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The Forgotten Generation
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Why You should Preach Sermons for Older Adults
By Douglas Jacobs
 
When was the last time you preached a sermon for the older adults in your congregation?  In conversations with pastors, I’ve found that few consider the needs of their senior listeners when preparing sermons.  On Sabbath morning the older generation is often the forgotten generation. 

Why?  Younger pastors can struggle to understand old age before they’ve experienced it.  They may misinterpret the apparent traditional outlook of their older members as proof that older members are secure in their faith and no longer facing the temptations experienced by younger members.  Seniors have long since answered the big questions of life, so what can a younger preacher tell them that they don’t already know?  Often older members are viewed as unchanging and implacable with, as one pastor put it, “lots of spare time to be a headache for me.” 
Homileticians have also ignored older adults.  Search for books on preaching to children, preaching to teenagers and youth, preaching to young adults, preaching to women, preaching to men, and you will find many examples —but search for a book on preaching to older adults and you will find just one, Graying Gracefully: Preaching to Older Adults,[1]a collection of essays by various authors. 
To help pastors focus on the needs of their older members I wrote a Doctor of Ministry Thesis-Project, The Preacher and the Message:  Preaching to Older Adults,[2] under the direction of well-known evangelical homiletician, Haddon Robinson.  My research found five reasons why you should preach sermons for older adults.

1. Older adults are the largest generation in many Adventist congregations.
The Adventist church in North America is much older than the general population.  While the United States median age is 37,[3] a 2008 study by Monte Sahlin and Paul Richardson reported the median age for Adventists as 51 with almost half of the white population in Adventist households over 60 years of age.[4]  Preachers who want to meet the needs of their audience must consider the special needs of older adults.

2.  Older adults have the capacity for continued spiritual, mental, and social growth.
Recent research reveals the reality of old age to be dramatically different than the stereotypes.  Dr. Gene Cohen, first chief of the Center on Aging at the national Institute of Mental Health, helped move the aging paradigm “from a focus on problems to a focus on potentials.”[5]  In Cohen’s 2009 obituary, the Washington Post reported:
Although the medical establishment tended to treat aging as a disease when he started his career, Dr. Cohen found that the later adult years can be a time of great creativity.  Brains create new brain cells as long as people are encouraged to keep trying new pursuits, he reported, and people in the traditional retirement years have almost limitless capacity for intellectual growth…[6]

 Dr. Cohen and other researchers found that age-related declines in mental abilities are caused by specific diseases and not the aging process. In contrast to age-related declines are age-related benefits such as the “neural density” in the parts of the brain that an older adult has used continuously. According to Cohen, “the brain actively grows and rewires itself in response to stimulation and learning.” He concludes, “The complex neural architecture of older brains, built over years of experience, practice, and daily living, is a fundamental strength of older adults. And the more complex the architecture, the more it resists degradation by injury or disease.”[7]

How do Cohen’s conclusions shape sermons for older adults?  A goal of preaching should be the development of biblical “neural density,” or memory of biblical concepts, principles, and goals. As one ages, one’s brain can be literally shaped into Christ’s image.  Or as Paul put it:  “though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. (2 Cor 4:16)

3.  Older Adults have needs in every dimension of life that are seldom addressed by younger preachers.
Harold Koenig, a leading authority on health and spirituality has identified fourteen spiritual needs of physically ill elders. [8] His list is a source for sermon subjects: a need for meaning, purpose and hope; a need to transcend circumstances; a need for support in dealing with loss; a need for continuity; a need for validation and support of religious behaviors; a need to engage in religious behaviors; a need for personal dignity and sense of worthiness; a need for unconditional love; a need to express anger and doubt; a need to feel that God is on their side; a need to love and serve others; a need to be thankful; a need to forgive and be forgiven; and a need to prepare for death and dying.

Preachers can apply many biblical doctrines to specific needs of those experiencing aging.  For example, the Sabbath can help those making the transition from work to retirement understand the meaning of work and leisure.  As the Sabbath time of rest is the climax of the week, so the Sabbath period of one’s life can be the climax as one finds maturity and satisfaction in completing one’s life work and putting it all in a godly perspective.[9]

To preach effectively to the specific needs of your older members, keep a list of issues and needs they mention when you visit them, and then preach sermons answering your members’ needs with relevant Biblical truths.

4.  Older Adults often struggle with doubt.
Doubt can be triggered by a wide variety of circumstances. For me it happened after I had conducted the funeral for the last of my mother’s three sisters. As I stood in a circle with seven of my first cousins, one said, “We are now the oldest generation.” Our mothers and our fathers had all died, and at that moment we realized that we no longer had an older generation to guide us. I went home to review my beliefs and confirm that the faith given me by my parents was now completely my own.

My colleague, Doug Tilstra, describes his experience in converting an 80 year old for the first time.  She and her husband had been faithful church members for decades, but when her husband died, their plan to together meet Jesus at the Second Coming had also died.  Dr. Tilstra gently led her into a new faith experience based on the biblical doctrine of righteousness by faith.

