I’ve heard a lot of sermons during the past 60 years. And I’ve preached a bunch too, well over a 1,000 sermons during my years as a pastor. So, I was surprised when, a couple of weeks ago, I heard something in a sermon I had never, ever heard before. I was shocked. And I was encouraged.
A friend of mine recently became the senior pastor of a church in Southern California. I dropped in unannounced during his church’s Sunday morning worship so I could support him as he begins his new pastorate. The opening segment of worship was thoughtful and well-led. Then my friend got up to preach.
Joel is doing a short series on basics for the church, a fine place for a new pastor to start. The sermon I heard laid out a biblical vision for how his church can flourish in their life together as a community and in their witness to their neighbors. What he said was solid and compelling, but not especially new to me. I’ve heard and preached dozens of sermons like that. No criticism intended here. Joel was doing exactly what a wise pastor should be doing at this juncture of his or her pastorate.
But then I heard something new, something I’d never heard before in a sermon, something I’d never preached during my sixteen-year tenure as a weekly preacher.
Joel said something like this: “As we talk about our potential for flourishing as a church, I want to speak especially to those of us who are in the third third of life. Many of us in this church are in the season of life where we experience retirement, grandparenting, and all that goes with being in the third third.
I believe that we have an extraordinary opportunity to help our third third members get a new vision for how God can use them in this season of life. We can equip and support them for amazing ministry both in the church and out there in our community.” Joel went on to provide a few more details as well as to encourage his third third folk.
No, I did not yell “Amen” or stand up and cheer. But I did give Joel a big, obvious thumbs up. That’s the subtle Presbyterian version of yelling “Amen” or cheering in church.
Of course, you’ve rightly surmised that Joel, a good friend of mine, is familiar with my third third work at the De Pree Center. He knows that I’m heading up our Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. He knows how excited I am about the potential for third third discipleship. So I don’t mean to suggest that Joel made all of this up independently of his relationship with me. Indeed, he has told me before about his excitement for the third third potential of his church. But Joel did not bring this up in his sermon to please me. He had no idea that I was going to be there that morning. He preached what he would have preached if I’d been worshiping elsewhere.
What I’ve Never Heard
I’m almost positive that I’ve never heard a preacher address the older adults in his or her congregation specifically. Of course, much of what we preach is relevant to all sorts of people, including third third folk. We try to address issues and needs that are common to people across the age spectrum.
But it is crucial, it seems to me, that as we preach, we make connections into the real lives of our people. Preachers tend to do this about many facets of life: marriage and family, spiritual disciplines, friendships, evangelism, justice, stewarding finances wisely, teenage peer pressure, and so forth. But, at least in my experience, preachers – including me – have tended to ignore older adults as well as the issues and the opportunities they face.
This is ironic, of course, and a bit sad, given the fact that so many churches are filled with people in the third third of life. I asked the students in my Fuller DMin cohort about the age breakdown in their churches. A couple had churches filled mainly with younger people.
Most of my students said that at least 50% of their congregants were over 55. A couple said it was more than 80%. I know this wasn’t a scientific sample, but I have a hunch that it reflects what is common in most U.S. churches.
Why Don’t Preachers Mention Older Adults?
Why don’t preachers address third third folk specifically? I can think of several reasons. And if you have additional thoughts, please share them with me. I’d love to know what you think.
First of all, many preachers are not in the third third of life (though, according to recent Lifeway research, the average pastor in the U.S. is 57 years old, which means the majority of preachers are in or approaching the third third).
Plus, even if a preacher is in the third third, odds are that he or she is trying desperately to draw younger people to church. Lots of lessons on retirement won’t help with this project. In the past couple of decades, the church has focused a great deal of energy on reaching younger people, especially younger families. I am not critical of this effort, not at all.
But in the process, we have missed some wonderful possibilities for equipping older disciples of Jesus. (And, for the record, my colleagues at Fuller Youth Institute have shown that intergenerational churches are the ones growing younger. So, focusing on older adults could actually lead to the very thing so many pastors are seeking for their churches . . . to grow younger.)
3. Impact of Intergenerational Relationships on the Church
Another reason we preachers tend not to address third third folk is that we are relatively unfamiliar with the distinctive needs and opportunities of older adulthood. We know plenty about young and middle adulthood from personal experience and our seminary classes. But most of us haven’t experienced or studied the third third of life very much, if at all. Plus, though we’ve been educated in human development, we tend to assume that older adults are, well, just adults who happen to be older. We are not familiar with the distinctive experiences and stages associated with the third third of life.
