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Your Church and Third Third Flourishing

January 29, 2022 • Third Third Journal

Your Church and Third Third Flourishing

By Mark D. Roberts

I’d like to begin with a few simple questions:

    • Is your church helping you flourish in the third third of life?
    • If so, what’s your church doing?
    • Why are they doing it?
    • If your church isn’t helping you flourish, what’s missing?
    • Or what’s happening that works against your flourishing?
    • What might your church be doing that it isn’t doing now?
    • What might your church stop doing to encourage third third flourishing?

Having asked these questions, let me quickly add a couple of qualifiers.

First, I’m not trying to heap criticism on the church. That’s easy to do and others are happy to do it. But I am trying to think clearly and speak honestly about the church’s strengths and weaknesses when it comes to working with third third folk.

Second, I should say that I’m not necessarily looking for specific church programs designed for third thirders. If your church has such programs and they’re working for you, great. But it may very well be that what helps you flourish isn’t something special for your age bracket. For example, you might find that your church’s Sunday worship helps you flourish in the third third of life, even though this is not its primary purpose.

By asking these questions, I’d like to get you thinking about your church and how it impacts older adults, including you. But that’s not all. I’m actually quite interested in what you’re thinking. Let me explain why.

Churches and People in the Third Third of Life

As you probably know, I’m deeply engaged in the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Our main purpose is to help folks in this time of life flourish, by which we mean to live abundantly and fruitfully (see Psalm 92:12-15, John 10:7-10;  15:1-11). We are creating resources and experiences to serve third third folks directly. But we are also convinced that one of the best ways to reach older adults is through churches. It’s no secret that most churches are filled with plenty of third thirders. I’ve found that pastors and church leaders want to serve well all of the people entrusted to their care. So churches have an exceptional opportunity to help their older adults flourish. We at the De Pree Center are eager to equip churches to do this effectively.

To that end, we have commenced a research project focused on what churches are doing (and not doing) to help their third third members flourish. We have begun talking to a wide array of leaders, including pastors and experts in Boomer/Builder/Encore ministries. Down the road a piece, we’ll be interviewing congregants about their experiences, asking questions rather like those with which I began this article. By the end of this year, we’ll collect our findings and produce a variety of resources to help churches and church leaders serve their older adults well.

Much of what we’re learning from our research is not ecclesial rocket science. It’s more like “Ministry 101”: basic, familiar, and essential. For example, one of the things we’ve heard over and over from ministry leaders is that if a church wants to serve its third third folk well, the leaders need to listen perceptively to them. Pastors and congregational leaders need to hear what their third third congregants are thinking, feeling, experiencing, hoping, grieving, creating, loving, fearing, etc. This kind of listening includes hearing what people think about the church, to be sure. But it isn’t focused there. It’s mainly about getting to know older adults better as human beings, as people in relationship, and as disciples of Jesus.

The Importance of Listening

Now, as I said, the importance of listening for ministry is not a big secret. It’s essential to all kinds of ministry situations. Pastors and churches know that if you’re going to serve your people well you need to know them well, and listening is one of the best ways to do this. If you were starting out as a youth leader, for example, you’d know that you needed to get to know your kids and their families by listening to what’s really going on in their lives.

When I think back to my own experience as a parish pastor, I had strong relationships with many older adults. They were some of my finest lay ministry partners, church leaders, and faithful supporters. I think they would say I was a caring and attentive pastor, overall. I would often talk with them about church business, but also their spiritual life, their health challenges, their families, and so on. That was a good start.

But, in retrospect, I rarely asked my older adults about things distinctive to their season of life. Perhaps I felt awkward bringing up topics related to aging. Perhaps I didn’t think of talking about such things because I was in my 30s and 40s at the time. No matter the reason, I don’t remember asking folks about things like retirement, or their sense of vocation, or how they were dealing with common losses associated with aging, or issues like these. I didn’t think to ask how the church was helping my older adults flourish or what we might do that we weren’t already doing. In retrospect, I wish I’d had these conversations with Dick, Betty, Gertrude, Jack, Johnnie, and so many others.

Listening to You

Now, as I’m building the De Pree Center’s third third ministry, I wish I could sit down with you and talk. Of course, it would be tricky to try to have one-on-one conversations with the 2,000 plus folks on our subscription list. A more reasonable goal is to communicate with many of our third third folk via email.

So, I’d like to invite you to let me know your responses to the questions with which I began this article. They were:

    • Is your church helping you flourish in the third third of life?
    • If so, what’s your church doing?
    • Why are they doing it?
    • If your church isn’t helping you flourish, what’s missing?
    • Or what’s happening that works against your flourishing?
    • What might your church be doing that it isn’t doing now?
    • What might your church stop doing to encourage third third flourishing?

If you write me, don’t feel limited by these questions. They’re meant to get a conversation going. My email address, by the way, is markroberts@fuller.edu.

Now, since I don’t know how many emails I’ll receive in response to this invitation, here’s what I can promise:

    • I will read every email I receive thoughtfully.
    • I will try to respond in a timely fashion to each email. My ability to do this, however, will depend on the number of emails I receive. I may not be able to respond to each email.
    • I will use your input as I guide our third third work, but will not quote you by name without your permission. I don’t want you to worry, for example, that if you say something negative about your church, you’ll end up seeing your criticism all of Twitter. What I’m describing here is a conversation among friends, not official academic research (with rigors related to confidentiality, etc.). But I want you to feel you can be honest.

Let me close by saying that in all of what we do at the De Pree Center, we are open to input from those we seek to serve. This is true for our third third effort as well as everything else we do. The De Pree Center Executive Director, Michaela O’Donnell, has consistently encouraged us to get feedback from the people we serve. This makes tons of sense. The best ministry happens through relationships and, as I’ve said before in this article, through attentive listening. So, if you ever want to share an idea with us, or give us feedback on something we’re doing, please feel free to reach out. If you aren’t sure exactly to whom to write, you can always reach us at connect@depree.org.

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