A good place to start when thinking about some principles for how we might reach retirees with the gospel is to consider the kind of worldview or mindset that many older folk have. I have separated these into two categories: challenges and encouragements.
- ‘I am past it!’ Often our culture reinforces this view. To be old is to be useless, it says.
- ‘My best is past!’ Some might think that it’s not so much an uncertain future as it is a worthless future.
- ‘I’ve lived a good life, I don’t need the gospel.’ Older people can often see themselves as traditional moralists.
- ‘I’ve not done anything wrong!’ Pride often gets in the way and the older someone gets the harder it becomes to overcome it.
- ‘I’m marginalised now.’ Being considered old-fashioned or feeling as if younger generations don’t respect you can lead to a defensive and cynical attitude.
- Declining health, lack of mobility, increasing loneliness.
- A reserved and guarded attitude when talking about spiritual things.
- ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be.’ This kind of attitude can make it hard to accept the concept of grace.
- Older people are often familiar with Bible stories.
- They often have plenty of time.
- Some are lonely and will welcome people to spend time with them.
From that point I have found the following three principles invaluable in reaching out to retirees with the gospel.
Unless the foundations of our evangelism are rooted in the Bible, the builders build in vain (Psalm 127:1). We need God to be in the driving seat to direct our ministry amongst the elderly. What does he want us to do and what does he want us to teach or pass on to the elderly from his Word?
We need to rely on him for everything. Therefore, along with the Bible we must pray, pray, pray. The elderly non-believer has lived for years independent of God so the soil will be very hard. There will be a lot more weeds to dig out. A lot more pain and cares of this world to unravel.
However, that is true of all unbelievers (John 3:19). So why bother? We bother because God is sovereign over all people for all times and in all places and Jesus is the only way of salvation for all people for all times and in all places (Acts 4:12). We are made in the image of God, all people for all times and in all places, and God has appointed people for eternal life so there is a certain harvest (Acts 13:48).
The Bible underpins everything we do. It is front and centre of everything and we pray our socks off because this is God’s work not ours.
But Jesus is also in the business of relationships. Therefore, we must love the elderly as Jesus loves us. We must be kind to them and help them practically. We must share our lives with them. Paul, when he wrote to the Thessalonians, reminded them how he had not only shared the gospel with them but his very life (1 Thessalonians 2:8). Ministry amongst the elderly will be costly. We need to be sacrificial and remember how the Lord Jesus came not to be served but to serve (Mark 10:45).
We will need to pray for patience; everything will take longer in relationship with them. We need to remember not to shout in conversation with them but to speak clearly. We will need to be prepared to hear the same thing more than twice! Remember their birthday. If they are widowed, remember the date of their loved one’s death; maybe send a card on that day to say you are praying for them as they remember the loss of their loved one. Take them for drives in the car through country lanes. Offer to take them out in the wheelchair to a park or café or have them round for a meal with a couple of other folk at the weekend if their family do not live nearby.
Make sure bank holidays, Christmas, Easter and the summer school holidays are not lonely for them and they are well cared for during these times. Offer to bring them to the church service on a Sunday morning or evening. Help them to see that your friendship with them is different to those they have with non-Christians. Don’t hold back saying you are praying for them. Or, offer to pray for them when you are together, if there is a specific thing they raise as a concern. At the end of time together offer to pray, and pray for things you have talked about. Have a verse from Scripture ready to pray in too. Send them a little verse on a card that they can pop on their mantelpiece.
Finally, be intentional in what you do. When I was in my early 20s I read some wonderful advice in Mark Ashton’s book Christian Youth Work. Using Jesus’ ministry model (in which he taught the crowds, then spent more time with his twelve disciples, and still further time with three particular disciples), he argued that we could adapt that model for our own ministries. In other words, within a larger group of retirees we can be friendly with everyone, but through prayer we might discern a few individuals to get to know more deeply.
We must be intentional in our friendships. Jesus was intentional whilst on earth; what better model to follow. Any group can offer friendship or social care. Our priority is to teach the gospel. Our burden is for the lost to receive eternal life.
We know not when the Lord Jesus will return so we must make the most of the time we have to share the reason for the hope we have (1 Peter 3:15). We can’t reach the whole group, but we can reach three, and spend more time with one person. As Chris Knowles (an experienced servant of the Lord amongst older people) once said, ‘They are in God’s waiting room.’ Therefore, time is running out for them to hear the good news about Jesus and respond. All the more reason to be intentional in our ministry amongst the elderly.
 The author would like to acknowledge the influence of Chris Knowles’s (St Peter’s, Harold wood) teaching on her own thinking.