Monday, August 28, 2017

The Stage Is Set... and...


photo source: Wikicommons
A few years ago, around the turn of the century, sociologists began to speak of the ‘four ages of life’. Before that, the popular understanding had traditionally held to only three ages, but that view began to change with the recognition that in the early 21st century, people are living 20-30 years longer than the average person did a century ago.

The old model needed retooling, and the concept of a ‘third age’ was coined and began to gain traction.

Sociologist William Sadler, in his book The Third Age, argued for a radical shift in society’s perception of aging: “The new opportunity facing adults today is a fulfilling third age… adults should create a fresh map of life in which self-actualization after fifty becomes a new norm.”

Groups as divergent as business entity Encore, and faith-based organizations like Encore Generation have begun to explore and strategize how to respond to the unique opportunities presented by the newly-recognized ‘Third Age’.

In church circles, there was a brief flurry of interest regarding Baby Boomer ministry between 2007-2010. Almost every resource makes reference to Amy Hanson’s Baby Boomers and Beyond. The good news is that her book is well-written and insightful, and the ‘other’ news is that everyone refers to it because there’s not much else out there. It appears that with the exception of the United Methodists in the USA, few churches or denominations have given it much thought or attention since then.

There are a range of opinions on when, exactly, this Third Age begins. For example, some suggest that the term refers to retired people over sixty-five who are still active and healthy. They would reserve the term ‘old’ for those who are over eighty and restricted by encroaching infirmity; ‘old-old’ occurs when/if you live into your nineties. On the other end of the spectrum, a much smaller number (including, oddly, Dr. Sadler) suggested that mid-to-late forties demarcates the beginning of the Third Age.

Generation Jones makes use of the phrase ‘third age’, but their focus is on what they believe to be the ‘lost generation’ sandwiched between the youngest Baby Boomers and the eldest part of Generation X. It’s an entertaining website (I’m a Joneser, according to their math and agenda), but their narrow definition of Third Age is less helpful.

The majority of those who use Third Age terminology today tend to place the entry point at fifty, with an elastic end point of roughly seventy, depending on the health, vitality, and personality of the individual. They would define the Third Age more by its unique characteristics than a rigid “when’s your birthday” rule. (cf. Jane Fonda’s TedTalk: Life’s Third Act)

The Four Ages in a Nutshell
First Age
  • childhood into early adulthood (individuation from parents) – birth to early 20’s
Second Age
  • building careers and raising families – mid-20’s to 50(-ish)
Third Age
  • still-employed or recently retired empty-nesters – 50 to 70(-ish)
  • more discretionary time; energy + experience
  • life focus shifts to make an impact/difference; leaving a legacy
Fourth Age
  • seniors – 70+


Describing the dynamics of the Third Age, Midlife Unlimited’s Melita Debellis writes:
“This is a time when, from the vantage point of long and varied experience, we can take particular note of what is really important to us and how we want to ‘spend’ the time remaining to us. During this period, we can revisit/reclaim some of what we neglected along the way, clear out unwanted baggage, heal old wounds and see where we want to grow to become more balanced and whole.”
In other words – from a Christian worldview – the Third Age is a time of reflection, introspection, and strategic (re)thinking. In Bob Buford’s terminology, it is Half Time, an opportunity for “revitalization and catching a new vision”. From this perspective, the Third Age should be fraught with exciting potential. Unfortunately, the more traditional views of aging have inadvertently produced some negative expectations of anyone over fifty. There has been (and will continue to be) a fairly strong reaction and push-back to these stereotypes. John Schachinger – tongue firmly in cheek – summarizes the traditional view:
“We then enter retirement and aging, and largely devote ourselves to recreation, leisure, and obsolescence. By now our major decisions and life course have been determined. We’ve progressed as far as we can, and it’s time to move to the sidelines.” (Here Come the Baby Boomers – Again!)
As Schachinger notes elsewhere in his article:
“From the cradle to young adulthood, entire industries have sprung up or been revolutionized to feed, clothe, entertain, and educate [baby boomers]. We revolutionized and transformed youth and young adulthood, and we’ll also revolutionize retirement. Although we haven’t put it together yet, boomer aging will bear little resemblance to the senior centers and retirement communities today.
“Boomers will not age quietly (they’ve never done anything quietly!).”
It’s puzzling to note that a number of evangelical resources have a tendency to lump anyone over the age of fifty together with ministry to seniors. This represents a significant blind spot. Amy Hanson, in her landmark Baby Boomers and Beyond, commented on this mentality:
“I recall an older man who once said, ‘I can’t wait until these younger folks get old so we can start singing the hymns again’. Ministry with [the Boomers] will look different now and in the future. It will never resemble the senior adult ministry of the past because this new generation of older adults is completely different from previous generations.” (emphasis in original)
Canadian blogger and pastor Carey Nieuwhof (who turned 50 himself just a year ago) typifies the ‘new’ attitude of Third Agers in the church:
“The default in many churches is simple: provide programming for over-50 adults that caters to their needs: potluck lunches, Bible studies and social gatherings for their demographic, and, of course, bus trips.
“Really? As in really—this is as good as it gets for people moving into their prime and then into their senior years? If I have to spend the next thirty years taking bus trips, I want the first bus trip to be straight to heaven.” (Shut Down the Bus Tours)
Effective ministry with those in the Third Age (predominantly but not exclusively Baby Boomers) will by necessity be markedly different than what the previous generation considers normal. As Gary McIntosh wrote in the Christian Education Journal, Fall 2008 (notice again the flurry of interest a decade ago):
“Boomers… like to be characterized by the following words: active, alert, contributor, experienced, healthy, independent, and worker. Most Boomers think of themselves as 10–15 years younger than they actually are. In short, expect Boomers to be turned off by any ministry that portrays them as frail, aged, or sedentary… They are attracted to ministries that help them look back with pride to their youth, while helping them launch the next chapter in their lives.” (emphasis added)
It is this sense of “launch[ing] the next chapter” that needs to be emphasized in ministry among the over-fifty segment of any church. The Third Age is an opportunity to make a difference for the sake of the Kingdom.

It is a season of dreams and mobilization. A kairos moment that dares to inquire: “What’s next, Lord?”

And then acts on it.

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