on people who are receptive, it is a solid biblical approach that Christ, himself, modeled. The seed sown on good soil, said Jesus, is the person who both hears and understands the message.3 He was talking about those people who were receptive. In sending out the seventy, Jesus told His followers to shake the dust from their feet of the towns that would not accept them and go to those places that welcomed them. . . those who were receptive. 4
When are these periods of “receptivity” in the lives of senior adults? They usually occur when people experience a change or transition in some area of their life. The “Receptivity Scale” below provides a list and hierarchy of common transitions in the lives of senior adults. It is these times of change in lifestyle that commonly precipitate a period of spiritual receptivity and openness to the Gospel.
Effective evangelism for senior adults follows Christ’s command to “turn your eyes to the fields that are ripe [receptive] unto harvest.”5
3. Most senior adult programs do not provide an adequate number or diversity of options for seniors to become involved. It is critical to understand that senior adults are not one “homogeneous group.” They have different interests, lifestyles, concerns, needs, self-images.
Again and again we hear newly retired persons say, “I don’t want to be part of that group of old people” (referring to the present senior adult group).
Just as one youth group is obviously inadequate for ministry and outreach to “youth” from junior high to college, one senior group is inadequate for ministry and outreach to “seniors” from 55 years old to 95 (or beyond). The answer? Start new groups! We see three, four or more senior groups in churches with an effective senior ministry. Each group is different, with each reaching a different piece of the senior mosaic.
One of the best approaches to starting new groups for persons over age 55 is based on lifestyle (rather than age level). One effective senior adult ministry we know of has their programming broken into three categories. There are outreach and ministry activities for the “go-go” seniors, others for the “slo-go” seniors, and still others for the “no-go” seniors. Churches with only one group will be ineffective in reaching the diverse number of seniors outside the church.
An Evangelism Strategy for Senior Adults
As seen earlier, research reveals a dramatic fall off in Christian conversions among older adults. We have suggested several reasons why this is so. The remainder of this article presents a new approach to evangelism strategy for persons 55 years and older. Church leaders who implement these new paradigms of outreach will see significant increase in their results and harvest. The strategies are most easily seen in the grid on the bottom of the article.
The first column lists characteristics of decision-making common among older adults. Understanding these characteristics is important because when older adults decide to make a Christian commitment and/or join a church, they will have done so as a result of one or more of these reasons.
The second column suggests strategies for effective evangelism of older adults based on each characteristic of their decision-making process. Following this grid is a brief discussion on each evangelistic strategy proposed.
Many of these guidelines are enlarged upon in the new book Preparing for The Age Wave (Baker Books, Win & Charles Am, 1993). In the space of this brief article, here are just a few comments on the above evangelism guidelines. (The numbers preceding the comments below refer to the corresponding numbers in the grid.)
1 & 2. Research indicates that 75% – 90% of the people who are today active church members came to Christ and their faith through the influence of a friend, neighbor or relative. The New Testament, itself, frequently describes this evangelistic strategy (see the Greek word oikos, meaning “household”) as a reason for the explosive growth of the first century church. Outreach strategies to older adults must build on this proven principle. Seniors should be helped to identify friends, neighbors and relatives in their own circle of influence who are outside of an active Christian faith and church membership. Then, as special events are planned and groups started which are designed to invite a friend, this “networking” process grows and senior adults reach out to newcomers.
3 & 4. Seniors generally decide to “buy” after they have had time to consider the implications, the costs, and the rewards. This is particularly true for decisions that imply a significant change in lifestyle, such as a Christian commitment or church membership would do. For this reason, a manipulative approach or hard-sell style of evangelism is guaranteed to repel prospective seniors. In contrast, an effective strategy will present the gospel in a variety of ways and times, allowing seniors to develop an understanding of the meaning and implications of their possible decision.
This approach to evangelism is supported in a study of 50 persons who made a Christian commitment and remained active in their church, compared with a similar number who dropped out within the year. The “actives” had been exposed to the Christian message on an average of 5.8 different times prior to their decision. The average “drop out” had heard the Christian message only 2.1 times.6 The conclusion is that effective evangelism for senior adults is not a “spiritual scalp hunting expedition” on the first contact.
5 & 6. Seniors have lived a long time. Those who have lived outside an active Christian faith have faced a life’s worth of issues and obstacles. In their own mind, they are survivors. For them to consider a change in lifestyle from what has gotten them this far, the benefit must be significant and tangible. One of the best exercises a senior adult planning group could do is develop a list of unique benefits to older adults who become Christians and church members. And then highlight one or more of those benefits every time seniors are together.
