Preaching the Christmas story to seniors

The wonderful truth, the magnificent truth, the incredible truth of the Christmas story is that God came to this hopeless, blinded, wayward world dressed in robes of humanity to live with us and suffer for us and die in our place. God dwelt among us as a babe, as a toddler, as a child, as a teenager, as a working young adult. He identified with our suffering, divided, and uncaring world. He revealed himself to us so we could know him through his words and deeds. He came to make salvation and union with God possible. Without the incarnation there would be no salvation, as much as without the cross and empty tomb there would be no redemption.

 

There are many characters or “lampstands” in the Christmas story: Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, wise men, shepherds, Simeon, and Anna. However, when we preach about the characters in the Christmas story we need to hold before the congregation the main thing: Jesus was God incarnate who came to reconcile rebellious humankind to himself. The characters were like menorah lampstands shedding light together so that we can all see that God sent Jesus to save us from all our sins.

 

Without ignoring this contextual truth, we can look at some smaller picture highlights and use them as focused points of relevance. I am thinking of all the seniors. There are four of them and their journeys lend secondary insights that we could apply to lives of seniors today.

 

There are so many seniors in the churches in Singapore. During the heyday of the revival among evangelicals and the charismatics many youths came and followed Christ fervently. Most of these people are now gray-haired and white-haired and no-haired in our churches. If ladies stop dyeing their hair for a year we will indeed get a clearer impression of the ageing of our congregations. And there is a spirituality for seniors just as there is one for the kids in Sunday School. The seniors have to learn to navigate in a godly way some of the transitions and experiences they will encounter from 55 to 95. The four inspiring seniors in the Christmas story addresses some of them.

 

Seniors will face a faith challenge. As they near the end of their life, they will think more deeply about faith and life after death.  They will think about God, about religion, and about death and eternity. Zechariah’s story of a disappointed faith restored is a good story to inspire people to think about the quality of their own personal faith, and how God wants to assure them when they have doubts.

Elizabeth’s story is one of deep disappointment, shame, sadness and barrenness. She would have often recalled her past and felt she had failed to make a meaningful life. However, the angel came along and intercepted her pain and tears and delivered the impossible. In her senior years, her life took on purpose and meaning for she and her husband would have the privilege of rearing John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Messiah. This inspiring senior prods us to realize that even in senior years and beyond retirement there can be a higher purpose and great weight attached to living out our faith till death or Jesus comes.

 

Simeon was another godly senior, a prophet without a card. A man ahead of his time. 400 years of silence – no prophetic word to Israel. Suddenly Simeon filled with the Spirit, guided by the Spirit declares by the Spirt the destiny of the child Jesus when the parents came to do Mary’s purification rites and the child’s dedication. Then he prays, Lord I am now ready to go home. I am ready to die. I have seen the Messiah and it is enough. Simeon was able to pray like that because he lived well –he walked in the Spirit and did not gratify the lusts of the flesh. Seniors in our churches need to learn to live well so that they can die well.

 

Finally, there was Anna. Great material for inspiring seniors. Seniors will need to learn to grieve well for they will lose loved ones, lose health, lose investments, lose their beauty and they would need to learn to grieve well. As well as Anna who lost her husband at the probable age of 21 after seven years of marriage. The text is silent after that but indications are that she grieved well and had no bitterness towards God or man for she spent her years in dedicated prayers and fasting, serving God and his people and the Temple. What an inspiring elder.

 

Advent has four Sundays leading up to Christmas day. Do consider preaching a series on inspiring seniors in the Christmas story. Singapore churches need to hear a relevant word for them. Let’s not always focus on the young; speak up to meet the needs of the elderly and inspire them to finish well.

