According to economist Peter G. Peterson, “a massive iceberg . . . dead ahead” is threatening to impact the social, cultural, and economic world for years to come.1 Here’s one way to illustrate this phenomenon: “Tidewater glaciers are glaciers that flow into the sea. As the ice reaches the sea pieces break off, or calve, forming icebergs. Most tidewater glaciers calve above sea level, which often results in a tremendous splash as the iceberg strikes the water.”2 Picture what happens when an iceberg (76 million U.S. babies born between 1946 and 1964) calves above sea level and splashes into the sea (society), displacing the water and disrupting the sea life around it (culture).
That tremendous splash vividly illustrates the impact Baby Boomers have had on American culture.
In the next fifteen years, close to eighty million Baby Boomers will retire or approach retirement. This means that more seniors will be living in the U.S. than at any other time in our nation’s history. According to a recent study, the number of people over age sixty-five will rise significantly soon after 2010. One newspaper put it this way: “The aging baby boom population is not even on the radar in 54 percent of the communities [that were] surveyed” during a study undertaken by the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging.3
It’s time to pay attention to the iceberg. Churches and ministry leaders should prepare now for the needs and opportunities of this coming demographic outflow.
The common negative stereotype of senior citizens is that they are well past middle age, in poor health, and in need of family members or the government to take care of them. But before we get defensive about these perceived characteristics of age, let’s take a look at reality.
The truth about Baby Boomers
The aging generation of Baby Boomers is actually the healthiest age group in America’s history to face retirement. These people are living longer, are retiring later, and are generally healthier than any generation before them. Most members of this group are not relying on their families or Social Security to take care of them in their retirement years. Instead they have invested wisely and are usually more financially self-reliant than any other generation before them. Emily Kessler of the American Society of Actuaries put it this way: “Everybody knows Social Security is in trouble, as are company pension plans. Wake-up calls are building to raise the retirement age and broaden incentives for employee savings plans.”4 There is an awakening across generations to prepare now for retirement.
Many Baby Boomers are what could be considered “healthy, wealthy, and wise.” They have made a significant impact on American culture, and they have the ability and the means to continue this impact for many years to come.
Of course, individual members of this age group respond, “That’s not me. I don’t fit that description.” I understand that not every individual aging Boomer is in good health and well-off financially. Yet statistics reveal that the majority of Baby Boomers will be healthy and wealthy enough to continue to lead lives of great significance way into their senior years.
Don’t forget the mark that this generation made on our culture when they were born in the years following World War II. They certainly made the news in the sixties during the political unrest and confusion of that decade. And a few decades later, they left their mark again when they returned to church with high moral values and convictions. This is also the age group that gave birth to the numerous and influential members of the Millennial Generation, and soon these parents will be moving en mass into retirement age.
Opportunity for ministry
Sociologists aren’t the only ones who should be preparing for the impending impact of retiring Boomers. The church can and should look at this approaching population swell of aging adults as a great opportunity for ministry.
Gary McIntosh, author of One Church, Four Generations, made this observation about Boomers’ involvement in church: “They favor activism. They want to get involved and are usually open to ministry in the local church. They view themselves as problem solvers, but they will not minister purely out of a sense of duty or responsibility. . . . Ministry must fit their interests, needs, and sense of fulfillment.”5
Society is beginning to see the importance of this phenomenon. Here’s what Marc Freedman wrote in Prime Time: How Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America: “America’s burgeoning older population is poised to become the new trustees of civic life in this country. These individuals have the time to care; they have the skills and experience required; they have the personal need to contribute in new ways. Society desperately needs them, and at the same time, there is considerable reason to believe that older Americans could reap tremendous mutual benefit in the process.”6
Since Baby Boomers will have much to give as they age, it will become increasingly important for churches and ministry leaders to begin planning now to effectively utilize this looming opportunity. We must not forget that this generation has experienced hands-on activism since the sixties and seventies. This is an age group that has returned to church in record numbers in adult life (note the unsurpassed growth of seeker-
oriented churches) and that has made sure their children are active in church as well.
Here are a few basic ideas for church leaders to consider as they contemplate the impending retirement of Baby Boomers.
