By Jeff Brumley
News of a church’s closing usually brings tears and mourning, and certainly there will be some of that when Scott Boulevard Baptist Church leaves its historic property in Decatur, Ga., for nearby rented space on Sunday.
But there is also a sense of purpose for the Cooperative Baptist congregation and its pastor as they make way for a large condominium development on their former property of six decades. Their energy will be spent on providing a new and nimble missional presence in the surrounding community: tending to the spiritual needs of homebound and other seniors.
“We are focusing on a ministry to elderly people who are isolated and alone, and recognizing that isolation … is the central issue for a lot of other physical and emotional health issues,” said Greg Smith, pastor of the 50-member congregation that will begin worshiping at First Baptist Church in Decatur.
The congregation used the proceeds from the sale of its property to create an endowment that will be used to finance the new ministry for years to come, Smith said. A portion of the money also was used to hire an associate pastor responsible for growing the ministry to the elderly.
More than 250 past and current members and ministers of Scott Boulevard Baptist Church attended its legacy celebration last Sunday, sharing fond memories. Smith said it was a good way to honor the congregation’s future, too.
“For all these years we have been an attractional church — we wanted people to come to us,” Smith said. “Now we are going to take the spiritual experience out to people who can no longer come.”
‘A real gap’
Experts say such ministries are sorely needed nationally in a time when churches are hyper-focused on attracting younger generations.
Providing helpful ministry to the aging, especially for those who are homebound or in nursing homes, is an area where the church struggles most, said Denise Massey, associate pastor of pastoral care and counseling at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology.
The traditional practice of occasional visits by clergy or lay volunteers, while important, may come nowhere close to meeting the complex and deep spiritual needs of senior citizens, Massey said.
The feelings of abandonment and isolation that many experience as shut-ins or nursing-home patients can create distance between the elderly and God, other people and even from themselves, she said.
“Instead of loving and caring for themselves, they begin to blame themselves for getting old or feeling feeble,” Massey said.
It’s an especially acute need for members of religious traditions where fellowship and worship were central to their experience of faith and their spiritual self-understanding.
Many congregations also struggle with being sensitive to the unique spiritual needs of seniors who are still in their midst, Massey added.
That can be addressed by training church and family members to actively listen to the stories senior adults are known to tell. Those stories often include a spiritual purpose, such as sharing wisdom and accounts of important people and events in their lives, she said.
It would also be wise for pastors focused on attracting Millennials and other young Christians into church to remember the older generations already there, she said. They have spiritual needs, too, as well as the habit of tithing.
There is “a real gap” between the needs of the elderly and churches who try to meet those needs, she said.
‘More open to spirituality’
Many outsiders have noticed the lack of faith-based ministries and other services aimed at addressing the need among the elderly for fellowship and opportunities to continue practicing their faith.
Social workers with a variety of agencies are becoming more aware of the spiritual and religious needs of their clients, said David Hodge, an associate professor in the School of Social Work at Arizona State University.
While many of those agencies employ chaplains, in a lot of cases they cannot offer the kinds of ritual practices and interpersonal connections specific to other traditions.
“How you provide that can be difficult and social workers are tasked with seeing many clients in a day and don’t have time” to track down the clergy and congregations that could help each client, Hodge said.
The situation has been more complicated in many cases because the social work field is continuing to grasp how to identify spiritual needs and their importance in clients’ lives, Hodge said.
“Historically, social workers did not attempt to understand what those needs are.”
But that’s changed a lot in a postmodern age that’s seen an openness among health care providers to employ techniques such as mindfulness meditation, yoga and even prayer in some treatment programs.
“I can point to colleagues in medicine, gerontology (and) psychology who are more open now to spirituality than they would have been 50 to 100 years ago,” Hodge said.
‘Taken for granted’
Churches, meanwhile, tend to remain behind the curve. Ministers at Scott Boulevard had few faith-based models upon which to base their ministry, Smith said.
But, he added, that’s in part because this kind of ministry isn’t cheap and because it’s about much more than occasional visits to drop off literature and say prayers.
The Scott Boulevard plan is to send teams of two or three people to homes once a month to worship — including singing hymns and having communion — with shut-ins and others, Smith said.
Smith said he can see why more churches, especially smaller ones, don’t offer such ministries.
“It takes a lot of resources to provide pastoral care and contact with elders who are isolated,” he said.
But at Scott Boulevard, the calling is to do just that.
“I have encountered people beyond 80 who feel very neglected and taken for granted,” he said. “I feel like this is a group of people who are certainly loved by God … and in the biblical tradition we are to honor our elders, not neglect them.”