Flourishing in the Third Third of Life: A New Initiative of the De Pree Center

By Mark D. Roberts

February 28, 2020

De Pree Journal

We will help people flourish in the third third by providing resources and experiences to help them live according to Christian wisdom. We will help churches by providing resources and experiences so that churches can help their people flourish in the third third of life through Christian wisdom.

Flourishing in the Third Third of Life: A New Initiative of the De Pree Center

by Mark D. Roberts, Ph.D.
Executive Director of Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership
Lead for the Third Third Initiative

We are excited to announce a new initiative of the De Pree Center: Flourishing in the Third Third of Life. The name aptly describes the work of this initiative. We have begun serving people in the third third of life, as well as helping their churches to serve them well.

What is the third third of life?

Technically, given the current average life expectancy in the U.S. of 78.7 years, the typical American enters the third third at 52½ years old. Of course, if you end up living to 100, then your third third doesn’t begin until you turn 66.7. The precise time period of the third third doesn’t really matter, of course. What does matter is the well-being, faith, productivity, and fulfillment of people who are in a season of life with great opportunities as well as great challenges.

And there are millions upon millions of folks in this season of life. In the United States alone, there are over 94 million people 55 years of age and older, according to the U.S. Census Bureau [1]. Each day for the next ten years, about 10,000 people in the U.S. will turn 65. While some see this mainly as a heavy burden on society, we see amazing possibilities. What if millions of third thirders were living productively, contributing their talents, time, and treasure to families, businesses, communities, churches, schools, social enterprises, and the wider world? How different our world would be! How different would be the lives of those who are embracing the biblical vision of fruitful flourishing rather than the cultural narratives of self-indulgent retirement or non-productive fatigue! To be sure, folk in the third third will wrestle with the challenges of aging, but even those for whom life is not easy still have much to offer to others, and in this offering they will find meaning and joy.

What is flourishing?

Scholars, pastors, social commentators, educators, and many others use the word “flourishing” or the phrase “human flourishing” to describe living life well. Of course there are different conceptions of what exactly this means. Flourishing includes, but is not limited to the subjective feeling of happiness or life-satisfaction. Dr. Tyler VanderWeele, program director of the Harvard Human Flourishing program, writes, “Flourishing itself might be understood as a state in which all aspects of a person’s life are good. We might also refer to such a state as complete human well-being, which is again arguably a broader concept than psychological well-being. . . .[M]ost would concur that flourishing, however conceived, would, at the very least, require doing or being well in the following five broad domains of human life: (i) happiness and life satisfaction; (ii) health, both mental and physical; (iii) meaning and purpose; (iv) character and virtue; and (v) close social relationships.” [2]

The Bible offers a similar vision of human flourishing. Jesus, for example, says that he has come so that his followers “may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Biblical concepts of peace (shalom/eirene), happiness/blessedness (ashre/makarios), and completeness/perfection (tamim/teleios) reveal a vision of a full, righteous, and productive life [3].

Scripture adds a distinctive dimension to the notion of human flourishing. In Psalm 92:12-14 we read, “The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the LORD; they flourish in the courts of our God. In old age they still produce fruit; they are always green and full of sap.” Notice a couple crucial facets of flourishing. First, we flourish when we produce fruit in our lives. Flourishing is not measured only by our well-being, but also by our contribution to the world. Second, flourishing is not only for the young. Rather, the righteous flourish “in old age” as demonstrated by the fact that “they still produce fruit.”

From a biblical perspective, therefore, flourishing is indeed pervasive well-being manifested in fruitful living. And, importantly for our purposes, it is something explicitly attributed to people “in old age.” Flourishing in the Third Third of Life isn’t an idea made up by the De Pree Center. It is essential to the biblical story of life as God intends it to be.

What will the De Pree Center do to promote flourishing in the third third of life?

We will help people flourishing in the third third by providing resources and experiences to help them live according to Christian wisdom.

We will help churches by providing resources and experiences so that churches can help their people flourish in the third third of life through Christian wisdom.

By Christian wisdom we mean, fundamentally, wisdom made known to us through Scripture. But we will also pay close attention to wisdom that comes from believers whose lives and words can teach us how to flourish. We’re eager to hear people’s stories and learn from their insights.

Calling is central element of Christian wisdom that informs the third third of life. Calling, or as it is sometimes rendered, vocation, is not equivalent to our occupation. Rather, it is God’s summons to us through Christ. God calls us into relationship with himself and into serving him for the sake of others. How we respond to this calling will differ in different seasons of life. Our calling does not stop when we enter the third third of life. You might retire from your job, but you’ll never retire from your calling. The more people in the third third understanding God’s call upon their lives, the more they will be encouraged and enabled to flourish.

It’s important to add that Christian wisdom is not limited to that which is explicitly theological. All truth is God’s truth. Some of his truth about flourishing in the third third will come from academic research in a variety of relevant fields: gerontology, psychology, sociology, brain science, economics, medicine, and so forth. We have much to learn from these various disciplines. This learning will enrich the wisdom we receive from the authoritative biblical witness. We will be glad to share what we are learning from research that shows how people in the third third of life can flourish. Some of this research is both surprising and surprisingly relevant to our daily lives.

The De Pree Center is just in the very beginning stages of providing resources and experiences. The article you are reading right now is one example of the kind of resources we will produce. In the next year, we anticipate offering Bible studies, small group curricula, devotional guides, and more. We have already begun testing prototype experiences with groups of third third adults in churches. Soon, we will make these experience more available through in-person and online delivery systems.

How you can participate in this third third initiative?

If you are in or soon to enter the third third of life, we welcome your participation. (In fact, you’re welcome even if the third third is still quite a ways off for you. Research shows that how you live in the second third of life has everything to do with how you’ll do in the third third.) So, how can you participate? Let me suggest several ways:

  1. You can visit our Resources for the Third Third of Life Page.
  2. You can visit our Third Third Blog for a variety of articles.
  3. You can subscribe to our Third Third Initiative mailing list so we can keep you updated on our work and make sure you’re aware of new resources.
  4. You can let us know about your interests, needs, victories, worries, longings, and losses as you think about the third third of life. Feel free to email me at markroberts-at-fuller.edu. (No @ symbol because that’s a spam magnet!)
  5. Or, you can fill out a short survey about the third third. We’d love to get our input on this if you have five minutes or so to spare. Click here to access the survey.
  6. You can let your third third friends know about this effort so they can join in too.
  7. You can pray for us, that God will grant us wisdom as we move forward with this initiative. We want to serve people and the church well, for God’s glory.
  8. You can help support us financially, if you feel so led. We have been able to start this work because of the generosity of two individuals who yearn to see people flourish in the third third of life and who believe that Fuller’s De Pree Center can make a real difference. In time, we trust that others will help us to grow this effort through their generosity. If you’d like more information about how to give, please email me at markroberts-at-fuller.edu.

Of course, if you think of other ways you might partner with us in this work, we’d love to hear from you. You’ve got my email address: markroberts-at-fuller.edu.


Looking for More on the Third Third of Life?

You can find much more about the third third of life by checking out our Third Third Resources page. Or sign up for email updates below.

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[1] https://data.census.gov/.

[2] Tyler J. VanderWeele, “On the promotion of human flourishing,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, August 1, 2017, vol. 114, no. 31 https://www.pnas.org/content/114/31/8148.

[3] Jonathan T. Pennington, Ph.D. “A Biblical Theology of Human Flourishing,” Institute for Faith, Work, & Economics, March 2015. https://tifwe.org/resource/a-biblical-theology-of-human-flourishing-2/.

Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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