Family Ministry Today

The Center for Christian Family Ministry at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

Book Review: ‘A Vision for the Aging Church: Renewing Ministry for and by Seniors’ by James M. Houston and Michael Parker

by Michael Davis – Sep 30

A Vision for the Aging Church: Renewing Ministry for and by Seniors. By James M. Houston and Michael Parker. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012, 279 pp., $24.00.

“This book represents an effort to join science and religion in ways that most positively impact the partnership between today’s churches and seniors” (11). With this self-imposed mandate, James Houston and Michael Parker begin their journey through the five fascinating sections of their book. The authors have the credentials to live up to their stated purpose. Houston, an octogenarian seminary professor, and Parker, a retired army officer and professor of geriatric medicine, utilize past and current research as they present new alternatives for ministry with senior adults.

Houston and Parker present a case for hope not despair as Christians move into “old age.” In so doing, they “address the part today’s church must play in meeting the demands and embracing the opportunities of senior living” (22). The authors’ approach is to ensure that seniors age well (22). Houston and Parker “propose the idea that longer lives can be more fulfilled lives,” and they reject the idea that age should restrict the function and value of senior adults in contemporary society (23).

Organizationally, the book begins with a discussion of society’s ageist view of mature adults, moves through

biblical and historical themes of aging, to solutions for the aging church, presents a description of successful senior living, and closes with a treatment of end-of-life matters. Five appendices are included.

At the heart of their work, Parker and Houston present a model for successful aging as elders “avoid disease and disability, maximize cognitive and physical fitness, remain actively engaged in life through volunteerism and continue to learn and grow spiritually” (142). The Houston/Parker model makes use of current church/academic/governmental relationships and focuses on the lives of seniors and their adult children. Additionally, research and interventions in local communities allow these agencies to provide care for both the aging and their families. Through careful group planning, according to Houston and Parker, aging adults and their families will be enabled to live successfully as they embrace old age (142).

Beyond their comprehensive model for senior adult ministry, the authors make several interesting observations and recommendations. First, they insist that churches must focus on ministry “to” and “from” senior adults (32). In other words, churches must move beyond “doing ministry for” senior adults to leading seniors “to ministry to others.” As the authors write, “We believe that elders hold the keys to solving many, if not most, of society’s problems” (33).

Second, the authors examine the relationship of the fourth commandment (to keep the Sabbath holy), and the fifth commandment (to honor thy father and mother), and find support for their understanding that “the Christian senior is not to be discriminated against—least of all in the church—by the diminishing work he or she can now perform because of age, but by the sabbatical identify” they have in Christ (60). This understanding is foundational for the model for aging offered by the authors.

A third observation is that elder caregiving will be the biggest issue facing churches, families, and workplaces in the present century (127). Parker and Houston are critical of the efforts of the local church to prepare elders and their adult children for aging successfully. They call for planning and training for parents and adult children.

Another suggestion for helping elders age successfully calls for churches to encourage senior adults to complete a life review (164). According to Houston and Parker, “Everyone has a personal story to tell” (164). It is through these personal histories that elders can find meaning for life and can share important lessons with younger generations.

A final observation presented by the authors is the challenge of dealing with dementia and its relative illnesses. Parker and Houston suggest that seniors often struggle as they move from the Cartesian assertion “I think, therefore I am!” towards the biblical truth of “I am beloved, therefore I am” (195). The authors’ challenge to readers is to continue to value elders even as they no longer have the cognitive capacity society deems necessary for human value.

Christian educators and other church leaders may struggle with the writers’ continuous assertion that age- graded educational programs are counter-productive to successful aging for senior adults. More than once Parker and Houston insist that the biblical model for Christian education is intergenerational. Houston and Parker believe that American society is age-graded, designed to favor the young, and focused on three periods of life: education, work, and retirement (115). Further, the authors articulate the need for churches to move back towards a biblical model of education that

“suggests that the old should teach the young” (115). They write, “Our churches need to cultivate attitudes and programs that foster lifelong learning and provide opportunities for seniors to instruct and teach the young” (115). However, most Christian educators would argue that their organizations include older people teaching the young, although their small groups are at least somewhat age-graded.

Readers will be fascinated by the research presented from the fields of neuroscience, geriatrics, and social work. The information addressing the church’s response to the crisis of Alzheimer’s disease is worth the price of the book. The authors lend an empathetic ear to those who suffer from this devastating disease as well as to their caregivers. Parker and Houston offer a high view of the human life calling for the family, the church, and society to hold dear their elders. God bless senior adults!

[Editor's Note: Michael L. Davis (D.Ed.Min.) is a Ed.D. Student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Minister of Education/Administration Mount Zion Baptist Church, Huntsville, Alabama.  This review originally appeared in The Journal of Discipleship and Family Ministry 3.2 (Spring/Summer 2013).]