15 Things Young Preachers Need to Know about Seniors
“They will still bear fruit in old age. They will be full of sap and very green…” - (Psalm 92:14).
All generalizations are false. Including this one.
Every rule has its exceptions. Including this one.
Even so, I’m going to make some general statements about seniors. Readers will think of exceptions. But by and large, these statements have been found to be solid and trustworthy throughout long years of ministry.
One: Seniors are not against change; but they dislike abrupt change.
There are no 1948 Packards in your church parking lot. No 1952 DeSotos. But the seniors driving those Camrys and Corollas did not one day trade in that Packard for the Toyota. There were a series of incremental steps in between–like, first buying a 1955 Fairlane, then a 1962 Chevelle, followed by a 1972 Bonneville, and so forth.
I quote Rick Warren who said, “Do not use the word ‘change.’ Say ‘experiment.’ Because if this doesn’t work out, we’ll try something else.”
Two: Seniors are not against innovations in the worship service; but they dislike overdoing it.
It was an 80-year-old who told me we should erect those screens on the wall in front of the sanctuary where we would project texts and photos and videos. “It would help us be able to see the words of the songs better. And the Scriptures.” Until then, I had been reluctant to suggest this change since I had been burned a few times by older people disliking anything different.
Three: Seniors love guitars and violins and even a little percussion in church music; but they don’t like it to interfere with the actual singing.
One reason seniors love “The Old Rugged Cross” and “Amazing Grace” is simply that they know the words, recognize the tune, and find it singable. They will enjoy the occasional modern worship song too, so long as it’s uplifting and worthwhile.
When I have visited churches with a contemporary service (with all kinds of musical instruments) followed by a traditional service (with nothing more than the organ and piano), invariably more seniors attend the first service than the second. Seniors love music.
Four: Seniors love to laugh and will be the first to get humor in sermons; but they don’t want it overdone. As one who does a lot of senior events, I cannot imagine one with no laughter. They love to laugh. Did you hear about the elderly couple who got married? They spent their honeymoon getting out of the car.
Seniors will laugh at that longer than anyone. There’s just enough truth in that bit of silliness for it to work.
Five: Seniors don’t resent the young people being featured and young adults coming to the front; they just don’t want to be put out to pasture themselves. Most of them have grandchildren whom they adore, so they will appreciate efforts to reach them with the gospel. Seniors love being around young people and will enjoy events where both groups are included.
Six: Some of your seniors have read more books than you own in your library. You will start to quote something you read recently and it turns out that several in your audience have read everything that author ever wrote. A few may have known him or her personally.
Seven: Some of your seniors have traveled, been to places you never heard of, and knew personally people you use as sermon illustrations.
I tell a story about Ty Cobb, the hall-of-fame baseball player who put in 22 years with the Detroit Tigers and set a lot of records, many of which are still on the books. He is said to have come to Christ before dying in 1961. His message to the men he had played ball with said, “Fellas, I got in the bottom of the ninth. I sure wish I’d come in the top of the first.” I tell that and ask, “What inning are you in?” Once in Valdosta, Georgia, a lovely little lady came up and said, “I was Ty Cobb’s nurse at Grady Hospital in Atlanta in those last weeks of his life. A sweet, sweet man.”
Eight: Seniors can still go on mission trips and make a difference.
Becky Gilbreath Crumpton graduated from high school with my brother Ron’s class, in 1954. That puts them both around age 80. A couple of weeks ago when I saw Becky, I said rather flippantly, “So, where are you off to next time?” She said something like, “In two weeks, we’re headed to Nigeria.” (I’m not sure which country she said.) Some years back when I spoke at the Alabama Baptists’ annual convention, Becky was singled out as the Volunteer of the Year. She’s not alone, of course. So many veteran workers with our denomination’s Disaster Relief ministries are seniors and still making a great difference for Jesus. The point is, pastor, do not assume they’re too old. Some of them are younger than you, no matter what the calendar says.
