I’d like to be a fly on the wall of the Tampa Convention Center during the United Methodist Church’s General Conference which begins April 24. If I could, I would make myself practically invisible and just listen to the 900-plus folks who will gather to consider modifications in church law, policy and resolutions.
No doubt there will be passionate discussions about the need to make radical changes if the denomination is to survive and thrive in the future. There will be talk about restructuring UMC agencies and job guarantees for ordained ministers. I imagine there will also be lively debate about gender issues, how to breathe life into declining membership and how best to engage young people.
These are critical topics that must be respectfully discussed in an orderly manner. But I am also intrigued by what will be said in the hallways during breaks and around dining tables. What will delegates be chitchatting about? Will anyone be talking about the silver tsunami that is about to engulf the church?
Now, don’t misunderstand. I am not dismissing the importance of the agenda topics. However, I’d also like to hear what church leaders have to say about our aging population and not just as it relates to dying congregations. Are they concerned about what the church is doing to help older adults and their families deal with the real-life challenges of growing old in a culture that values youth more than age?
Or do they think they have more important fish to fry, so to speak?
During the months leading up to General Conference, the term “vital congregation” has become a popular buzzword. I, too, am interested in church vitality, but I am curious about what that means for older adults. It seems to me that one sign of a church’s overall health and vitality should be its effectiveness in helping older adults, from active to frail, lean forward into life. And so I wonder, as a worldwide church, are we engaging older adults at every life stage? Are we helping them to find new ways to minister to and serve others even as they face increasing physical limitations? What are we doing for those who have lost a sense of purpose?
Regrettably, I have come to discover that many church leaders think of older adults as a drain on the vitality of a congregation. When they hear the term “older adult,” they instantly think of cranky elders in their congregation who are stuck in the past and refuse to embrace change in the church.
However, if the church is to be vital, we must get past that negative stereotype. As Dr. Richard Gentzler, director of the Center on Aging and Older Adult Ministries for the United Methodist Church, writes in the Spring issue of Center Sage, “Vital congregations will find creative ways of engaging, equipping, and empowering a growing older population.”
It’s important that we not dismiss the aging population. After all, they are not dead yet. Along with the church’s efforts to streamline bureaucracy and embrace change that will draw and keep younger members, what will we do to equip older adults to continue growing as Christians? How will we provide spiritual care to those who are growing frail? What can we do to help their families?
The Rev. Mike Slaughter, lead pastor of Ginghamsburg Church, a United Methodist congregation in Tipp City, Ohio, asked a most important question in a recent Twitter post: “What are we doing to reflect God’s heart?” I pray that church leaders attending General Conference 2012 will wrestle with this question as it relates to an aging population. I hope they will talk about it during break time and over dinner. I hope they will remember that many of us will be listening.