When Joan, my mother-in-law, turned 90 she decided to say “yes” to any invitation. We invited her to go boogie boarding, and she accepted. Later in that same year, Joan ziplined with us. The company gave her a visor because she was the oldest person to do all 12 lines!
As the years have passed, Joan has kept saying yes. Not that there aren’t obstacles. A smaller, more confined life continues to beckon and threatens her resolve. Joan fights every day through physical and mental exercises. (Scrabble counts –right?) She has weathered various surgeries and the long recoveries those entail.
My mother-in-law may be a great case study for “successful aging” but there’s more to it. Saying “yes” isn’t about challenging her body, it’s about relationships. She wants to spend time with her family and friends, so she’ll take a risk and join us. Relationships trump caution. Joan wants to be part of the life that is going on around her.
As congregations age, they have the same tendency as many seniors to let their world get smaller and more confined. They stop saying yes to the invitations of their neighbors. Sometimes they stop hearing the invitations at all. They don’t keep up the relationships they had with their community. They mourn the death of their friends and don’t make new relationships. Their sense of purpose and meaning diminishes.
Here are a couple of relevant findings from the May 2021 American Perspectives Survey:
Americans report having fewer close friendships than they once did, talking to their friends less often, and relying less on their friends for personal support.
Nearly one-third (31 percent) of seniors say it has been at least five years since they developed a new friendship.
The study notes that the pandemic exacerbated a previously existing trend. This isn’t new. What can we do about it? During the pandemic, I heard lots of great stories of folks staying connected. Now that the pandemic is in a new stage, a sort of everything all at once phase – how do we adapt?
Relationships – loving God, one another, and our neighbors – are the key to meaning and purpose in our lives. Not many of us seek out a smaller, more confined life – it sneaks up on us. How can we upend that trend?
Clearly, we need more Joans! Or, we need to figure out how to bring out the Joan in all of us. I should add that on her 97th birthday Joan reserved the right to occasionally say “no.” We can allow that for ourselves, and for our congregations. Not every invitation is doable – but God continues to encourage us to Come and see! There’s a world of people that need to feel God’s love through YOU. Let’s go!