From Faith Pulpit, used with permission.
If you have ever heard someone say, “You just had to have been there,” or, “Hindsight is so much better than foresight,” then you are also hearing what senior saints often think in the church. No one knows how seniors think or feel until they’ve become one, and no one sees from their perspective until they’ve been a senior themselves. I turned 67 this year and only feel that I’m beginning to understand what many of these great saints are saying.
The seniors in our churches were the baby boomers of the post-war years. The Pew Research group says that they are now 28% of evangelical church attendance and make up about one-third of the total population. They also find that boomers don’t consider themselves “old” until at least age 72. On June 1, 2011, it is estimated that 10,000 boomers turned 65, and the trends show they are returning to church faster than other demographic groups. I would say that the percentage of seniors in our fundamental Baptist churches is higher than the national average.
In preparing a series of messages for my church, I collected the following thoughts on where our seniors are and how they should fit in the local church.
Perception: The True and the False
There is a common perception in our churches about seniors. Millennials think anyone over 30–40 is too old. Samuel Rima wrote, “These older parishioners frequently become nothing more than irritating roadblocks to the great church we want to build, and subconsciously we may label them ‘traditionalists’ or ‘complainers,’ who threaten to block our dream.”1 Seniors seem to be opinionated and insistent on their way of doing things. They are often accused of being “afraid” of change, past their ability to lead, and should be seen more than heard. Some may simply see seniors as those who pay the bills, attend all the services, hold the traditional church offices, and attend the business meetings.
The seniors’ own perception is often different. They know one another’s physical and emotional struggles. They feel their opinion is important but no one wants to listen. They are often taken advantage of but usually take it with great patience. They often take much more initiative in church than the younger ones, especially in greeting and praying for the members. They probably know that they really do pay for a large portion of the budget.
The Bible’s view of seniors is unique. They are “fathers” who have known the Lord (1 John 2:13–14); they are “elders” as fathers and mothers who deserve respect (1 Tim. 5:1–2; 1 Pet. 5:5); they are “aged men” and “aged women” who teach the younger men and women (Titus 2:1–3); they are “parents” who spend and are spent for their children (2 Cor. 12:14–15); they are “fathers” and “mothers” who give instruction and law to their children (Prov. 1:8; 6:20; 10:1); they are “gray haired” saints who are to be honored (Prov. 20:29; Lev. 19:32); and they are “widows” who have been faithful to the Lord over the years (1 Tim. 5:5–16). The Bible also says that we have “three score years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away” (Ps. 90:10).
Advantages: The Wisdom Seniors Possess
Ravi Zacharias wrote, “The older you get, the more it takes to fill your heart with wonder, and only God is big enough to do that.”2 All readily admit that seniors have wisdom beyond that of the younger saints, but it is seldom mined for its benefits.
Seniors squarely face the ultimate challenge: imminent death. Like Paul, they know the time of their departure is at hand (2 Tim. 4:6). They have seen this happen to their family, friends, and spouses and yet they face it with realism, courage, and even with proper humor. They have walked with the Lord long enough to overcome “the fear of death” (Heb. 2:14–15).
Seniors possess a hindsight that was impossible in their younger years. They have simply lived longer and have seen more. They have made many mistakes and have learned to make the corrections. Having seen many things come and go in the church, they generally have great patience for the youth and want them to learn and grow. Of the things which they have heard and known they say, “We will not hide them from [our] children, showing to the generation to come the praises of the LORD, and his strength, and his wonderful works that he has done” (Ps. 78:3).
Seniors are more unaffected by peer pressure and cultural mores than younger saints. They don’t glory in appearance as much (2 Cor. 5:12–13) because they realize their appearance is fading. Neither do they love the world as much (1 John 2:15) because much of its glory has passed them by. They have learned not to fight their own mortality because they realize it’s a losing battle anyway (2 Cor. 4:16).
Seniors naturally possess many of the qualifications required of church leaders. Some are obvious to everyone, and others will follow in due time (1 Tim. 5:25). They are wise, tough, friendly, committed, helpful, generous, godly, grave, and sober; and godliness has brought them contentment in their later years (1 Tim. 6:6). In many ways they are committed to their church more than any other saints, having given of their years, talents, and treasure. They have won souls, built buildings, seen the ups and downs, outlasted most of their pastors, and are model members. They possess the “meekness of wisdom” (James 3:13), and they pray!
Reality: The Plain Truth about Seniors
Seniors also have their failures and shortcomings. The prophet Joel said, “Your old men shall dream dreams” (Joel 2:28), and Alister MacGrath said, “The reminiscences of old men are notoriously unreliable.”3 Most older saints will readily admit the negatives of being old. They are set in their ways and are often outspoken and offensive; they can be long-winded and sometimes self-absorbed; they are not always interested in youthful things due to physical limitations or maturity.
Most seniors will also admit that they have had their failures in ministry. If their own children have gone astray, they bear that burden constantly. Though in their younger years they were very evangelistic, they have often failed to evangelize their own boomer generation in the older years. They don’t generally keep up with all that is going on with “the times” and admit to being old-fashioned in many ways.
Yet, on their behalf, let me also say that seniors often bear burdens that younger people very seldom have. The first being old age! No one can know the physical problems one will face in his/her later years. Seniors most generally face these with extraordinary courage and determination. They will come to the services of the church in pain, inconvenience, and time-consuming trouble. They may also have financial hardships, medical problems in a number of ways, and various forms of unwanted business such as taxes, mortgages, retirements, and needy children.
Seniors also face unwanted loneliness. Though many younger saints may find themselves alone for various reasons, seniors will inevitably face the loss of a spouse and close family members and find themselves alone in their most difficult years. Some can handle being alone and many cannot for various reasons. Many suffer with unwanted memories of war, depression, accidents, and a host of unwise choices with which they have had to live. In all of their challenges, I am constantly impressed and amazed at the resiliency of our senior saints.
Rick Shrader is the senior pastor of Faith Baptist Church in Smithville, Missouri, the editor of the Aletheia newsletter, and the president and founder of Aletheia Baptist Ministries. Aletheia Baptist Ministries provides resources and helps for fundamental Baptists, including offering Baptist and church history tours to England and Scotland. Rick is a visiting professor of Practical Theology at Faith Baptist Theological Seminary, and he currently serves on the board of Faith Baptist Bible College and Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Ann, live in Gladstone, Missouri.