By Amy Hanson
When Earl Ferguson was completing a long-time ministry and heading toward retirement, he certainly didn’t plan to pastor a church in a 55+ living community in the suburbs of Chicago.
“I had just finished a 38-year ministry and was searching for what God had next for me,” Earl recalls. “My first response when asked to be the Carillon (living community) pastor, was no! I was not interested and did not want to live in a community where everyone was 55+!”
God apparently had other plans for Earl and wife Pat, who is the creative arts director for the Carillon campus. Since moving into the community in 2004 and taking on the leadership role of the church campus, attendance at Sunday morning services has grown from 50 to 150.
While these communities are marketed as resort-style living with golf courses, recreational activities and fitness centers, some churches–such as Community Christian Church in Naperville, IL–are taking a serious look at the spiritual lives of the thousands of adults who live in the unique living environments.
A Church Inside the Community
The Carillon campus–a multi-site venue of Community Christian Church–began with the vision of a woman who lived in the closed community and wanted to have church services in the clubhouse. Getting approval for this was difficult, but the group eventually began having monthly worship services.
Not long after, Community Christian learned of the need, embraced this ministry and started weekly services.
One of the challenges the church faces is it cannot invite people who live outside of Carillon to join them. The Carillon Adult Master Association insists that use of the clubhouse be restricted to those who live inside Carillon. Not a problem for Earl and Co. “We have a mission field of 3600 people, all who live in Carillon,” Earl says.
Small groups are a foundational part of the ministry and often are the entry point for a person’s involvement with the church. “We have as many people in small groups as attend church services on Sunday morning,” Earl says, noting there are currently 13 small groups meeting in the community.
Many people in Carillon have come to know Christ or found their way back to church through the small group ministry. One man named Bob was a business owner and traveled all over the country before retiring and moving into Carillon. “We invited him initially to a small group and we could practically see his eyes begin to open to the message of the gospel,” Earl says. “Bob was baptized when he was 80 years old, and he told his friends and family, ‘All my life I’ve known something was missing and now I know what it is.’ ”
The Carillon church campus benefits greatly by being a part of the larger Community Christian Church. All leaders in any capacity from all the campuses attend a monthly gathering where they are trained and encouraged in their task as leaders. Each of the campus pastors, including Earl, meet weekly to plan and prepare upcoming sermons. Pat as the creative arts director also has a weekly meeting where she gathers ideas.
But the benefits go both ways. Carillon provides numerous volunteers to Community Christian for projects, such as a partnership the church has with a local elementary school and a Christmas event where gifts are collected, sorted and made available at the school for parents to purchase for a small amount of money. Last year alone, the church collected 5,000 gifts and now the ministry has expanded to include another school.
Church Members as “Insiders” in the Community
Not all churches have the opportunity or the ability to plant a church inside a 55+ living community. However, there are other ways to reach those living inside these neighborhoods.
First Evangelical Free Church in Fullerton, CA is very intentional about training church members who live inside these communities to be involved and visible.
“We encourage our church members to be a part of the Home Owners Association or to be active in the crisis response teams in the communities,” says Rosalyn Encarnacion, First Evangelical Free’s Director of Senior Adult Programs. “When they are in leadership, they notice the homes and the individuals who need help. At this point, the church’s ‘Family Fix-it Ministry’ can step in and serve the people.”
Older adults are then invited to a social activity at the church and begin to develop relationships with others who can tell them about Christ.
“We also will help someone who is moving out of the community and into an assisted living facility or nursing home,” Rosalyn says. “This can be a very difficult time for people, especially for those who don’t have family. We will often help them pack and even host a garage sale for them while one of our church members takes them out to lunch or to a movie.”
Older adults and church leaders are discovering the great importance of integrating into 55+ communities across the country. Much like missionaries who move and settle in a different country, churches that are willing to invest time and resources into these communities are seeing people come to Christ and grow in their relationship with Him.
This is just a taste of what’s happening nationwide in innovative ministry with the “Encore Generation.” To read more about ministering to senior adults, download Amy Hanson’s full paper, Churches Responding to the Age Wave: Top Innovations in Older Adult Ministry.
Amy Hanson is a speaker, teacher, writer and consultant who is passionate about helping older adults discover a life of Christ-centered meaning and purpose. She formerly led the active adult (50+) ministries at Central Christian Church in Las Vegas. Today, she unites her doctorate in gerontology with her ministry experience to educate and equip leaders, students, health care professionals and older adults on the unique opportunities of an aging America. Find out more about Amy’s ministry at amyhanson.org.