Part 2: The Missional Opportunity Missed by Most Churches

Written by Carl Greene

October 13, 2021

Last week I introduced the missed opportunity of Silver Mission: adults transitioning into early old age are sensitive to the gospel message like no other time since the 4 to 14 age-window. The handful of churches leaning into this missional opportunity intentionally provide a place of belonging for adults who are nearing or recently entered retirement. This week we examine the three characteristics of belonging opportunities that silver mission churches provide.

  1. Focus on loss not gain.[1] That is right—losses are more important than gains. Let me explain. As people age, they are naturally going to try to maximize their gains in life, such as extra time in retirement, connecting with grandchildren, or savoring the afterglow of a great career.[2] At the same time, they are going to compensate for losses that take place: death of loved ones, decline of personal health, loss of relationships at retirement, along with hushed losses such as sex drive.

Here is the deal when it comes to belonging to a church: we do not compete well when it comes to gains. A summer home on the lake near grandchildren versus a Bible Study is not naturally going to yield to increased belonging at church. Losses are much more likely to yield belonging—but only with intentionality.

The two most significant losses that lead to belonging are: death of a loved one and decline in personal health. The death of a loved one leads to a hunger for belonging to a faith-based support group. Personal decline in health creates a desire to engage in a small group that practices and models prayer. It is during seasons of loss that there is spiritual sensitivity—an individual grapples with deep relational loss, is wondering why life is happening a certain way, and also begins to consider their own mortality. Finally, the individual is not going to instantly join a church—but they are very likely to join a small group if they are invited while dealing with loss.

  1. Informal small groups that offer a safe place and “challenge not chaplaincy.”[3] Churches effectively engaged in the silver mission recognize that many people entering early old age have been burned by a church in their past—at least from their own perspective. On top of that, many people in this age bracket are wary of any organizational structure after living through the 1960s, the Watergate era, and their own corporate experience.

The most welcoming small groups are clearly faith based, but not an explicit ministry of the church. This is not a bait and switch approach—the Christian foundation is explicit. There is an informal feel through no business meetings, no officers, no committees, and very little organizational structure that is discussed with participants. While the informal nature of the group matters, it is also critical that the place is safe. With many participants looking to process their losses, they want to know that the people that they are sharing with are authentic and mutually vulnerable. There is a need for ministry with, and not ministry to through this context.

A corollary to informal is “challenge not chaplaincy.” Not only are individuals looking to work through their wounds, but they also want to make a difference. Early old age is a new cultural phenomenon—there are many years of active life post-retirement or during semi-retirement where people yearn to impact the lives of others. The small group design needs to bridge beyond a self-help group and offer opportunities to make a difference in other people’s lives.

If the only focus is on getting people to belong with other people facing similar losses, the engagement ends up to be short-term or the individual remains at a surface level of belonging. The pathway to deeper belonging is through service projects. When there is an opportunity to help with a broader endeavor, such as a community-oriented project, there is a challenge to engage in that provides purpose and meaning, even amidst loss.

Not only that, but service projects are great equalizers and bridgers. Whether someone is a long-term church goer or a small group attendee, they are on equal footing when it comes to sweating through a short-term project. This also provides the small group attendee an opportunity to “try out” using their skills, talents, and abilities for a greater purpose. When someone feels like they are no longer just a recipient of chaplaincy, their sense of belonging increases with the challenge. Likewise, the equal footing in the project offers a bridger opportunity where people can get to know one another in a casual setting.

Silver mission churches provide an intentional pathway for early old age individuals to belong. There are small groups for people to process their losses. There are mid-sized service groups where people engage in a short-term project with people they do not know as well. The weekly worship service provides a hub of unique community that people engage in more deeply and consistently as the small groups and service groups open doors to broadened relationships. The importance of a belonging process is especially strong among men.

  1. Faith commitment is presented as a life-course journey over a decision-event. The vast majority of early old age adults were brought up attending church at least sporadically. Most grew up and retained identification as a Christian—even if they were not practicing that faith most of their lives. Churches that are seeing the most success welcoming mature adults into belonging take individuals’ stories seriously, including their backstory.

Rather than acting as though someone in their 60s has never heard a Bible story or has never had some sort of faith experience, effective churches invite people to tell their story. Some of the most innovative approaches to blending small groups and deepening faith commitment involve storytelling. Even before someone has publicly professed faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, these churches are providing opportunities for people to tell their faith story. Where do they sense God leading them on their journey? Where have they witnessed God’s hand in their lives? It is through processing their own story in community that many have come to recognize their desire for an authentic relationship with Jesus Christ.

The storytelling does not stop there. The silver mission churches continue encouraging individuals to share their story post-conversion. A key is through training or providing technological tools to help individuals record their story digitally. In turn, these early old age individuals who are experiencing a new sense of belonging share their life journey with family and friends, and express why their lives are different now. One of the most often mentioned goals for early old age individuals is that their grandchildren will hear their story.

[1] Based on a qualitative investigation (Greene 2021) of how baby boomers (born 1946 to 1964) who self-identify as increasing in Christian religiosity from a place of no faith or nominal faith have done so as they enter early old age (age 65 to 80). The qualitative study was conducted with a total of 50 study participants: 31 baby boomers who self-identify as increasing in religiosity over the past 10 years, and 19 pastors who minister to baby boomers. The study focuses on why these baby boomers experienced a change in religious believing, belonging, or behaving and how the influences of aging, period, cohort (APC), and geographic context shape their self-identified changes.

[2] For more information on this concept of “Selective Optimization with Compensation” see: Baltes, Paul B., Lindenberger, Ulman, and Ursula M. Staudinger. 2006. “Life Span Theory in Developmental Psychology.” In The Handbook of Child Psychology, Vol. 1, Theoretical Models of Human Development, edited by Richard M. Lerner, 569-659. 6th ed. New York: Wiley.

[3] Mills, Marie A., Peter Speck, and Peter Coleman. 2011. “Listening and Enabling the Sharing of Beliefs and Values in Later Life.” In Belief and Ageing: Spiritual Pathways in Later Life, ed. Peter G. Coleman, 35-58. Bristol, UK: The Policy Press, 54.

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