Nine: They appreciate respect but despise being condescended to. Some of my friends remarked that they hate being talked down to like they are five-year-olds. Another said he dislikes people calling him “young man” or “young fella.” In most cases, “Mister Joe” or “Mrs. Mae” works.
Ten: Not all seniors in church know the Lord Jesus, so you should not assume they’re all saved just because they’re in church and active in the work. When you speak to senior groups, give them the plan of salvation from time to time and extend a gospel invitation. It can’t hurt, and might make an eternal difference.
As I type this, today I will drive north 125 miles and address a group of seniors from a three-county area of south central Mississippi. They will be sharp, attentive, alert, and involved. But I would be making a serious error in assuming everyone there knows the Lord Jesus. So, even though some may feel it unnecessary, my message will be urging anyone in the audience who has not come to Jesus not to put this off any longer. Urging them to “finish strong”–a theme which every senior can appreciate–means making sure they are right with the Lord for the rest of the journey.
Eleven: Seniors love great Bible teaching. In fact, pastor, no one in your church will love a wonderful Bible study more than they. Many will remember when our churches held annual weeks of study of a book of the Bible, which were always well-attended. Announce that you are going to lead a similar study of a short book of Scripture for a weekday morning, pastor, and you might be surprised at the turnout.
Twelve: Seniors tend to be the best givers in the church. We are told by stewardship directors from our state offices that when this generation goes to Heaven, churches are going to be in real financial crisis since they are not teaching giving the way we used to. Years ago, churches would actually have stewardship revivals. Their annual stewardship emphasis would last for weeks and culminate in a huge dinner with an outstanding speaker. Churches had tithing testimonies and people were urged to tithe. These days, fewer and fewer churches are teaching these principles. Then they wonder why the giving is so weak.
In many cases, pastor, you are reaping the benefits of previous pastors who got this right.
Thirteen: They are your best pray-ers. In churches where we have had round-the-clock prayer ministries, seniors carried the major part of that. It’s a wise pastor who takes advantage of the prayingest people in his church and involves them in such a vital ministry. And by the way, this is not something you have to do “for them.” Enlist one of them to come up with a plan for a prayer ministry.
Fourteen: The sweetest friends a pastor will ever have tend to be seniors. The preacher-father of Dr. Grady Cothen and Dr. Joe Cothen once told his sons, “The Lord has put a delicate balance in the church. He has put just enough headstrong, ornery members to keep you the pastor humble. And He has put just enough sweet godly saints to keep you from quitting.” Joe Cothen would tell that and add, “Every church I ever served had both groups.” Yes, and my observation is that the sweet humble ones who “keep you from quitting” tend to be the old-timers in the congregation.
Fifteen: Neglected or abused seniors can give a pastor more headaches than he ever thought possible. Oh man, the stories I could tell.
In my last pastorate, in the late 1990s we were conducting a self-study, led by a great guy from our state office, on how to gear ourselves up for the challenges of the future. Demographic studies showed a large percentage of young families living in driving distance of our church, but we were reaching few of them. So, the recommendations involved redirecting some of our efforts and energies in their direction. The seniors blew up.
Even though I was in my late 50s and thus a senior myself, one would have thought I was a 25-year-old pastor dead-set on pushing the oldsters out. I found myself running from home to home, meeting with Sunday School classes and assuring seniors we were never going to neglect them. I still remember them as being some of the most self-centered church members I’ve ever worked with. So, No. 15 on my list of 15 should not be taken lightly.
I will never forget the night I answered the phone and a voice said, “Sir, we’re conducting a survey on the television watching habits of our audience. This will take about three minutes. Could we do that?” I said, “Sure. Go ahead.”
“First,” the man said, “could I ask what group you are in. 25 and under. 25 to 35. 35 to 45. 45 to 55. Or, 55 and up.” I said, “That one.” He said, “Which one?” “55 and up.”
“Click.” He hung up. Not one word of explanation. He just ended the call once he found I was a senior.
That was as eloquent a statement as I have ever seen on how some people discount seniors. So, so foolish.
But this will not happen in a Christian church led by a God-called and Spirit-led pastor. Surely not.