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New Horizons

Nursing Home Ministries

Rebecca Sodergren

When Westminster OPC in Westminster, California, moved to a new location in the late 1990s, the congregation purchased not only a new church building, but also an adjacent empty lot. When that lot was sold, an assisted living facility was built there, providing the church with an opportunity for ministry.

Many churches in the OPC have a ministry to people in assisted living or nursing facilities; Westminster carries out such a ministry with next-door neighbors.

Another church that has a ministry right next door is Calvary OPC in La Mirada, California. They hold a weekly Bible study and a monthly worship service at a convalescent hospital. And church members just grab wheelchairs and push people right next door for services at the church!

One hospital patient has become a member of Calvary OPC as a result, and another resident has expressed an interest in doing so. One man, a committed Christian who was physically unable to attend his own church, now attends both morning and evening services at Calvary.

The church-hospital relationship is long standing. Patients have visited church services for ten years or so, but the weekly Bible study, led by elder Thomas Gault, has existed for closer to thirty years, Pastor Don Buchanan said. He and other officers also visit Bible study attendees individually when they have particular illnesses or needs.

Other churches extend their ministries further. Westminster OPC invites assisted living residents to church picnics.

Worship Services

While some of the churches referenced in this story hold relatively informal Bible studies, all of them hold worship services at the nursing or assisted living facilities where they minister, upholding the importance of worship and the preached Word.

Along with its weekly Bible study, Westminster OPC conducts a 10 a.m. service every Sunday at the assisted living center. The morning service back at the church is at 11 a.m., so Pastor B. J. Gorrell can preach in both places, with elder Chris Berg leading the assisted living services and deacon Dan Monzo playing the piano. Sometimes Sunday school children leave their usual lessons and tromp next door to sing during the assisted living service.

The church has had members who have lived in the facility. Presently the mother of an elder lives there.

Pastor Gorrell says the Lord has blessed the ministry, leading about twenty-five residents to services and twelve to Bible studies.

At Faith OPC in Long Beach, California, deacons spearhead the Sunday services held twice a month at a nursing home. Services consist of a short message and music. Pastor Daniel Overduin notes that the church has had this ministry "forever"—since long before his arrival.

Hope Presbyterian Church in Grayslake, Illinois, holds a monthly worship service at an assisted living facility. The service includes congregational singing and a message delivered by Pastor Dennis Disselkoen, an elder, or a man under care of the presbytery. There is always a short time of visiting with the residents after the service, although many residents "skedaddle out right afterwards, like they're at church," elder Randy Lee said.

Getting the Congregation Involved

To help recruit members of the congregation to attend the assisted living services, the Lee family holds a fellowship meal in their home—the closest elder's home to the assisted living facility—between the morning service at church and the afternoon service for the assisted living residents. This makes it easier for members to participate, because they don't have to travel home and fix lunch before the afternoon service. Fifteen to twenty members of Hope Presbyterian Church participate each month.

Because the services are less formal than services held at the church building, members can sometimes become involved in special ways. "One little girl who's not much bigger than her clarinet" plays along with the singing, Mr. Lee said.

Calvary OPC always has "a piano player, a song leader, the pastor, and a handful of people who help roll people" in wheelchairs to the service, Pastor Buchanan said.

Faith OPC's junior choir occasionally sings at nursing home services, but usually there are only two to ten church members involved on a given Sunday, visiting with residents and wheeling them back to their rooms after the services.

"It's a low-key ministry," Pastor Overduin noted, though an important one. There are "definitely believers" among those who attend, and they "are very appreciative."

Opening the Word

It can be difficult to know how much of the preaching some nursing home residents are able to take in. Pastor Overduin says some people don't seem to be able to follow the messages.

Mr. Lee relates a time when the pastor preached on the sheep and the goats. Afterward, he walked up to one of the women who had seemed particularly alert and asked, "So, are you a sheep or a goat?"

"I'm a goat," she confidently proclaimed.

But this isn't stopping these churches from carrying on with these ministries.

"We believe the Lord will bless his Word," Mr. Lee said.

Indeed, Mr. Lee does see evidence that the Word is touching hearts: "From time to time, we can tell that there are true believers" who attend worship, "and they are singing the hymns with all their might."

Pastor Gorrell makes it a point not to soft-pedal the Word simply because his hearers might have varying levels of ability to hear or comprehend.

"It's straightforward Bible teaching," he said. "We don't pull any punches."

As a result, he has heard from some assisted living residents that his preaching is like the preaching they heard when they were children—solid gospel preaching that isn't being done any longer in many of these folks' home churches.

Common themes of Pastor Gorrell's preaching at the assisted living facility include Christian assurance and the basics of the gospel.

Although Pastor Gorrell has not seen any outright conversions as a result of his preaching, he has seen a number of people "get straightened out in their thinking and pick up their Bibles again." He added, "We have helped some backsliders."

Why Nursing Homes?

Westminster is so committed to this ministry that the church has even considered the possibility of owning the assisted living facility and setting up a sort of "Quarryville West," Pastor Gorrell said. He was referring to the retirement community in Pennsylvania where many OP pastors, missionaries, and church members have spent their final days.

Because of the outlandish cost of both property and retirement facilities in California, this wish hasn't become reality. But in the meantime, the church remains committed to doing what it can: preaching to those who are near the end of their life.

In general, Pastor Gorrell has found that assisted living residents are "really open to the Word" because they are facing death.

"We are preparing them to enter into eternity," he said, noting that he has conducted funeral services for a number of those who have sat under his preaching.

Similarly, Mr. Lee believes strongly in the importance of reaching out to those in nursing homes.

"I grew up in a church where the youth did this every month," he said. Now he takes his own kids every month, and his adult son, who lives in Arizona, visits a nursing home there along with some of his church friends.

"I think it's a great ministry."

The author is a member of Redeemer OPC in Dayton, Ohio. New Horizons, January, 2011.

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