NASHVILLE (BP) — When evangelist Phil Waldrep agreed to preach a revival at a nursing home, he didn’t expect a huge response. After all, he reasoned, aren’t most older people already Christians?
But of the 40-60 nursing home residents who attended the services, 21 made a profession of faith in Christ as their Lord and Savior, and about 10 were later baptized at a local church.
That experience two decades ago helped spur Waldrep to add senior adult events to his schedule. Today, he and fellow Southern Baptist evangelists say they are seeing a steady — and in some cases increasing — stream of people over 55 coming to know Christ.
“I am convinced now more than ever,” Waldrep told Baptist Press, that senior adults are “an unreached group we have that Southern Baptist churches need to focus on intentionally to share the Gospel with them.”
‘Never been a greater need’
Waldrep’s Celebrators Conferences for “mature believers,” as his website puts it, draw 6,000-9,000 older adults per event and have opened doors for him to preach for senior adult gatherings at First Baptist Church in Dallas, First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., and First Baptist Church in Orlando, Fla., among other congregations.
At those events and in regular church services, Waldrep said, “we have senior adults who, for the first time, come to know Christ.”
“Many of them are married to someone who is very active in church,” Waldrep said. “… Many of them tell us, ‘Everybody just assumed I was a Christian'” and “no one ever had an [evangelistic] conversation with me.”
Evangelist Eric Ramsey, a missions strategist who served eight years with the North American Mission Board, told BP “there has never been a greater need in world history for evangelism to senior adults. Right now in America, we have the largest population of senior adults in U.S. history. Globally, there’s the largest population of people over the age of 65 of any time in world history.”
In addition to the need for Gospel witness among the World War II Builder Generation, Baby Boomers are retiring, facing health challenges and looking for spiritual answers, said Ramsey, president of Arkansas-based Tom Cox World Ministries.
Baby Boomers present a unique evangelistic challenge, he noted, because unlike previous generations, many of them reject Judeo-Christian morality and don’t think of themselves as senior adults. Consequently, they may not be open to attend senior adult events at churches.
Still, Waldrep said many Boomers are open to the Gospel because they gained “a taste of materialism” in the post-World War II economic boom. And they now “realize materialism is not the answer” and are asking questions about spiritual matters.
Why has no one ever told us?
Kay Cox, who has ministered through traveling evangelism 40 years with her husband Tom, sees such spiritual openness in older senior adults too. She has noted a “quickening” of 85- to 95-year-olds being saved over the past seven or eight years, with salvations occurring on her mission trips to India, Peru, Russia and Uganda among other nations.
Cox, who continues international evangelism despite battling stage 4 cancer, told BP about leading a widower to Christ in Cuba in December and seeing many older adults come to Jesus through crusades and medical clinics abroad.
“One of the statements I’ve heard over and over and over again — and a lot of times from the senior adults — is ‘why has no one ever come to tell us this'” good news about Jesus, Cox said.
Before Tom Cox had to stop traveling for health reasons in 2014, he and Kay spent two years leading senior adult meetings in churches across America. The meetings equipped believers to share their faith and presented the Gospel to non-believers.
Other Southern Baptist evangelists who hold meetings and revival services specifically for older adults include Alabama-based preacher Bob Pitman, music evangelist Bob Smith and humorist Dennis Swanberg.
‘How old are you?’
Evangelism among senior adults has its challenges too.
Junior Hill, who has been a vocational evangelist 50 years, estimated less than 5 percent of first-time faith professions at meetings he leads are made by people 75 and older. He suggested two reasons more senior adults don’t confess Christ as their Lord and Savior.
“The most obvious reason is that they have resisted the Gospel so long and so often” that “their hearts become hardened,” Hill told BP.
Second, he said, “a lot of people who are that old probably have some feeling in their heart that it would be a little embarrassing at that age to acknowledge that they’ve never been saved.”
But Hill, like many of his evangelist colleagues, has seen God move among older adults.
At a 2016 worship service in Snellville, Ga., Hill was tempted not to preach an evangelistic sermon because everyone present appeared to be a church member. Yet he resisted the temptation and preached “like they were all lost.”
When Hill issued a public invitation to trust Christ, an older woman in the back of the church walked forward to the altar, stated she wanted to be saved and requested baptism.
As the pastor presented her to the congregation, he asked, “Ma’am, if you don’t mind, would you tell us, how old are you?” Hill recounted. “And she said, ’98 years old’ … I think in all the years I’ve been preaching, that’s the oldest person I’ve seen make a commitment to the Lord.”