It’s weird being the same age as old people. Just a few short months ago, I celebrated a significant birthday—65. How quickly the years flew by. While others might think I require a little more time and help—and although my body feels the effects of 65 years of wear and tear—I don’t feel that old. In my heart and mind, I’m only 33! There is still so much that needs to be done, and I still want to make a difference wherever the Lord leads me.
Scripture records many remarkable individuals who demonstrated purpose, influence and impact in the later stages of their lives. Abram was 75 when God asked him to leave his country and set out for a new land and promised to bless the whole world through him. Moses was 80 when he led the people of Israel out of Egypt and on a journey to the Promised Land. The prophet, Anna, a widow who spent her days fasting and praying at the temple, was 84 when she recognized Jesus and spoke about him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
Growing older does not have to mean giving up or stepping aside. In Aging: The Fulfilment of Life, authors Henri Nouwen and Walter J. Gaffney write, “Aging is not a reason for despair, but a basis of hope, not a slow decaying but a gradual maturing, not a fate to be undergone but a chance to be embraced.” As people live longer and healthier lives than previous generations, seniors are a rapidly growing segment of the population. Do we see the opportunities for ministry by, with and for older adults?
The Age Wave
Statistics Canada reports that seniors over the age of 85 are the fastest growing age group in the country. The 85-and-older population could reach more than 2.7 million by 2050, as the last cohort of baby boomers turns 85. In July 2022, 7.3 million Canadians were 65 and older, and this number is projected to grow to 9.5 million—almost one quarter of the population—by 2030. In addition to demographic projections, Stats Canada has identified that:
• Older Canadians are top volunteers.
• About three quarters of seniors in Canada are grandparents.
• Older Canadians are providing care or help to their loved ones.
We can’t ignore the story these statistics tell. They can be the spark to chart a course for strategic ministry opportunities. In Catch the Age Wave: A Handbook for Effective Ministry with Senior Adults, first published in 1999, authors Win and Charles Arn asked: “Who can deny that the ‘age wave’ just starting to break on our national shores provides a flood tide opportunity for the church?”
The question begs to be answered, not only by local, provincial and national governments and systems, but also by the church: How are we responding to the wave they anticipated, which will continue to impact our world for decades to come? How are we meeting the opportunities and challenges facing our aging world? How do we capitalize on the value of mission and discipleship by, with and for older people?
Considering the Canadian landscape, we need to hear again these words from Scripture: “Open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest” (John 4:35). This information is like a gold mine for the local church and challenges me to ask: What are the opportunities for intergenerational ministry, for ministry to caregivers, for recruitment of volunteers?
A Time of Being
In An Age of Opportunity: Intentional Ministry by, with, and for Older Adults, author Richard Gentzler Jr. describes three stages of aging. The first stage, from birth to about 30, is a time of acquiring, defined by learning, growing and being equipped for adulthood. The second stage, from 30 to about 60 years, is a time of doing, characterized by working and pursuing career goals, marrying and raising families. The third stage, from 60 to 90 years or death, is a time of being, of engaging with the gifts of wisdom, knowledge and experience.
As I age, I understand a little more of what the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13. Allow me to paraphrase. When we were young, we played our games, went to school and exercised faith (as much as we understood that to be), experiencing each epic event without realizing that we were being shaped by our social networks and influences. As we grow older and continue to mature, we look at life through the experiences we have had, whether consciously or subconsciously.
As we journey through life, our experiences contribute to and create an intricate design that reflects all we have learned. At every stage of our lives, there is meaning and purpose, a time for continued discovery and engagement.
What a beautiful, rich gift the Lord is giving the church as a generation of people reach a stage in their lives when they have accumulated experience, stories, wisdom and maturity. Like the psalmist, we can proclaim: “Since my youth, God, you have taught me, and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds. Even when I am old and grey, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation” (Psalm 71:17-18).
A Gracious Gift
Aging is a natural part of life that can be deeply rewarding. To grow old is a blessing that not everyone receives. A long life is a gracious gift from God.
A theology of healthy aging recognizes that aging is a spiritual journey. It gives us an opportunity to deepen our relationship with the God who has promised to love, guide, bless and sustain us. At every stage of our lives, we continue to live under the shadow of the Ancient of Days, the One who always was and forever will be.
I am mindful of the harsh realization that growing older often comes with complex physical and cognitive ailments. We must also be aware that our spiritual lives can still be challenged on many fronts in our older years. Sometimes the events of our lives rise to overwhelm us and rob us of our joy. In realizing this, we must remember that not every believer grows stronger in aging, so we pray with the psalmist, “Do not cast me away when I am old; do not forsake me when my strength is gone” (Psalm 71:9).
As we grow older, we have a sacred responsibility to make the most of our gift of years to help make the world a better place. We can determine within ourselves, and with the grace that comes from the God of all the ages, to live as best we can to “grow ripe with life and love,” as Parker Palmer writes in On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old.
One of the birthday cards I received for my 65th birthday held a sentiment that caused me to reflect on aging. It said, “They call this age a milestone. Actually, it’s a vantage point; a peak from which you can look back on how far you’ve already come and chart your course for the future.”
I’m not sure I would have thought of growing older as a vantage point, but it definitely is—a place from which I can look back and recognize where God’s hand has gently, insistently and consistently guided me through the years of my life, in the people I have met, the places I have lived, the ministry opportunities I have had and the travels I’ve been privileged to experience.
So, I am embracing the final words of the card: “There’s so much more exploring to do and fun to be had. But for now, take a deep breath and savour where you are in the adventure.”
Major Shirley King is the adult ministries secretary in the Ontario Division.
This is the first in a series of three articles on aging. Read the second article, The Map-Makers by Andrew Wileman.
For Further Reading
• Aging and Spirituality: Spiritual Dimensions of Aging Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, by David O. Moberg
• Baby Boomers and Beyond: Tapping the Ministry Talents and Passions of Adults over 50, by Amy Hanson
• Elders Rising: The Promise and Peril of Aging, by Roland D. Martinson
• From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life, by Arthur C. Brooks
• On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old, by Parker J. Palmer
• Squint: Re-visioning the Second Half of Life, by Margit Novack
Illustration: Ekaterina Skorik/iStock via Getty Images Plus/Lisa Suroso
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