Many of your own members who have believed for decades may question their faith as contemporary events seem to disprove long-held beliefs.   George Brown, past-president of the Inter-American Division and a still-active preacher and SS teacher at the age of 90, told me, “I don't think there is any time in a person's life where the tendency to question, to doubt is more active than in senior citizenship.”[10]  Using Jesus’ Second Coming as an example, Pastor Brown continued, “People don't doubt that he's coming again, in general terms. But there is this lingering question of why so long? Why does he tarry so long?”[11] Brown believes preachers who provide answers to the questions of older members are establishing confidence and trust in God and in His Word.

Although you may be challenged by their responses, give your older adult members the liberty to express their doubts and questions.  (See the sidebar for “questions your older members may be asking.”) When you provide answers to your members’ questions, your sermons will become spiritual conversations which bear fruit in changed lives and revived churches.

5.  The Gospel is the Answer to the Needs, Questions, and Doubts of Older Adults.
Listeners who are dealing with declines in their mental and physical powers need sermons which focus on the Good News of God’s saving and sustaining power.  Like Paul we are called to “preach the Gospel—not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” (2 Cor 4:16)  For congregations to experience the power of the Cross, every sermon must have a biblically-derived, God-centered, Good News central truth.  Often sermons are structurally legalistic because the sermon’s central idea is focused on what the audience should be doing rather than on what God has done, is doing, or will do for us. 
Sidney Greidanus, professor emeritus of preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary, refers to “the temptation of human-centered preaching” and quotes the sad assessment of Duke Divinity School professor William Willimon, “unable to preach Christ and him crucified, we preach humanity and it improved.”[12]   

The contrast between God-centered and human-centered preaching is brought sharply into focus in Genesis 22, the story of Abraham being asked by God to sacrifice Isaac. Although many commentators emphasize God’s test and hold up Abraham as an example of the unquestioning obedience and trust that God wants from his people, Greidanus finds the story’s central truth in the  repeated key words, “God will provide.”[13]  My search for a God- centered, Good News central truth in Genesis 22 ended when my wife suggested, “What God Promises, He Will Provide.” I have included my manuscript and a video of the sermon here (link 2) as an example of a God-centered, Good News, narrative sermon aimed at both younger and older generations.

To find the God-centered, Good News central truth in a biblical passage follow the power.  The power will always be found in God’s action, not in the action of the passage’s human characters. 

Look also for the motivation of the author or the passage’s characters.  Often a passage will clearly state a specific God-centered, Good News truth as the motivation for the passage or the actions of its characters. 

Conclusion
God-centered, Good News sermons which apply biblical truth to the needs of older adults can transform their lives.  When, through the power of the Gospel, older adults experience fruitfulness and growth, they are able to face the future with hope.  And such preaching has a healing effect on all generations.   The angel Gabriel’s prophecy regarding John’s preaching before Christ’s first coming shows what God-centered Good News preaching can accomplish in uniting generations before Christ’s Second Coming:
“And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17).
 
Douglas Jacobs is professor of Homiletics and Church Ministry in the School of Religion at Southern Adventist University.  His Doctor of Ministry project for Andrews University (1993) studied the relationship between Health and Spirituality and his Doctor of Ministry thesis-project from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (2014) explored preaching to older adults.  Dr. Jacobs is a co-principal investigator for the on-going Adventist Connection Study, which is looking at the various ways that recent graduates of Adventist universities are connecting with or disconnecting from Adventist churches.  Before joining the faculty of SAU in 2002, he served for 26 years as a pastor in the Florida Conference. 
 
[1] William J. Carl, Jr., ed., Graying Gracefully: Preaching to Older Adults, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997.
[2] Jamile Douglas Jacobs, “The Preacher and the Message:  Preaching to Older Adults” (D. Min. Thesis-Project, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, January, 2014).
[4] Monte Sahlin and Paul Richardson, Seventh-day Adventists in North America: A Demographic Profile, Silver Spring, MD: North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists; Milton Freewater, OR: Center for Creative Leadership, 2008, 5, 12. 
[5] Patricia Sullivan, “Gene D. Cohen, 65: Psychiatrist Broke Ground in Geriatrics.” Washington Post, November 11, 2009.
[6] Patricia Sullivan.
[7] Gene D. Cohen, The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain, New York: Basic Books, 2005, 5, 7, 8.
[8] Harold G. Koenig, Aging and God: Spiritual Pathways to Mental Health in Midlife and Later Years, New York: Haworth Pastoral Press, 1994, 283-95.
[9] Julie A. Gorman, “New Significance and Identity: A Practical Theological Perspective,” Journal of Religious Gerontology 15, no. 1-2 (2003): 171-186.
[10] George Brown, interview by author, Avon Park, FL, June 26, 2009. 
[11] George Brown. 
[12] William Willimon, Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 13, quoted in Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament, 34.
[13] Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament, 303, 304.