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A Vision for the Aging Church

Ross W. Graham

A Vision for the Aging Church: Renewing Ministry for and by Seniors, by James M. Houston and Michael Parker. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011, 265 pages, $24.00, paper.

The fastest-growing segment of the population of the United States is the oldest old, those over the age of eighty-five. As baby boomers age in a period of escalating health and longevity, we will soon see a four-generational family structure as the norm. Caregiving will become the twenty-first century’s greatest test of character, and fifth commandment issues will require the church to take parent care readiness seriously.

These are some of the demographic and ecclesiastical observations offered in a provocative and forward-looking examination of the impact the increasing population of seniors will have on the American church. But A Vision for the Aging Church: Renewing Ministry for and by Seniors is much more than an inventory of problems that will be faced by the church because of the increasing number of seniors within her ranks.

James M. Houston, founding principal and emeritus professor of spiritual theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, and a senior fellow of the C. S. Lewis Institute, at age eighty-eight, writes from personal experience of the subject matter. Michael W. Parker, Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army Retired [AMEDD], brings a physician’s perspective to the book. And his post-retirement concentrations on gerontology, mental health and aging, and academic research make for a confident march through such complicated issues as exploring the myths and realities of aging successfully, and facing Alzheimer’s disease.

The book unfolds in a sometimes-tedious address of a wide range of theological interests within evangelicalism that will not be of great use for the readers of this review. But four themes emerge from these pages that make the book worth digesting for pastors and other ordained servants.

A Biblical Perspective on Aging

“Remember the days of old; consider the years of many generations; ask your father and he will show you, your elders and they will tell you” (Deut. 32:7). This verse unfolds for the authors both how the church is to understand and value her seniors and how those seniors are to play a vital role in ministry to the whole body of Christ. The example of those who are living close to their lifespan should infect others with a joyous way of life. While seniors often tell young people that the best times of their lives will be their school years, how much better if Christians can tell them from experience that life rightly lived goes on getting better. Writing a friend just a month before he died, C. S. Lewis said, “Autumn is the best of seasons, and I’m not sure that old age isn’t the best part of life” (183).[1]

The Need for a Vigilant and Caring Church in the Future

The twenty-first century will see elder caregiving as the single most important human resource issue in the church as well as in the workplace. As American society becomes increasingly secular, churches must be vigilant to strive against the rising social and medical unacceptability of dealing with an aging population and against attempts to conserve economic and medical resources at the expense of seniors.

But aging seniors are unwilling to talk about end-of-life care plans or discuss their final wishes with their children. They see themselves as healthy and so do their children. So just as the current generation of pastors has insisted on premarital counseling to address life-long marriage issues, this same moral authority may need to be employed by future generations of pastors to equip families with future parent care plans.

Facing the Problem of Dementia

One in two people over the age of eighty suffers from some form of dementia. And given the exponential increase in the number of seniors who will be in that category as baby boomers continue to age, issues related to the care and well-being of those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia will be matters with which churches must prepare to deal.

But Christians in a state of advanced dementia, having lost mental memory, can remain secure in the Father’s everlasting arms. God’s memory of us qualifies us as persons, even if we are in an advanced state of dementia. God and others now hold our memory instead, as loving recorders of our own past. But pastors will need to work hard to develop the necessary skills and plans to enable families to prepare for this coming crisis in care for their family members.

Late Life Significant Living

Aging seniors are a resource and should be looked to for providing ministry rather than only being the recipients of it. Most seniors are experiencing less disability than ever before, and disease and functional decline are now compressed into a brief period of three to five years before death. With this in mind, churches will do well to point this mature workforce toward the significant roles God has planned for them to play among his people. Seniors are needed as mentors and examples to the young, encouraging, nurturing, and being lovingly involved in their inner lives. Seniors are also needed to serve as examples of what it means to finish well. Staring death in the face reveals its powerlessness over eternity. And allowing others to experience the death of a Christian friend has the capacity to make the faith of the living stronger than it was before.

We read in the Bible countless examples of late-life contributors to God’s purpose, such as Moses, Joshua, and John. Old age does not mean we are sick and frail. The old can continue to learn, to change bad habits, and to contribute in meaningful, eternal ways to God’s kingdom.

Endnote

[1] Armand Nicholi, The Question of God: C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex and the Meaning of Life (New York: Free Press, 2002), 232.

Ross W. Graham, a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is general secretary for the denominational Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension. Ordained Servant Online, November, 2012.

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