I thought it was just another Tuesday when I walked into the hospital to minister to people from our church. But that day would change my ministry forever. When I entered his room I saw an older man in his 80s who had that once-upon-a-time deacon look to him. I figured he had probably been in our church for 50 years and put up with at least four senior pastors and countless youth ministers. I expectd a full download on why the church today is struggling and the younger generation is to blame.
As I sat down in the chair beside his bed, he asked me who I was, and I identified myself as the student pastor at his church. The gentleman sat up in his bed and began to open up his heart about his ministry days. He had been a pastor for more than 35 years. Now retired, he had recently become a member of our church. Rather than giving me an hour-long lecture on the state of the church, he gladly talked to me about what he learned about being a pastor for almost four decades. He talked about loving Christ, loving his family, and serving the flock that God had entrusted to him. He was more interested in listening than talking, but when he did talk it was like reading one of my favorite biographies about a Christian hero.
We’re tempted in ministry to take one bad situation with an older man and apply it to the whole age group. But just as we want to be known personally and not stereotyped as a young hothead, older saints want to be known indivudally and not just as the grumpy, disinterested old men who sit in the back of the church with their arms folded. If we younger ministers would only humble ourselves and seek out relationships, we can gain untold wisdom from the many older and faithful souls in our churches.
If you desire a revival of gospel-centered ministry, then you’ll need to learn from and engage the the older generation. Consider these four ways to minister to older saints.
1. Spend time listening to their life stories and learning how they were and are shaped by the gospel. Start in your church but extend this same courtesy to the pastors you criticize among your peers at a conference. It is possible that if we would be patient to listen, we may learn good reasons for why the older men hold unpopular opinions. You don’t need to agree, but you should at least take the time to learn and understand.
2. Ask them how they have seen the gospel advance. The gospel is not just for our day and time. It is timeless. The good news has gone forth in every generation and circumstance since Jesus rose from the dead. Older saints in your church want to see their kids and grandchildren saved. They know the church needs to raise up younger leaders. And as I’ve learned from the older men in my church, they’re praying for our pastors more often than we know.
You and I have many blind spots in ministry. My biggest help has been pastors in their 50s and 60s who have humbly shared what they did wrong at my age. These men lean across the table and tell me, “John, I do not want you to make the same mistake I did.” These are the conversations that I reflect on regularly.
3. Ask them to serve. Even as they stand at the door to eternity, these older believers want to be used by God in their last days. You need to encourage them to stay in the battle. They have already given so much to the church. With a little love and respect, you can recruit these saints to be your strongest allies. Rather than putting them to pasture ask them to engage. They may not be beating down your door to learn of volunteer opportunities, but I have found they are eager to help when asked. It’s an amazing example when younger leaders see an older man serving, no matter the job. If we have breath we have a job to do.
4. Thank them. If not for them we would not be here. Our churches and budgets exist because the generations before us bought in and sacrificed for the gospel. They were planting churches before planting churches was cool. We may disagree with some of their suggestions, but we probably would not even have the option to disagree if not for their faithful years of service.
One day we will be in the same position as they are now, and we would want the young pastors to treat us the same way—as useful and fruitful believers engaged in the same battle.