Is your church ‘Ageist?’

Sally Oakes's picture

In my years of ministry, I’ve come to learn a lot about not just older adults, but about society’s attitude towards aging and older people.

One of the things I’ve come to learn is that “older adult” is a broad term. At what point do we define a person as an “older” adult? Unlike childhood, where the development of an average child can be marked by months or years, the aging process is not so clear-cut.

For example, the oldest member of our church is 101 years old. She didn’t need assisted living until she was 99, when she broke her hip.

By contrast, I have a friend who had to have both hips replaced before she was 62. That’s a 39 year age difference for the onset of hip problems!

I’ve come to learn that aging is, for many, a very enjoyable experience. I’ve learned that some will continue to learn their entire lives even though the thought process slows down. At a seminar I went to recently, the speaker put it this way: if your brain were a file cabinet and you had to search through 75 years’ worth of information to pull a file, it’s obvious that it would take longer than having to sort through 25 years’ worth of information.

I’ve witnessed that middle-aged and younger folks tend to stereotype older adults. It’s not true that becoming older makes a person set in his/her ways. The only thing that makes a person set or not set in his/her ways is his/her own personality and he/she was probably hard-headed all along.

There is not a point at which a man becomes a “geezer.” Neither are all older women imbued with a sudden desire to sit in rocking chairs and knit.

And there is one thing that has always stuck in my craw, and I noticed it long before I even knew many older persons: all of a sudden people start describing them as “cute.” Why, when an older adult is attractive, do we feel compelled to use a childish word to describe his or her attractiveness?

I see among older adults a genuine appreciation for life in all its ups and downs, a sense of humor, a deep commitment to God and church, a real interest in new things, and the truthful realization that not all was “good” about the “good old days.”

They talk about memories, children, and grandchildren. In very real physical, spiritual, and emotional ways, they support each other in grief and sickness.

May is Older Adult month. Take this month to assess your attitudes towards Older Americans and repent of the areas where you find yourself stereotyping. Go to or your denomination’s website to learn about older adult ministries.

Take a look around your church to assess its accessibility: are things like ramps and large print devotional guides available?

If the worship service in your church involves standing or kneeling at certain points, ask your worship leader to add the phrase “all who are able” when making the request to stand or kneel.

Ask your musicians to remember to include older hymns in worship.

Phone an older person in your congregation and ask how they are, and whether s/he would pray with you for your church. If that’s too extroverted for you, how about sending someone a card just to say that s/he is important to you and to ask for his/her prayers as you pray for him/her.

Here’s a list from Center Sage, a newsletter for leaders of mid-life and older-adult ministries, by the Rev. Dr. Richard Gentzler, director of the Center on Aging and Older Adult Ministries of the General Board of Global Ministry of the United Methodist Church (a long title for an important subject):

Ways to Tell if a Church is Ageist:

• Older Adult ministry is planned without the involvement of older adults;

• Believing that the only way the church can be innovative and growing is to have older adults step aside;

• Failure to make facilities physically accessible;

• Hiring staff or providing budget for other age group ministries but ignores ministry with older adults;

• Church leaders believe they know what’s best for older adults without consulting them;

• Church leaders ignore issues of aging and older adult concerns in sermons, hymn selections, and prayers;

• Church leaders focus on young familiess and ignore older members.

Sally Oakes is pastor of Bethany United Methodist Church, 607 Rivers Road, Fayetteville, GA 30214. Phone: 770-964-6999 or 770-964-6992, or e-mail

login to post comments | Sally Oakes's blog