Looking for New Life

An aging congregation bears faithful witness to God’s grace

by Joyce Dinkins

On our first visit to the church my
husband attended as a child, Steven and I arrived 15 minutes before the posted worship time. The sprawling church parking lot Steven had walked some 50 years before was empty.

“Joyce, it looks like nobody’s coming; this may be a dead church.”
I peered around the building and spotted one red car. “There’s someone.”
Steven prayed, reluctantly disappearing inside the church’s front door. I waited outside. Moments later, returning, he reported, “There are a couple of older women, one young woman, and the pastor, who seems off.”
Then, the aging pastor appeared, walking slowly toward our car. He entreated, “We’re about to start worship. You’re welcome to join us.”

We decided to go inside and see what God was doing at this old church.
An elderly woman (we found out she’s now 93) stood erect, her strong hands extending a singsong, ”Welcome!” The small congregation proceeded through their order of service. The younger woman invited us into a rich call-and-response praise song from the past, following the church announcements from a woman about our age.

Though the pastor announced during his sermon he wasn’t feeling the best, he paced the pulpit, delivering a succinct, biblical message to the few folks in the pews. An older gentleman passed a collection plate for offering envelopes. A trustee joined the church clerk, going from pew to pew.

A different, trendy church we had visited in a contemporary setting recently was in stark contrast to this atmosphere. But we were in for a better surprise at the conclusion of worship, as our eldest hostess led a tour of church hallways with walls boasting portraits of the past. She led us to see, and we noticed the potential facilities for future generations: computerized sound equipment, classrooms, furnished offices, a full-service kitchen, wide fellowship hall. Mortgage paid, ready for use.

Outside, the community park, basketball court, playgrounds, and several public schools whispered missions and outreach opportunities.

As Steven followed our hostess outdoors, he discovered her to be sister-in-law to the boxing coach who had trained him 50 years before! We followed our hostess to her porch, right next door to the property where Steven trained for the Golden Gloves. Reminiscences—divinely inspired—multiplied as she recounted the elders Steven remembered.

Before we left the big parking lot on that sunny afternoon, we prayed with our “church mother” who had concerns about her aging church home. We drove away marveling how God had brought us to this past, while understanding the church mother’s concerns. She had asked us to return, and for Steven to contact the pastor to see about helping to “bring a few Scriptures.”

Lack, Love, and Life

Steven did contact the aging pastor, who had been driving about an hour to get to this “mother” church that had birthed other pastors and congregations. Steven prepared to teach Sunday school here as he had learned to do over the decades. But the very next Sunday, the itinerant pastor announced he needed to depart to take care of his health. The church had to regroup, and did. Members welcomed open discussion about all of their health issues during the service: cancer, stroke, heart disease, dementia, and more. They emphasized continued desire for the preached word, fellowship, outreach, and stewardship of all God had provided. The trustees decided that using the worship hour in order to study the Bible would be most beneficial to their vitality.

This church is aging, but the commitment to love God and neighbor remains alive. And we have joined their membership. We’ve begun to see some young, older, and families come inside this aging church too.

Steven teaches, and we serve this congregation of elders, a few younger people, in love, with the equipping God has shaped in us. As I write, we’re preparing for the funeral of a young man, and expect the church will be full with family from near and far. The neighbors will wonder, Why is the parking lot full?

Full; because of the love here, a comforting place of belonging. Churches have to regroup to remain places of belonging, because of aging, and more. Aging is one of the culture shifts that love helps churches and others to address. Steadfast church servants, continuing across generations, continue to influence. Our building and groundskeeper, tidying and managing the building for decades, influences the culture of the surrounding community. The financial health and operations entrusted to eighty-year-olds protects present and future outreach. The ministers who participate in their independent church association maintain unity and vibrancy in the gospel work of bodies across the US and beyond. Aging is evident here while the church’s purpose is ageless. Whatever observers may consider lack, the keeping of the greatest commandment, to love God and neighbor through Christ, is life.

Steven and I have served alongside several aging congregants on fire for God and the gospel, rather than focused on ailments, aches, and more. By God’s grace, aging congregants’ sensitivity to and perspective on the suffering of the “least of these” and all those outside of Christ matters and keeps the church relevant (Matthew 25:31–40).

At my new church, though aging and impacted by health issues, the people stick together; we check on one another, remain in relationship, love in the face of conflict. We apply the gospel in our daily lives. We study together and break bread together as did the New Testament church (Acts 2:42–47). We’re a witness to God’s grace (Ephesians 2:8–9).

Thriving, Reaching, Serving

Our new church is not the first aging congregation Steven and I have served. We have experienced the fervor for God that warms a church, drawing young and old, insider and outsider, into the love that’s essential. Aging does have an impact on congregational health and a church body’s perspective on itself. Aside from all that can become unbalanced in a church body, hopefully, maturity helps to reveal the warm temperature of God’s love among us, and we can be bright witnesses to God’s faithfulness.

In Birmingham, Alabama, our two-year-old, nondenominational church plant was doing just fine in our refurbished roller rink. Developing, thriving, teaching, creating, reaching, serving. We chose to join an aging denominational church on a historic campus replete with gymnasium, multiple sanctuaries, and populated by a small group, 20 years our senior, who needed to regroup in order to continue their legacy. By loving God and neighbor, the hybrid church grew its outreach, overcame challenges, and began reaching diverse young families and individuals in its now multicultural church in a multicultural community.

As elders at a church plant inside a community center in Colorado Springs, we welcomed young military families into our homes and lives. With love and respect for older members, families benefited from seniors’ witness, consistency, study, worship, fellowship, and outreach. Our urban church helped to transform individual lives and had an impact on the surrounding community through outreach because we valued aging. The congregation morphed more due to members’ relocation than decline. The love across generations nurtured the entire body, including the pastor’s family. He grew to do chaplaincy in another state and other members continue in gospel ministry in Colorado Springs and wherever the military has transferred them. The joy of serving God and neighbor is alive and well in many aging individuals and the places of worship where we serve.

I have, in fact, a prejudice for the aged and a wonder at the irrevocable lessons “decline” provides. When I was 25 years old, my father was 70 and remained inventive and innovative for many more years. A son of a slave, he had eight offspring; I was his youngest. My mother lived under my care from about age 80 to 91, taking her last breath in my arms.

Dad bequeathed to me a saying that opened my eyes to misperceptions based on incomplete understanding about people: “You’re not seeing what you’re looking at.” Serving alongside the aging congregations where God has placed us, as we ourselves age, we experience ministry sustaining us and those we serve as God impresses on us what is significant: We belong to God, and we belong to God’s ministries. This belonging and anointing invigorates the health of the eldest member as well as the youngest. At my aging church, the eldest stands and reads Scripture, serves communion, and drives her red car to and from church. The youngest enjoys a sense of security among the elders, who answer questions with sensitivity and diligence and who nurture understanding and acceptance of the Christian attributes God has nurtured and matured in the aging: love, humility, service, perseverance in suffering.

Amid change and challenge, we can experience joy in relationship with God and one another. Developing healthy perspectives prepares us for changes in our churches, and in our cultural communities. We can experience God’s purposes for us. As aging congregations serve with wisdom, we comprehend vitality comes from God, and seek new life among everyone, realizing divine possibilities in serving the gospel.

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