More than one person has noted that the current period of change that we are facing in the church may indicate that we are in the midst of another re-forming or reformation. Although there are all kinds of comparisons and observations about what makes this period different from other periods of history, there is one factor that we don’t talk a whole lot about: the aging of the world’s population. We are living longer and this longevity has implications for all aspects of our lives, individually and as congregations.
The Longevity Economy is the title of a recent book by Dr. Joseph Coughlin, founder and director of MIT Agelab. Longevity Economy refers to all economic activity related to serving the needs of individuals over the age of 50. In a 2013 article published by AARP, Jody Holtzman, AARP Thought Leadership senior vice president, suggests that “the aging population of the United States is a significant net positive contributor to economic growth and prosperity, which challenges the usual argument in Washington where serving the needs of over 100 million people is viewed as an unaffordable cost and financial burden.” The article continues to suggest “that those over the age 50 outspend the average consumer across most categories, and the economic activity they generate affects all sectors of the U.S. economy.” The data sets which are revealing these numbers are just beginning to be noticed by businesses around the world. “As a result, specific industries such as health care and technology are being pushed to innovate and expand in new directions.”
The challenge is how to interpret these and similar data for our congregations. I have heard presentations made at conference level gatherings suggesting that the increased age of the members of our churches is akin to the demise and death of the mainline church. Specifically, the “wrinkling skin” of members is a sign that we are dying and the increasing age of our members hinders the growth and forward movement of the church.
The reality is that we are living longer today than we did even 50 years ago. There will be fewer generations of people who live in this next 500 year period! And there are going to be more people with gray hair and wrinkles participating in our congregations because many of them are choosing to “age in place”. These “wrinkling skin” individuals are included in the figures above and could help to be a positive contributor to the life of congregations, but only if we would choose to change the way we talk about, think about them and engage them in the mission of our congregations.
What if we were to consider the data from a broader perspective and allow ourselves to be pushed to innovate and expand the way we think about aging and the long-term reality this has for a vibrant church that is meeting the needs of our neighbors? Robyn Stone, director of research at LeadingAge, the national association of service providers for older adults, shared some observations from a trip to Japan at the end of 2017. In Japan today, 25-30% of the population are already over the age of 65. Stone’s observations about 7-Eleven Japan in the midst of this demographic reality are intriguing.
Contrary to my own image of 7-Eleven stores’ convenient corner locations being positioned for young teenagers to get a giant slurpee after mowing the lawn, 7-Eleven Japan recognizes that they are a significant source of affordable nutritious food for their aging neighbors. “Because elders represent a key market segment, the stores actively court their older customers. Convenience stores recognize that they belong to an aging community.”
They also hire drivers from the neighborhood to deliver meals designed by company nutrition specialists to deliver the meals (not giant slurpees) to the older clients. This is a kind of private Meals on Wheels, training the drivers to provide personal contact as they make their deliveries. Stone notes that the company sees itself as part of the solution to meeting the needs of their aging population with room for further expansion and innovation in helping to improve the lives of older adults.
Are there models of services that other organizations use which the church could adapt to match the needs of older adults and the gifts of your congregation? I recently had the opportunity to engage a colleague in this topic and to my delight, she mentioned that she is aware of the “village” movement of neighborhood based associations in predominantly urban areas to help be sure the oldest neighbors have the support that they need as they age in place. Volunteer’s skills and resources are matched with the older neighbor’s needs. These can range from changing light bulbs to driving them to a doctor’s appointment, to participation in social outings or planning events to counteract loneliness, isolation and depression. This colleague wondered about the possibility of her congregation helping to establish a “village” in church’s neighborhood. I wondered how the congregation might provide some of those services on their own. It will be up to the congregation to decide how to proceed, but the fact that the church is asking the question and wondering about how they might build on a known model in order to meet the needs of their neighborhood is great.
How can the church help innovate its ministry to embrace the challenges and opportunities that are present as the neighborhoods and communities around us age? Sure, it might be fun to be the place that provides giant sized slurpees for younger generations, but we might also be strengthened by discerning what metaphorical nutritional meals are needed by our neighbors and recognizing that we could be a part of the solution to help them enjoy a life of purpose and connection.
How can our congregations be a part of the solutions to the challenges of aging and receive the gift that comes anytime that our gifts meet the needs of the world?
Rev. Beth Long-Higgins serves as Executive Director, Ruth Parker Center for Abundant Aging at United Church Homes in Marion, Ohio, a member organization of the United Church of Christ Council for Health and Human Services Ministries.