7 & 8. Television has raised the expectations people have of receiving quality products and services. This affects the church, as well. Low quality programs, music, speakers or facilities could pass in churches 30 years ago. Today, people know they have choices and they will go elsewhere if not satisfied. This is particularly true for older adults who have little patience for people or organizations who are wasting their time. As a result, first impressions of your church and programming are important — from publicity, to room decor, to program, to follow-up. Strive for excellence and quality. Newcomers will be comparing you with all the other options for their valuable time.
9 & 10. In interviewing individuals and groups of senior adults, we noticed an interesting commonality. Older adults resist changes in lifestyle. They prefer the known to the unknown, the status quo to change. While dramatic changes are inevitable in later years (i.e. loss of spouse, change in health, living accommodations, etc.) seniors resist change as long as possible. As a result, evangelism strategy for older adults should be seen as a “process” not an “event.” Evangelism that demands an immediate decision will be less effective than evangelism which leads a person to a gradual Christian commitment. Involving unchurched seniors in small groups or special classes of interest will help them develop new relationships. As friendships grow with other Christians, their openness to spiritually relating with these people will also grow.
11 & 12. One important factor in a senior adult’s decision to do something new or different (i.e. join a church) will be how other persons “like them” have assessed the same situation and responded. Using books, videos or live presentations by role models (well known Christian seniors) can help. Having older adult church members share what Christ and the church has meant in their lives is another excellent approach.
13 & 14. People who have lived much of their life without Christian faith will need a compelling reason to change. As a result, a felt need in a senior adult’s life is a particularly crucial “window of opportunity” to respond. The more needs a person outside of Christ can see are “meetable” within the Christian community, the more inclined he/she will be to respond. The need may be as serious as the loss of a loved one or discovery of a serious medical problem. Or it may be as simple as transportation to the grocery store or companionship on a lonely evening. Christ meets needs. And all people have needs. A key to effective evangelism of seniors is to bring those two things together.
In discussing some important reasons for lack of effective evangelism of older adults, we have (we hope) stimulated your thinking in new ways. The real issue we are concerned with is people and how to bring these people into a life-changing relationship with the living God. For many senior adults, it may be their last opportunity.
To catch the “age wave” will demand new priorities and new strategies for the church. But the results will be senior adults in your community reached in significant new numbers. And experience indicates that not only will the church’s vitality and spirit take a giant step forward, these new Christian older adults will have a contagious effect in other areas of church life. And your entire church will benefit.
How Seniors Decide Appropriate Evangelism Strategy
Rely on people they trust 1. Use existing networks of relationships
2. Plan friendship-building events
Resist “hard sell” 3. Emphasize “relational” style rather than “confrontational”
4. Provide multiple exposures to the Gospel message (i.e. books, sermons, Bible study, etc.)
Must clearly understand the benefits 5. Message relevant to senior life issues
6. Identify and communicate the attractive qualities of faith and community
Require assurance of quality 7. Evaluate and improve quality of meetings and printed material
8. Be sure time spent in senior activities is meaningful, not superficial
Resist dramatic lifestyle change 9. Focus on Christian formation and discipleship
10. Create small groups open to non-members
Value peer recommendations and involvement 11. Present role models
12. Use seniors to evangelize seniors
Decision is based on “need” rather than “want” 13. Create ministry teams to people with special needs 14. Show how faith meets needs
Arn Senior Stress Scale
Adult Age Life Event Rank
1. Death of a spouse 100
2. Divorce 73
3. Move to nursing home 70
4. Marital separation 65
5. Death of a close family member 63
6. Major physical problems 53
7. Marriage/remarriage 50
8. Realizing one has no plans/dreams 47
9. Financial loss of retirement money 47
10. Forced early retirement 46
11. Unable to maintain driver’s license 45
12. Marital reconciliation 45
13. Retirement 45
14. Spouse confined to retirement home 45
15. Change of health of family member 44
16. Gaining a new family member 39
17. Change in financial state 38
18. Death of a close friend 37
19. Difficulty getting medical insurance 36
20. Change in number of arguments with spouse 35
21. Mortgage over $50,000 31
22. Foreclosure of mortgage or loan 30
23. Feelings of not being needed 29
24. Feelings of lack of purpose 28
25. Outstanding personal achievement 28
26. Wife begins or stops work 26
27. Significantly decreased contact with children/friends 25
28. Revision of personal habits 24
29. Significantly less contact with support groups 24
30. Trouble with the boss 23
31. Minor physical problems 20
32. Change in recreation 19
33. Change in church activities 19
34. Change in social activities 18
35. Mortgage or loan less than $50,000 17
Win Arn is President of L.I.F.E. International, a new organization dedicated to helping churches reach senior adults.
Charles Arn is editor of LIFELINE, a newsletter for senior adult church leaders.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”
This article “Why Aren’t More Senior Adults Being Evangelized” by Win and Charles Arn was excerpted from GROW magazine. Summer 1993. It may be used for study & research purposes only.