The tasks of seniors

People aged 65 to 75 are called the young old and people 75 above are called older old. Throughout the senior years, and indeed while you are in your early or mid-50s you have several tasks you need to begin to navigate if you want to make your senior years meaningful, spiritual and impactful. In my research on ageing and spirituality, I have discovered there are at least seven tasks that have to be processed through. Here they are:

  1. Preparing for retirement
  2. Doing a life review with biblical lenses
  3. Clarifying your life purpose
  4. Developing a healthy sense of self  and community
  5. Deepening your faith in God
  6. Grieving and handling losses well
  7. Preparing to die well

Each of these tasks has to be worked through in a safe, loving and interactive environment. When these are done, the senior years can be adventurous, purposeful and meaningful.

The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Deuteronomy 31:8.

Growing old with grace

Do we have misconceptions about the old?  There are plenty swirling around in society but often we who are becoming seniors have too easily accepted them without thinking. Let me give an example. They say the old deteriorate mentally.  Forgetfulness is a common sign of this deterioration. The young forget to do their homework, forget their multiplication table, forget appointments but do not say to themselves, I’m getting old!  Seniors should not say that they are mentally deteriorating just because their memory sometimes fails them. This is just one example.

Other misconceptions about seniors are:

-seniors are weak and are often plagued with illnesses.

-seniors are irritable, stubborn and unteachable.

-seniors are less productive than their younger colleagues.

-seniors are generally withdrawn from life and activities and prefer to vegetate.

The first thing we need to do is to set free the mind of such misconceptions. If you are becoming a senior, do not allow such misconceptions into your mental software. If you are young, do not look at your brothers and sisters who are growing older in this light. See them differently and treat them differently. This is kingdom thinking and living.

What if church members stopped dyeing their hair

More are hitting their fifties and sixties
More are hitting their fifties and sixties

What if everyone in church, men and women, stopped dyeing their hair for a year? Before the end of the year there would obviously be more grey and white heads in the congregation.

There would be a greater awareness of the relentless ageing process of members who we previously thought were forever young. Without treated hair, we would look different. For the women, the difference would be more telling. Most men do not dye their hair and it is usual to see some grey hair, mostly men’s, in most adult congregations. But if everyone stopped dyeing, there would be a sea of grey and white, since there are usually more women than men in church. We would be surprised, perhaps dismayed, at how old others and ourselves appear. It could even be depressing, or devastating for some.

The members of the leadership team would have a heightened awareness of the ageing process in the congregation. They would think of the various implications of that. The financial implications would certainly surface. So would the need to renew leadership and mentor the next generation. The urgency of outreach especially to young people would be highlighted. The need for new blood would stare them in the face. Maybe special fixtures to aid the seniors, need to be added and the building made senior friendly.

The pastor would likely have already been aware of the greying of the congregation. However the colour of hair can be shock therapy for a pastor. Suddenly the needs of the grey haired senior become urgent. Hopefully the pastor would do some research or ask other pastors about how best to equip and serve the seniors in their churches.

So it may be a good thing for everyone in church to stop dyeing their hair for a year. In addition, more people will offer them their seats in the MRT during peak hours.

Catch the Age Wave: a reflection

Catch the Age Wave is a book about how the church should seize the opportunity of deploying the church’s seniors to reach a rapidly aging population. The church’s seniors are defined by the authors Win Arn and Charles Arn as those in the late 50’s and 60’s – the “soon to be retired” or “the recently retired.” My purpose was to survey what has been written about how churches pastored their seniors. Here are my brief reflections.

The Arns feel that there we should view seniors today differently from how they were viewed in the past. They are not weak and sickly. Today’s seniors are healthier than their counterparts a decade ago. They do not yet need a great deal of volunteers to take care of them. In fact they are potentially a great source of volunteers for the church. They can be great care-givers. Their retirement motive is not necessarily to play or rock the chair. They want to work, learn, grow and serve and play too. Evidently churches in Singapore need to revise their views of the seniors, and give more attention, more resources to deploy seniors and reach the unsaved seniors. I cannot but agree that we need new eyes. Ageism, that bias against the old, has no place in the church that boasts of Abraham as the father of their faith.

