I was recently emailed by a younger pastor seeking counsel on how to disciple older members in his church. This is a common scenario as more younger pastors go to pastor existing churches where the church is predominantly elderly. First, I want to affirm the general biblical principle that the older are to teach and mentor the younger (Titus 2).
Yet, there are other examples where the younger are not to shy away from challenging the older with the Word of God and the call to godly living. Paul exhorts Timothy not to let anyone look down on him for his youthfulness, but to be an example to all who believe (1 Tim. 4:12). Likewise, Paul exhorts Titus to teach older men and women to live godly and to mentor the younger (Titus 2:1-10).
So then, seeing the biblical imperative for a pastor to teach, disciple, and shepherd both young and old in the church, we must acknowledge the challenges that a younger pastor faces when pursuing to disciple one old enough to be his grandparent. Here are 3 tips I have found helpful from myself going to pastor a church at the age of 29 where most the members were between the ages of 70 - 90 years old:
Go on their turf. Like any discipleship relationship, there must be trust made that the pastor indeed cares for them. The best place to start is to go do what they do, where they like to do it. If they like to hunt and fish, go with them. If they like to garden, show up at their house with work clothes on and work in the garden with them. If they like to walk the neighborhood early in the morning, set up a time where you can come walk with them. Do not underestimate the progress made with older members when they see a simple effort made like this.
Seek to learn from them. Your first effort as a younger pastor should not be to try to instruct them, but allow yourself to learn from all their years of life and experience. Go and ask them questions about marriage, parenting, working the same job for 40 years, dealing with loss, and how they served the church before you were potty trained. There is much to learn from them and they will be more eager to learn from you after you acknowledge the wealth of life experience they can offer you.
Engage them in spiritual conversation. If you do these first two suggestions, I think you will find that spiritual conversations will flow from them. If not, bring spiritual conversations into your interactions when appropriate. Then, challenge them to pursue a spiritual discipline with you. Reading and memorizing Scripture, praying for certain things, reading a small book together, or stewardship of time. They actually may appreciate someone offering to try to grow in godliness with them. Do not assume it has been offered to them before.
My fellow younger pastors, my hope if you take this counsel will be not just a greater understanding on how to disciple older members in your church, but it will show to be what Paul says it should be…a means of growth in godliness for your own soul (Titus 2:1-10).