The COVID-19 Pandemic is Exposing the Divide Between the Young and the Elderly in American Evangelicalism

American evangelicalism has long been focused on the young. As such the elderly are routinely neglected. However, we are in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and that generation divide between the young and the old will be made worse by this medical crisis. Expect to see the further estrangement of the elderly by many evangelical churches as churches try to reopen.

“The tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young. “

Oscar Wilde     

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Matthew 25:40 

Over the years when I was involved in evangelicalism there is something that I noticed during the passing of time. Many services were geared towards younger people. The average ages of many services seemed to be from high school to thirties. Very seldom did I see elderly in the churches I was involved in. When I examined church bulletins I noticed that they had programs galore for the high school or college aged kids. Very seldom did I see programs for the elderly. In some cases it almost seemed as if the elderly did not exist. This was something I observed in evangelical churches in California, Wisconsin and the Washington, D.C. area. 

As I do some brief research on the elderly and evangelical churches there are a couple of interesting articles that show the different issues involving the elderly. Let me explain…. Many evangelical churches have tried to stay relevant through modern worship and programs geared to the young. In an effort that focuses on a smaller demographic it begs the question are the elderly being left behind? Are they being abandoned?  According to this Sojourners Magazine article that is being suggested.  Others believe that the elderly who exist in some churches are too entitled and not serving enough. That they are not being utilized properly. You can see the elderly issue from this perspective in this blog post from Carey Nieuwhof. 


Reopening Evangelical Churches in the COVID-19 and the Challenges for the Elderly 

Evangelicalism which has long had issues in how they deal with or approach the elderly will be dealing with these problems in a new way. Many churches are slowly trying to open and they are trying to figure out how to do so in the middle of a pandemic. From my perspective one of the issues of a pandemic is that you learn a lot about your church, country, culture and people. Pandemics reveal how people are measured and looked at and can bring out the worst of society. Pandemics will teach who is valued and who is disposable. So what do you do for the elderly especially when you consider the dangers of the coronavirus? 

The Religion News Service the other day had an article about this very topic. Here is a section of the article. 

Unable to find spiritual sustenance or the comforts of community, many are isolated and lonely. They may struggle with using the technology required for viewing online services or connecting virtually with family, friends and community members.

“It’s becoming more of a challenge to figure out how we minister to, and with, these older adults,” said Missy Buchanan, a writer and speaker from Rockwall, Texas, with a focus on older adults.

Some congregations are making phone calls and writing letters to older members. Others have bought them tablets and are teaching the least technologically savvy how to connect to online platforms.

Now, as states begin loosening lockdown restrictions and churches contemplate how to reopen safely, clergy and other religious leaders face difficult decisions when it comes to their senior members.

For older people, there’s a cruel reality to those reopenings.

Mounting evidence suggests houses of worship are probably among the riskiest places for older people. Transmission is much more likely indoors where lots of people come into close contact and where droplets with viral particles might linger in the air for as long as eight minutes. Multiple coronavirus cases across the country have been linked to people attending church and synagogue services or events.

Older Americans are also among the most likely to develop a severe case of COVID-19. Eight out of 10 coronavirus deaths reported in the U.S. have been among adults 65 years and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Many older people like the Littles may not see the insides of a church or synagogue for a very long time.

“When churches regather, older people may be the last to go back,” said Amy Hanson, an instructor in the gerontology department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who has a consulting ministry to help churches engage older adults. “Some will want to return. But it will be hard for those who do go back. There’ll be no handshaking and hugging — things older adults are missing. They won’t feel all they’re hoping to feel.”

Older American were nearly twice as likely as younger Americans to attend church, synagogue and mosque before the shutdowns. A recent Pew Research survey found that 61% of those born before 1945 (the so-called Silent Generation) attended religious services monthly or more, compared with 35% of millennials (born between 1981 and 1996).

You can read the rest of the article in, “As coronavirus restrictions loosen, congregations grapple with including older adults.” 


Some Closing Thoughts…

In the many evangelical churches I have once called home the elderly were often non-existent. Like I said above if they did exist they had a special traditional service for them but most of the time they were isolated from the others. Very seldom in writing this blog have I come across many churches that successfully had a multi generational approach to worship.  They do exist but they are few and far between. Evangelical culture by its nature is focused on the youth. That is why so many church programs and more are in that direction. I have even heard of situations where certain churches have age limits on worship pastors to convey the image that they are centered toward the young.  These problems are going to be exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The generational split between the young and the elderly will be made worse. How do you you re-open a church and include people who are most vulnerable to the coronavirus due to age and medical conditions? After all consider how many nursing homes are being besieged by this pandemic? What are churches going to do about a vulnerable age group? 

Jesus once said that what you do for the least you do for others you do for me. However, I would contend that in American evangelicalism the least of these are routinely neglected. We are going to see that not only with the elderly but those who have health conditions. My prediction is that there will be more estrangement and that the most vulnerable among our society – the elderly will be left even more vulnerable and isolated. American evangelicalism follows a business model of investment and profit. And people in the end stage or later stages of life don’t have as much to offer. They are living on limited incomes and dealing with health challenges. Many churches are not going to be able to integrate the elderly successfully. And this problem is not limited to them but to others who have health conditions. From a cancer survivor to the person dealing with other medical conditions such as kidney disease or lung disease. They will face similar challenges as churches reintegrate. This will be an issue to monitor in the course of time. 


One thought on “The COVID-19 Pandemic is Exposing the Divide Between the Young and the Elderly in American Evangelicalism

  1. Many churches that developed during the 70s/80s were also focused on the young (think Calvary Chapel) and many of them are now populated by Boomers in their 50s-early 70s.. (That’s my social demographic, by the way). There are also many inter-generational churches still around, but they tend not to be the biggest churches, usually. I’m in an inter-generational church of about 600. So, here’s the conundrum for many of these kinds of churches: although they may court the young people, it’s the Boomers and the elderly who tend to pay the bills. My church is working on re-opening (although it may be very difficult in my county due to stricter rules in our area of Northern California), but I’ve already heard from many of my older friends that they will not be there. They are waiting for the pandemic to stop or to blow over.These folks already zoom with their church groups and never miss the streamed services, and the church will need to keep this in mind as they reopen. If the streaming services aren’t good (they are currently very good), and if pastoral care is not available (via email, phone, etc), they will find another place that will serve them, and their tithes and offerings will follow them.

    I think it’s going to be very interesting to see what the American evangelical church looks like 5 years after the pandemic. It could become an empty shell of its former self, but it could also see a moment of greatness, I believe, if it sees the pandemic as an opportunity to be more responsive to the communities it serves, and less focused on entertainment as worship and politics. I love my church, by the way, but I do hope they will be realistic as they look at reopening that many of the elderly may not be back for a while. Boomers, I think, depending on age and health, will probably come back, but maybe more gradually.


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