Having listened to dozens of older adults since I began the De Pree Center’s Third Third Initiative, I know that many of these folks would answer the question of why they’re not mentioned in sermons by pointing to the fact that they are often taken for granted by church leaders. So many people have said to me something like, “Oh, the leadership takes us for granted here.
They know we’ll show up for church when there’s no pandemic anyway. We’ll volunteer for the programs and be faithful in our giving. Yet they don’t pay much attention to us.” I’m not suggesting this is always true of church leaders, but I’m pretty sure it fits in many cases. It’s easy to overlook the faithful when your ministry focuses more on the lost sheep.
But, in defense of church leaders, I’d want to add that many of us simply haven’t realized that our older adults have distinctive discipleship needs. Moreover, we haven’t recognized the incredible kingdom potential that lies dormant within the older adult population of our churches.
I think back to when I was the primary pastor of a church. Not one time, not once, did one of my older adults say to me, “Why don’t you ever talk about the things in my life, things like retirement, grandparenting, physical losses, and the questions I have about God’s will for my life now?” Had someone asked me that, I’d have answered honestly, “Huh! I’ve never thought about that before. It never even crossed my mind.” I hope I would also have said, “Tell me more” and started listening in a new way to the older members of my church.
Now, let me be clear, I’m not asking preachers to weave third third applications into every sermon. Nor am I suggesting that most preachers should do some kind of third third series. For the most part, what we preach needs to apply to a wide range of listeners. But I do think that, as we try to connect God’s Word to the real-life situations of the people to whom preach, we should remember the third third folk and endeavor to speak to them in a specific and relevant way upon occasion.
How Might We Begin to Preach with Relevance to Third Thirders?
How could we do this? Let me start by saying you don’t have to be in or near the third third of life to address relevant issues from the pulpit. My friend Joel is a good fifteen years from his own third third, yet he spoke directly and empathetically to his older congregants. So what helped Joel to preach this way?
First, he pays attention to his people. He sees where they are in life. He listens to their hearts. He gets in touch with their longings and losses. Listening sensitively and intentionally to your people is central to effective pastoring, including preaching. If you’re wondering where to begin to speak to your third third folk, reaching out to them to hear about their lives would be a great place to start.
Second, Joel pays attention to the De Pree Center’s third third work. I know that sounds rather self-serving since I’m in charge of our Third Third Initiative. But we are working hard to equip older adults to flourish and pastors to flourish in their ministry with older adults. We have dozens of helpful resources on our website, which you can find via the Third Third heading in our navbar. Be sure to check out the Third Third Journal, by the way. You’ll find lots of articles that will help you understand your older adults and their amazing kingdom potential.
What else might help you begin to speak with relevance and empathy to your third third folk?
If you’re looking for books that will help you serve your third third people well, let me suggest a few. Baby Boomers and Beyond by Amy Hanson is the best book I know about how churches can serve older adults. Several books focus on flourishing in retirement, including: An Uncommon Guide to Retirement by Jeff Haanen and The Retirement Reformation by Bruce Bruinsma. Other favorites on the third third include: Third Calling by Richard and Leona Bergstrom, Aging by Will Willimon, and Aging Faithfully, by Alice Fryling. Among the excellent books on older adulthood that are not explicitly Christian, I’d mention Brain Rules for Aging Well, by John Medina and How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations, by Marc Freedman.
Finally, let me include a bit of a teaser. Right now the De Pree Center is doing research on the church and its ministry with third third folk. We’ll be in academic research mode for a few more months. By the end of the year, we’ll begin to produce resources based on our research. They’ll be intended to help pastors and other church leaders grow in effective third third work.
In the meanwhile, if you have any ideas about this or if your church is doing good work with your older adults, it would be great to hear from you. Please email me with your thoughts. Also, if you’ve talked about third third possibilities in your preaching, or if you’ve spoken specifically to your older adults in part of a sermon, send me the link! I’d love to hear what you’ve said.
I hope this article has not felt unfairly critical of preachers. I know from experience how tough it is to relate to the diverse needs of a diverse congregation, not to mention the diverse community to which a church has been sent. But I also know that effective pastors are in a continual learning mode.
They’re open to new perspectives, new opportunities, and new ways to understand and pastor their people. This article is meant to help those who need it begin to think differently about their preaching and how it might serve their third third congregants and, in this way, serve the ministry of God’s kingdom in today’s world.
Mark D. Roberts
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