Third Third Difference: A Great Way to Begin Serving Your Third Third Disciples

By Mark D. Roberts

June 6, 2022

De Pree Journal

These days, more and more pastors are looking for ways to serve their third third congregants, that is, folks roughly 55 years of age and older. It’s common for me to hear from a pastor who says something like this, “We have quite a few mature adults in our congregation. They are welcome to participate in all we do at church. But we’re not really serving them in a way that addresses their particular place in life. I’d love to see us do something, but honestly, I’m not sure where to start.”

When a pastor talks about where to start, often they’re thinking in terms of some new program that serves folks in the third third of life. New programs can be great, but a helpful starting point in third third ministry does not have to be complicated. In fact, it can require very little additional time and no additional money. It’s something that can be started with a week or two of modest preparation. And it works in churches small, large, and in between.

I should mention here that many churches are already doing a good job caring for their older adults who are experiencing physical and other challenges, the sorts of things that often come when one is quite advanced in years. But, for the most part, churches have not been doing much to help their third third folks live as active, growing, fruitful disciples of Jesus in their distinctive season of life with its distinctive challenges and extraordinary opportunities.

In a moment I’m going to suggest something that pastors and churches can do to encourage and instruct their third third folk in whole-life discipleship. Actually, this suggestion would be good for the whole congregation. It’s never too early to get people thinking about how following Jesus faithfully and fruitfully is a lifelong experience.

Inspired by This Time Tomorrow

What I’m going to suggest is inspired by a program started elsewhere. That program is called “This Time Tomorrow.” It was first created by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. This Time Tomorrow is a short in-worship experience that supports whole-life discipleship, especially discipleship in the workplace. The format is simple. Once a month, during a corporate worship service there is a short time in which a congregant is interviewed about their work, beginning with the question,

  • Where will you be “This Time Tomorrow?”
  • What do you do there?
  • What are your challenges and joys?
  • How can we pray for you?

After asking these questions and hearing the responses, the leader doing the interview offers to pray for that person, often praying also for others in a similar line of work. And that’s it.

Now, you may be thinking to yourself, “That’s what we do with missionaries in our church.” Exactly! This Time Tomorrow takes seriously a mission theology of work, in which congregants are missional agents in their workplaces. Their missional activity might surely include sharing Christ with others. But it encompasses all they do in their work as it glorifies the Lord.

If you’re unfamiliar with This Time Tomorrow, you may not expect something so simple to have a profound impact on people, but it often does. Congregants talk about being valued as workers for the first time in their Christian life. They understand in a new way that God cares about their whole lives. People are encouraged to live as intentional disciples of Jesus wherever they may work. It’s hard to imagine a church program that requires so little time and money having a greater impact. If you haven’t tried This Time Tomorrow in your congregation, I highly recommend it.

But that’s not the main point of this article! I want to encourage you to experiment with something like This Time Tomorrow, but with your third third folk in mind, especially those who are retired. The name “This Time Tomorrow” may not work in this case because retirees often have more freedom in their schedules. Twenty-four hours after they’re in worship, third third folk may be having coffee with a friend instead of going to work, not that there’s anything wrong with that of course. But what we want to do is interview third third folk about the things they are doing as an expression of their purpose and calling. We want to learn about how they are expressing their discipleship.

Third Third Difference

As I talk with lots of third third folk, I hear how so many are living for purposes beyond their own enjoyment, contrary to the popular cultural narrative of retirement. Almost every retired person with whom I speak is doing something out of a sense of calling, something that is not only personally rewarding but also contributing to God’s work in the world. Third Third folk want to make a difference that matters in the world. If churches would provide a platform for people in the third third to talk about how they’re living as disciples of Jesus, this would surely inspire and instruct other older adults. But it would also help those who are younger begin to think about their future differently. Wouldn’t it be something if 45-year-olds and 35-year-olds and 25-year-olds and even 15-year-olds began to think of the third third of life as an extraordinary time to make a difference for God in the world?

Instead of the title “This Time Tomorrow,” I would suggest the name “Third Third Difference.” The word “difference” comes from the common desire of older adults to “make a difference that matters.” It can be out there in the wider world. It can be within the life of the church. It can be family related. Many third thirders are making a difference in a variety of settings. For “Third Third Difference,” it would be best if they focus on one thing they’re doing.

The questions asked in Third Third Difference are similar to those in This Time Tomorrow. They include:

  • In this season of life, when you’re not working full-time, what are you doing to make a difference?
  • What helped you to know that this is where you should focus your time and energy?
  • What are your challenges and joys associated with this difference-making effort?
  • How can we pray for you?

Of course, you can edit these questions as you see fit.

It’s always a good idea to talk in advance with the person to be interviewed, helping them to focus, to be brief, and so forth. One of the easiest ways for a pastor (or other church leader) to recruit folks for Third Third Difference participation is by making it a habit to ask folks the same questions they’ll be asked in worship. Not only does this help them to be prepared, but it also helps you to get to know your older adults and what’s going on in their lives. Plus, it can give you a whole bunch of new sermon illustrations and ways of connecting with your third third folk as you preach.

If you try out Third Third Difference in your church, I’d be most interested to hear the results. There is always room for improvement and growth, so I’m wide open to comments both positive and negative, and to any suggestions you might have. Just email me at

How to Get Started with Third Third Difference

Here are some simple steps:

I. Identify a third third person in your congregation who is making a difference that matters. If you don’t know such a person, you can use the questions suggested above to find them.

2. Ask that person if they’d be willing to help with a Third Third Difference interview. You can explain the details.

3. If the person is willing, work out the logistics of date, time, etc. Make sure they have the questions in advance. Ask the interviewee to write out their answers to the questions before the worship service. They can read their answers in worship if they wish. Emphasize that their answers need to be brief. You may or may not ask to see their answers in advance, depending on your preference. (It’s safe, of course, to see the answers in advance, but this takes additional time.)

4. At the appropriate time in the appointed worship service, stand up and explain Third Third Difference. Then invite the interviewee forward. After introducing them, ask the four questions:

  • In this season of life, when you’re not working full-time, what are you doing to make a difference?
  • What helped you to know that this is where you should focus your time and energy?
  • What are the challenges and joys associated with this difference-making effort?
  • How can we pray for you?

5. Lead in prayer for that person. If you wish, you might ask if any others in the congregation need a similar kind of prayer. You can pray for them as well in whichever way works best in your church.

6. After finishing the prayer, thank the interview. If it seems appropriate, mention to the congregation that you’ll be doing this again and that you’d like to hear from folks who are interested in being interviewed.

Over time, try to have a diverse range of “differences,” such as: “I’m volunteering at the local school” or “I’m mentoring a younger leader” or “I’m helping raise my grandchildren” or “I’m still working part-time in my job” or “I’m leading our church’s ministry in the community,” etc. etc.

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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