The journal ChurchChina published an article earlier this summer on how Chinese Christians can care for and minister to the increasing senior population in China. Last week we published part one of a translation of that article in which the author describes her ministry to the elderly in a senior center. This week we publish part two which includes helpful recommendations for serving seniors.
Gospel Ministry in Senior Centers, continued
Author Bei Lei
A Call to, and Advice for, Serving Seniors
After serving on this threshing floor for almost five years, I deeply feel that, as everyone grows old, aging causes people to feel disheartened, dispirited, and sorrowful. The saying, “a setting sun has boundless beauty” [describing the end of life] is just a slogan the world and advertisements use to deceive and comfort us. Aging causes people’s social status to fade and creates a feeling of great loss. Many seniors retire from a job where they have been striving for decades. It’s a common phenomenon to see that “as soon as the person goes, the tea cools.” [An idiom meaning that when a person leaves a job, home, or ceases to have practical value to others, then people neglect and ignore him.]
Some seniors find opportunities for renewed employment after retirement, but as their strength and bodies fail, they also gradually withdraw from further employment. They frequently are lonely, depressed, and feel like they have no value. In some families after the lady of the home grows old and can no longer do housework as usual, she feels that her position in her own home has declined, that she has become a useless person, and a burden to others.
Aging also results in a person becoming physically in pain or weak and extremely pessimistic. Many seniors were strong and capable their whole lives, but as bodily ailments and pains increase, people who used to be optimistic, free and easy, now feel their own weaknesses and helplessness. Relevant data points out that about two-thirds of seniors suffer from senile depression, have trouble sleeping, frequently think about death, and feel that human life has no meaning. But because their depression grows symbiotically with other bodily sicknesses, it doesn’t attract much attention from those who care for them. They handle it by simply saying, “Oh, don’t worry, don’t think too much.”
When time is short for seniors, if their spirits have not attained salvation, then their end will be eternal destruction. So we must intensify our prayer preparations and do our utmost to become channels of the gospel. We must enter the midst of the elderly and let Jesus Christ become the Savior of their lives, so that they may be found acceptable before Father God, and enter into the kingdom of the beloved Son, and enjoy everlasting blessing and joy. I have the following recommendations for those in the Lord’s body who have a burden to join a senior center ministry team (as distinct from groups going to senior centers to visit specific elders):
Number one, the team’s unity of spirit in service is very important. You could first pray and prepare yourself and the ranks of your co-laborers in small group fellowship; when you have three core workers submit themselves [to this ministry], then you can start regular service as a team. As fellow workers divide the labor, establishing one liaison to be responsible for connecting with the senior center for all sorts of general affairs. Although our co-laborers come from different denominations, we serve together based on the foundation of a common faith, and face difficulties together. Although the meeting begins at 3:00 or 4:00, we begin with a team meeting at 12:30, after which we have an hour of prayer. I feel deeply the power of praying together as a team, and we have seen God use all sorts of ways to let his redeeming work enter the hearts of the elderly. Furthermore, we frequently go in pairs to pray that seniors would make a decision for Christ; sometimes just one person cannot verify the sincerity of the senior’s commitment. We serve as a team.
Number two, during the early stages of preparation, start by joining volunteer public service in order to become familiar with the regulatory framework of the senior center and to gain the trust of the institution. There is a great number of available options for public service including: helping seniors with hairdressing, massaging, cutting fingernails, mending clothes, chatting with seniors, taking photos, arranging memoirs, doing manual labor for seniors, writing calligraphy, teaching them to use a computer, giving medical help, training staff, etc. These activities can soften the soil for the gospel, and give unbelieving workers in the facility time to understand and trust us.
In the preparation stage, you must by all means avoid directly taking seniors in the facility to a small group meeting without the institution’s approval. Such actions will be stopped by the institution anytime and anywhere for any reason, and will result in the gatekeeper prohibiting Christians from entering to visit. It is okay to share the gospel with individual seniors, and you can also [strengthen] the elderly believers who live in the complex. But pay close attention to the surrounding environment; do not draw the ill will of the nursing staff or the seniors’ children.
Because seniors’ bodies are weak, they rely heavily on the caring nurses around them, and not showing consideration for their weakness will create unnecessary malaise for the seniors being served. With elderly people whose bodies are healthy, we often let them feel our respect by giving up our seats, letting them pass ahead of us, greeting them warmly, and using other such manners. If they want to engage in conversation, then listen more and speak less, because listening attentively is one of the best ways to value another person.
As you listen you will understand his special qualities, story, and concerns. Afterwards you are able to know how to pray for him, and how to bring him to see the beauty of the kingdom of heaven, and the preciousness of eternal life.
In our ministry, we also often pray for the institution and ask the Lord to bestow peace upon it. We understand that the managers of the senior center must bear legal responsibility for any mishap that takes place in the organization. When the institution controls the seniors’ gatherings during flu season, we do not go into the building and pick up seniors, but we pray in the meeting room and wait for seniors to come themselves to the meeting. On a normal day, if other activities in the facility need volunteers, we will also actively participate and support. Pray often for the institution, submit to the institution’s authority, energetically respond to the institution’s requests for help—these are the three key core elements that have allowed our ministry team to preserve good relations with the senior center for four years.
