Let’s begin with a few foundational facts:
- The number of people age 65 and older in the United States has grown rapidly over most of the 20th century, from 3.1 million in 1900 to 54 million in 2019. (See data from U.S. Census Bureau and America’s Health Rankings.)
- On average, 10,000 people in the US are turning 65 each day (and they’re not usually celebrating at Chuck E. Cheese; see data from U.S. Health and Human Services.).
- Older adults are projected to outnumber children under age 18 for the first time in U.S. history by 2034, according to Census Bureau projections. (Data from U.S. Census Bureau.)
- The number of Americans ages 65 and older is projected to nearly double from 54 million in 2019 to 95 million by 2060, and the 65-and-older age group’s share of the total population will rise from 16.5 percent to 23 percent. (Data from Population Reference Bureau.)
How do these statistics strike you? What do you think? How do you feel? Challenged? Excited? Afraid? Worried? Or?
The Gray Wave Approaches
Many in our day feel deeply distressed by the facts I just laid out. It’s not uncommon to find articles in mainstream publications that speak of our aging population as a “gray wave” or a “silver tsunami.” For example, a recent headline in Fast Company begins, “The silver tsunami is coming.”
Millions of people with gray, silver, or white hair are mounting up ominously and will soon swamp or even devastate our society, just like a tsunami. The subtitle of a New York Times piece warns, “The American population is getting older, and that has devastating consequences for the economy.”
Such negativity about the aging of our population is not limited to secular contexts, however. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard pastors and other religious leaders refer to the “gray hairs in the pews” as if this is obviously bad news. As one who served as a senior pastor for 16 years, I understand this intuition. I was deeply committed to helping our church grow younger if at all possible, and certainly not older. Imagine how many pastors would buy a book for their church called Growing Older.
I’m still committed to helping churches grow younger. We need to reach children, teens, young adults, and young families with the gospel. We need to do this for the sake of their souls as well as for the church’s future. But I do not think of “gray hairs in the pews” as a scary problem or even as an impediment to the church’s becoming younger. Rather, I’m convinced the “gray hairs” offer a promising opportunity. (I don’t think, by the way, this has to do with the fact that the remaining hairs on my head are mostly gray and my white beard qualifies me for Santa-hood!)
Growing Young and Intergenerational Relationships
What has led to my conviction about the value of older adults? First, I’d point to the groundbreaking research of my colleagues in Fuller Youth Institute (FYI). Several years ago, they did a major study of churches, trying to discover what was distinctive about churches that were growing younger rather than older. They published their findings in a book appropriately called Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church.
This book is full of biblically-solid, research-supported wisdom about how to help your church grow younger. Here’s one surprising facet of that wisdom: “Much of American youth and young adult ministry tends to be devoted to building relationships with age-group peers. While peer friendships are crucial, a variety of analyses suggest that intergenerational relationships are also incredibly important” (emphasis mine; Kindle location 2435). FYI found that churches grow younger when their older adults are in relationships with younger people.
So, even if your top priority is to get your church to grow younger, you’d nevertheless want to be sure your older adults are deeply engaged in your church and its mission. You’d want to encourage and equip them to live as active disciples of Jesus every day. Their participation could well make the difference between success and failure in your church’s growing young project.
Flourishing in the Third Third of Life: Input from Scripture and Science
In addition to learning about the value of intergenerational relationships from my FYI colleagues, my own work at Fuller has led me to a new appreciation of the potential for older adults to make a significant difference in the church and the world. For six years, I was the Executive Director of Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership.
As I met with a wide variety of leaders throughout the country, I kept hearing from them a plea to help them deal with issues related to retirement, their own as well as that of the people they led. Plus, though they knew their retirement was drawing near, they had not lost their desire to make a difference that matters for the kingdom of God. They yearned for guidance as they entered what we at the De Pree Center call the “third third” of life.
I began searching for that guidance in Scripture and was struck by what I found. It is summarized in the promise of Psalm 92:12-14, “The righteous flourish like the palm tree . . . they flourish in the courts of our God. In old age they still produce fruit; they are always green and full of sap.” Scripture promises flourishing and fruitfulness for folks in old age. (By the way, the Hebrew phrase translated here as “in old age” literally means “with gray hair.” So take that, you “gray wave” and “silver tsunami” prophets of doom.)
What I found in Scripture was affirmed and illustrated by vast amounts of academic research in subjects such as psychology, sociology, gerontology, and neuroscience. After reading several scholarly books and well over 300 peer-reviewed articles, I became convinced that science points to the extraordinary potential for people in the third third of life to live fully and fruitfully. For Christians, this kind of living would surely include contributing meaningfully to the health, expansion, and, yes, “growing-youngness” of the church.
Not a “Silver Tsunami,” but a “Silver Opportunity”
So, these days, when I think about millions upon millions of people in our country turning 65, when I read about the growing population of older adults, I don’t think of this as a threat to church and society. No more “silver tsunami.” Rather, I view it as a “silver opportunity,” maybe one of the greatest opportunities for the church in our time of history. (I realize we usually say “golden opportunity” in English, but “silver opportunity” works so well here!)
Pause for a moment and imagine. What would happen if millions upon millions of older disciples of Jesus gave themselves fully to his mission in the church and the world? Most folks in the third third of life have well-developed talents, gifts, and wisdom.
Most also have a deep concern for younger generations and their future. Most want to make a difference that matters with their lives, whether they’re retired or not. Many in the third third are experienced, effective leaders. Many have a good bit of discretionary time. Some, but not all, even have a good bit of discretionary money. So, picture what would happen if this multitude of older adults were trained, supported, encouraged, and deployed to serve Christ with mature, well-honed zeal. It would transform their lives. It would transform the church. It would transform the world.
Helping Pastors Embrace the Silver Opportunity
I am eager to help my fellow pastors understand the opportunity before us and be equipped to take advantage of it. That’s one of the reasons I founded the “Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative” as part of my work at Fuller’s De Pree Center. Since beginning this work a couple of years ago, I have discovered that many pastors are eager to serve their third third folk well, but aren’t quite sure how to do it.
This includes younger pastors, by the way, who care deeply for all of their congregants, not just the young. Moreover, many pastors are largely uninformed about how their older adults could be a crucial part of the renewal, health, and growth of their church. The De Pree Center and I want to help by informing and equipping pastors for this crucial and encouraging task.
This blog post in The Pastor’s Workshop is the first of many posts designed to equip you for your work with folks in the third third of life. I plan on writing a new post each month, thanks to the support of Stu Strachan and his team. If you’re eager to learn more at a quicker pace, you can check out the third third resources on the De Pree Center website. You can also sign up for our monthly newsletter, which will keep you up to date on the newest resources.
No matter how you feel about it, the fact is there will continue to be a growing number of older adults in your community and congregation. (People over 65 are twice as likely to be churchgoers compared to the average American, by the way.)
You can choose to see this as a threatening tsunami. But Scripture and science would offer a different metaphor. What’s coming is not a “silver tsunami,” but a “silver opportunity,” an opportunity to help older followers of Jesus live fully and fruitfully in the third third of life. This will be great for them, and also for your church, your community, and the kingdom of God.
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative.
Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership.
With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.
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