Not long ago I was talking with the chairperson of adult education at a vibrant United Methodist church in a fast-growing suburban city. She mentioned that currently their fastest-growing Sunday school class is the oldest senior adult class, which has several members in their 90s. But she said that some of the newest members of the class are not in the 75-plus age bracket, as you might expect; several are three or four decades younger than the oldest member in the class.
I admit that I was pleasantly surprised, especially since the news seems to contradict what we usually hear about graying congregations and dying churches. It also seems to refute conventional thinking about visitors and new members struggling to penetrate a circle of people who have known each other for a long time. I had to wonder if it was just a fluke or if it was indicative of something else.
What I discovered in this particular situation is that the younger persons were drawn to the radical hospitality and wisdom of their faithful older counterparts. One woman in her 50s mentioned that even though she had visited other classes with members close to her own age, she felt most comfortable in the older group. She said that with no hint of pretense, the older adults warmly embraced her and are still genuinely excited to see her each week.
A middle-aged couple talked about being challenged by elders who study their Sunday school lesson and come prepared to discuss the topic. They were also very impressed by the way the older group cares for one another. No birthday, anniversary, illness or life challenge is overlooked.
The conversation made me think of 89-year-old Margaret Singleton, a member of the ABC Sunday school class at Trinity United Methodist Church in Arlington, Texas. I first met Margaret at Mount Sequoyah Retreat and Conference Center in Arkansas where I was helping lead an older adult retreat this fall.
It didn’t take long to recognize that Margaret is a spirit-filled dynamo with a gracious, compassionate nature. Even as she ages, she is continuing to find ways to serve others and to use her reservoir of wisdom.
Margaret was accompanied at the retreat by the Rev. Brenda Beaver, associate pastor for adult education and congregational care at Trinity, whose eyes danced when she talked about Margaret and the way the ABC class models radical hospitality for others in the community.
“The positive impact that the ABC class has had on younger generations at Trinity is huge. I’ve never known a class to be so caring, inclusive and supportive as this group of older adults,” Ms. Beaver said.
I soon discovered that 40-year-old Michele Jordan, also a member of Trinity UMC, couldn’t agree more. In fact, her young family looks at Trinity’s older adults as an extension of their own family. She makes the point that the older members are intentional in learning the names of children and are anxious to pray for them.
“The older adults at Trinity are engaged in the life of the church. They really care about the younger generations. They always support the children and youth programs and are anxious to do whatever they can to help grow the younger population in the church,” she states emphatically. “They are a shining example of what we younger people want to be one day.”
Even now, the older adults at Trinity often teach Sunday school lessons for their younger peers. They mentor them through many ministries of the church, including the United Methodist Women. And younger adults, like Michele, are grateful for the shoulders on which they stand.
As the church prepares for General Conference 2012, I have to wonder if the topic of older adults will be trending except in relation to dying congregations. Perhaps we will learn from these older adults who understand their role as encouragers, mentors and wisdom-sharers. I know there are many more like them across the world of Methodism. Let us take our cue from them as we try to build a constructive dialogue about older adults and their role in the church.