However, I was dissatisfied with the way spiritual development was dealt with superficially in the book. The tasks that seniors have to tackle and the spirituality of this stage of life were not spelled out nor examined. There was no mention of the very stark reality of the challenges of ministry to the seniors – especially the older old. Nothing was said of the infirm, the shut-ins, the poor, the sick and dying and their needs. The focus was heavily focused on the hope, the positive, the opportunities and ideas for ministry. It was imbalanced but their purpose was different from what I was searching for.

Their methodology was based on the “homogeneity principle” of church growth. This is the idea that the more people are of the same race, status, language and age group the higher the likelihood that such a homogeneous group would grow.  I thought that such a mental model would deter church leaders from seeing the church as ideally multi-generational and meant to be so because holistic, deeper and richer learning of the faith takes place more effectively in such a social context.

Arn, W., Arn, C. 1993. Catch the Age Wave. Grand Rapids Michigan: Baker Book House.

Faith Community Church: a Bible-teaching, migrant church in Perth

the auditorium of a Baptist school/college

Welcomed warmly by the Senior Pastor Benny Ho into the foyer of a Baptist school’s auditorium, we engaged in some small talk and quickly made arrangements to meet after the service. There was a sizable crowd in the auditorium when the service began,  but like in Singapore, latecomers streamed in even as people lifted hands in worship.

worship at Faith Community Church, Perth

A migrant church

Looking around, I saw that the congregation were mainly people of my age with about one third or more youths and young adults. There were less than two handful of Caucasians. Most worshipers were ethnic Chinese. This is an English-speaking migrant church in Perth. Most had come as immigrants from Singapore and Malaysia, led by the Lord, or seeking better and fairer opportunities for their children’s education, and a more satisfying work-life balance.

Being a migrant church, one of the unique strengths of Faith Community Church is that new migrants get referred here and the church is very effective at helping migrants settle into Perth and assimilate into the fellowship. Easily people get fitted into such a helpful and well-networked community.

Pastor Benny Ho

Detailed and relevant Bible teaching

The worship gave way to the teaching of the Word and this is where Faith Community Church excels. Pastor Benny delivered a masterly exposition of Haggai chapter 1, the beginning of a series of messages. This is my third or fourth time hearing him speak and he certainly lives up to his reputation as a good expositor and teacher of the Bible. It was clear and relevant. His detailed and interesting Bible teaching has in no small way contributed to the recent surge in the church’s numerical increase.

Surprise, surprise

Later I met Benny to make an appointment for lunch and to my pleasant surprise I heard that Rev Dr Norman Wong my friend would be in Perth on Monday. So we did lunch together and they gave me some good advice on a difficulty the church I served was facing. These guys are experienced, unassuming and effective pastors whose wisdom and opinions I respect. I was not disappointed with the informal consultation.

Forget about retirement

An interesting aside was meeting Norman’s father, Mr Wong, I called him. He’s 88 and he’s still working. He’s had open heart surgery but looked healthy and still played golf. He said thankfully, “Every day I am still alive is a bonus!” An accountant by training, he still sat on the boards of several listed companies. Mr Lee Kuan Yew would have been happy to use him as an example of working into your old age.

Former church building now used for Chinese Service

Is church’s vitality linked with percentage of seniors?

Lord thanks for the seniors!According to FACT surveys conducted by Hartford Institute for Religion Research, between 2005 and 2008, fewer congregations report they are spiritually vital and alive, have seen worship attendance growth of 2% or more, or have a clear mission and purpose. Just 19% say their current financial health is excellent vs. 31% in 2000. Old-line Protestant congregations confront a special challenge. Their memberships are significantly older than any other faith family. In fact, in nearly six of every ten old-line congregations, 25% or more are 65 or older. This is nearly twice any other faith family and nearly three times as great as evangelical Protestant congregations. One unfortunate corollary of a congregation%s age structure is that on average, the more seniors, the lower a congregation’s vitality.-HIRR Notes 9/9/09