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Present Your AARP Cards at the Door

It's not uncommon today to report on 'niche' churches designed to reach the young or the unchurched. But in our rapidly fragmenting, heavy-on-the-youth-emphasis society, some say there's also a need for churches aimed at the needs of the elderly.

After nine years of searching, Hannah Baker has discovered a church where it's OK to be gray-haired and a little hard of hearing. It's a new congregation for people older than 50. The Senior Church of the Grand Strand, Columbia, SC, is drawing older people curious about a congregation geared to their needs.

"A lot of churches want our money, but then treat us like that's all we can contribute," says Baker, 72, who lives in nearby Garden City, SC, "We're older, but we're not dead."

Senior churches flourish in roughly a dozen retirement communities across the country, but this is believed to be the first attempted among a general population. "A lot of people think our church must be like a convalescent home," says Pastor Jerry Brittingham. "Not at all. This is a place where vital, active seniors can get involved."

The 53-year old Brittingham said the church upends the prevailing thinking that older congregations are generally dying ones. And here, seniors aren't overlooked for leadership roles to make room for younger faces. "Seniors tend to get forgotten in a lot of churches," says Linda Johnson, 48, of Garden City. "When I was younger I helped in church nurseries and children's programs. Now I'm at an age where I'm more comfortable in a church that isn't as focused on young people."

Clark says, at The Senior Church, people discover others like themselves. Some might have moved to the area because of a divorce or the death of a spouse. Others find friends who are facing similar issues with their children and grandchildren. "People understand our grief," says Carl Brownlee, 67, whose son recently died of a heart attack. "My wife and I had been looking for a church for years, but this is the first one where we really felt we belonged."

Brittingham says the church isn't targeting seniors who already belong to churches, but those who are new to the area, have roots outside the South and are without a church. "Many of these people are going through major transitions and have special needs," he says. "People who move here from other parts of the country don't always assimilate easily into Southern churches." Brittingham says he can relate to "transplants" because he has lived outside the South. Besides parish ministry, the Maryland native has a background as a retail clothing buyer and producer of Christian television programs.

The emergence of The Seniors Church reflects a denominational trend toward developing congregations with niche audiences. The most common outreach has been to baby boomers, the huge segment of the American population born between 1946-1964. Boomers will begin turning 50 next year, which is why seniors ministries are expected to become more popular. The South Carolina Baptist Convention started the Surfside congregation because of the burgeoning senior population along the Grand Strand.

"We're responding to the need that's there," says Keith Lancaster, a consultant with the Baptist Convention. At a seniors church near Phoenix, worshipers belt out big-band tunes rewritten with Christian lyrics. But here, seniors prefer to sing traditional hymns and listen to sermons that weave their concerns into Bible lessons.

"In many churches, what happens when you get over 50 is, you're supposed to work for the church, pray for the church, give your money to the church and then young people are given all the buses and ministries," Brittingham says. His congregation ranges in age from 40 to 75. One couple brought their children and 10-month old grandson. Brittingham says people of all ages are welcome, even though seniors are the focus.

The church meets in the local Civic Center, a modest brick building off Business-US 17. Worshipers sit in brown folding chairs and face a makeshift altar neatly decorated with an open Bible, burning candles and a large floral arrangement. Brittingham says the church eventually will have its own building, but he has pledged not to take on any debt that can't be paid off in 30 days. He says that's important to a generation that survived the Great Depression and is weary of debt.

The building he envisions in five to 10 years will be a "humongous" conference center on 15 acres off the US 17 Bypass. He believes the church will become a hub by offering retreats, seminars and golf tournaments for seniors in the Southeast. The center also will have exercise and reading rooms. Brittingham wants extra space for intergenerational ministries, such as senior outreach to latchkey kids. "What we're doing is very historic and cutting edge because there's not another church quite like this in the United States," he said. "We think we have a great future here."

    About the Author

  • Susan Hogan-Albach