Number three, pay attention to the differences and similarities in format between senior center gatherings and church gatherings. If, by the power and protection of God, you have a gathering in a senior center, then the gathering’s style will on the whole be analogous to church’s Sunday worship, including preaching, Scripture reading, prayer, songs, fellowship, etc. But the gathering must be limited to one hour in length because seniors’ physical strength is weak, and they often cannot sustain a gathering that is over an hour. Specifically when sharing the gospel one-to-one, for various reasons it is difficult to speak comprehensively. Therefore when preaching, we ask the preacher to touch on the gospel’s important points and speak theme by theme, fifteen minutes each time. The gatherings should be scheduled around the institution's timetable for other activities such as seniors’s dining, bathing, and resting.
After they have tasted the sweetness of salvation, those newly converted will actively share the gospel with the seniors around them. Because they live in a senior center, life is very simple, and they are confined to a small circle. We try to present our messages in a lively way. For example, the things I talked about earlier—singing hymns, doing rhythmic movements, coffee and snacks, photography activities, gospel movies, etc.—let them feel that the gathering is lively and interesting. Seniors who are already believers will tell other seniors to participate in the Christian gatherings because their activities are very interesting. In a warm and bustling atmosphere, the truth of the gospel is able to permeate an old person’s heart.
Number four, understand the unique nature of sharing the gospel in a senior center. For the seniors who have left home to spend their later years in a senior center, three-fourths have declined in physical function to the point that they can no longer live independently; the other fourth are still physically capable, unmarried or bereaved of their spouses, or accompanying a spouse, as well as those who are willing to lead a communal life. Because of a deficiency in intellect, hearing, sight, memory, or speech function, it is not easy for these seniors to comprehensively understand the gospel. They also have difficulty expressing feedback. Therefore, when sharing the gospel with them you must face two big questions: 1) What do you say, and how do you say it when sharing the gospel? 2) How do you judge if they have received it or not?
This is how our team responds to these two questions. According to the degree of reception of the gospel, we divide seniors into those who are fully and clearly aware, and those who are more fuzzily and vaguely aware. With those who are clearly conscious of the message, we will have a relatively detailed discussion with them about Jesus’ whole life and the truth of the gospel, and we will also give Bibles and spiritual literature.
As for seniors with more fuzzy awareness, we will tell them multiple times: “Jesus loves you, you must please receive his salvation.” The abilities of seniors to receive and understand are different, and we might not necessarily tell them all of the truth of the gospel, but we will be succinct and direct. What we must talk about is this: Jesus is the Son of God, Jesus was nailed to a cross for our sins, his precious blood cleanses us from all sin; Jesus bestows the Holy Spirit to live in us, and the Holy Spirit becomes the evidence of our redemption; if we believe in Jesus, Jesus will resurrect our bodies, we will see Jesus in heaven, and we will have everlasting life.
There is one more type of senior: those who are on their deathbeds. Because time is very short, we must share swiftly, and we tell them to “Grab hold of Jesus” and go up to heaven, do not descend into hell, Jesus’ blood washes all our sin away. The meaning of “grab hold of Jesus” is to show whether or not he acknowledges that Jesus is his personal Savior. It says in the Bible, “Whoever confesses the Son, has the Father also” (1 John 2:23). Even if he cannot use language to express it, he can nod his head or even blink his eyes, and thereby still express that he acknowledges Jesus as Savior. We frequently hold an old man’s hand and pray, and are careful to observe the expression in his eyes or his facial expression, and if he has received salvation, an old man will sometimes have a very clear change in his eyes, countenance, and body.
For instance, one time we went into a room to visit an elderly believer, and when we sang, “God loves the world, such that he gave us his only begotten son . . .” the bedridden roommate next to him let out a sound, “Oh, oh, oh!” I looked, and it turned out this old person’s teeth had all fallen out, and he couldn’t speak, but he was weeping. I asked him, “Do you want Jesus?” He nodded his head, yes. Two of us co-laborers held his hands and prayed a prayer of decision [for Christ], and told him, “You just have to say, ‘amen,’ and it will be good.” At the end of the prayer, the old man said with all his strength, “Amen!” I saw with my own eyes, in the twinkling of an eye, his formerly pallid body became flush with a glow, his complexion also became ruddy, and his face wore a brilliant smile like a child. All the workers present saw it with their own eyes, and repeatedly gave thanks to the Savior. After this, we continued to visit this old man, and every time he was either smiling faintly, or sleeping serenely. After over a year, he was taken by the Lord.
Of course, there are not a few seniors who, even if they have received the gospel, have no way of saying so, and what we can see is only one part. We do not know how much of the gospel a person is able to understand, and many times it is the Holy Spirit who directly opens his heart. This is a spiritually hidden matter, so we hand it over to the Lord—the things we do not know, the Lord knows them all, because the Lord sees into the heart.
When we share the gospel with seniors, we must be careful to observe and be mindful of the Holy Spirit’s leading. We must be careful not to make our preferences central—our speech, our sitting posture, and our wording all need to be always adjusting according to the old person’s needs. We must guard against self-centeredly throwing everything about the gospel at the other person, saying at every turn, if you don’t accept Jesus you will go to hell when you die, or rashly promise healing—if you believe in Jesus, Jesus will heal your sickness, and let you stand up from this wheelchair.
About the author: Sister Bei Lei, a worker in an urban church in southern China, started serving elderly people in senior centers in 2013 and continues to the present day.
Original article: 养老院里的福音事工 (ChurchChina)
Edited, adapted, and reposted with permission.
Image credits: Old Couple by Adam Cohn, via Flickr.
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