Strategies for churches
1. Emphasize intergenerational mentoring.
Current research suggests that the majority of Baby Boomers did not enjoy close, personal relationships with their parents. That is one reason to suppose that this generation craves positive intergenerational connections. We’ve all seen the yellow “Baby on Board” signs on minivans and the “My child is an honor role student” bumper stickers on sedans. These indicators lead one to believe that this soon-retiring collection of adults will continue to appreciate close relationships with younger people. At the same time, the recipients of this attention are today’s young people—the Millennial Generation. One recent survey reported that 90 percent of teenagers have indicated that they would like to have an adult mentor.
Churches would be wise to incorporate intentional mentoring into the fabric of their ministries. I have observed that the best model for an organized mentoring ministry takes place in church. The familiar account in Titus 2 seems to indicate that older-teaching-younger relationships are to be the norm for local church practice. It would be a shame not to develop intergenerational relationships between retirees and young people within the church. The generations need each other and need to sense each other’s heart for the things of the Lord. I truly believe that if churches would do more to intentionally connect the various generations, we would have less debate and contention over externals.
The Bible gives great intergenerational counsel in passages like Psalm 71:18: “When I am old and gray-headed, O God, do not forsake me, until I declare Your strength to this generation, Your power to everyone who is to come.”
2. Offer multiple ministry options.
Gary McIntosh paints an easily recognizable illustration: “This was a 31-Flavors-Baskin-Robbins world that Boomers grew up in, and they continue to enjoy nearly unlimited choice in everything from food to entertainment. Shopping centers with hundreds of stores under one roof and acres of parking are now the norm. . . . It is not surprising, then, that Boomers are attracted to churches that offer a variety of programs, ministries, and services. . . . Smaller churches can attract Boomers by concentrating on the ministries and programs they do best, making sure they are high quality. They should establish one or two specialized ministries and then gradually add new ministries when the resources needed for quality ministry are available.”7
As I mentioned, this is a generation with the ability to give—their time, their energy, their wisdom, as well as their finances. Churches should prayerfully consider how to most effectively utilize this growing resource of Baby Boomers.
3. Utilize small groups.
Boomers tend to like small groups because of their interest in developing personal relationships and their desire to personally apply Biblical principles. This is not to say that churches should move to small groups in lieu of traditional Sunday School classes. This generation appreciates spending time with other members of their own age group as well as forging new relationships with people from other age brackets. Some churches have used adult Sunday School classes in an age-based or needs-based format (for example, parents of teenagers meet together) and also have developed intergenerational connections via small groups. For instance, my mother (a senior citizen and a widow) meets in a small group in her church with younger couples as well as with singles. Various generations are combined within that church’s small group ministry.
4. Offer international missions opportunities.
According to Rick Montgomery, “Millions of the retirees, freed from their longtime employers, will launch second careers in fields that stir their passions.”8 I predict that with the current ease of worldwide travel and cross-cultural opportunities, members of this generation will respond positively to the incredible need around the world for missionaries. Mission agencies are already seeing the rise in second-career missionaries. These are people who have retired young from the business world and are now devoting a significant amount of their remaining years of good health to explore missionary service. Churches and mission agencies alike should prepare now to effectively incorporate Baby Boomers into creative and significant global opportunities. Just think of the potential of recently retired executives and skilled laborers heading into various missionary endeavors around the world.
The “iceberg” is dead ahead. Close to eighty million Baby Boomers are nearing retirement, and our country will be transformed into a nation of much older people. Our churches need to prepare now for this soon approaching ministry opportunity.
1 Rick Montgomery, “Nation bracing for impact from boomers,” The Times-Tribune (Scranton, PA), 17 July 2006, sec. A, p. 5.
3 David Singleton, “Baby Boom’s Echo,” The Times-Tribune (Scranton, PA), 2 October 2006, sec. A, pp. 1, 7.
4 Montgomery, “Nation bracing for impact from boomers,” sec. A, p. 5.
5 Gary McIntosh, One Church, Four Generations: Understanding and Reaching All Ages in Your Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002), 93.
6 Marc Freedman, Prime Time: How Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America (New York: Public Affairs Books, 1999), 19.
7 McIntosh, One Church, Four Generations, 97, 98.
8 Montgomery, “Nation bracing for impact from boomers,” sec. A, p. 5.
Additional Sources Used
Gillon, Steve. Boomer Nation: The Largest and Richest Generation Ever and How It Changed America. New York: Free Press, 2004.
Steinhorn, Leonard. The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2006.
Strauss, William, and Neil Howe. Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1991.
Mel is the director of student ministries for Regular Baptist Press and is a member of Heritage Baptist Church in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania.