By David Roach
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 Baptist Press “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.
Tennessee Baptist evangelists Phil Glisson of Memphis and Jerry Drace of Jackson agree that senior adults represent a large number of people who need to be reached with the gospel. Both men are past presidents of the Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists.
“In recent years, I have also seen more older people responding to the gospel to be saved,” Glisson said. “This has been true in the churches at the invitation time and at other places where I have had the opportunity to witness. A man in his 90s became open to Christ as a result of a couple of tragedies. The pastor said he followed through with baptism and attended church for a year before he died. Elsewhere, the first words a woman said to the pastor waiting at the altar were these, ‘It’s about time isn’t it.’ She was in her 80s.”
Glisson stressed that it’s important to not “give up on anyone. We know there are many who don’t want Christ. But there are still some who do and they span the ages from young to old.
“Some who are not interested now will be when God gets their attention. That is what my wife and I pray for the lost. ‘Lord, do whatever it takes to get their attention!’ Let’s renew our commitment to spread the good news both in and out of our churches to all.”
Having been in vocational evangelism for 40 years, Drace said he personally has not witnessed a significant increase in senior adult conversions in the recent revivals and area-wide meetings that he has conducted.
“I do notice an increase in the attendance in the senior adult sessions during the Hope for the Home Conferences conducted by our ministry.
“It is interesting to observe the distinct difference in characteristics and priorities between those who belong to the ‘Builder Generation’ and those who are part of the ‘Baby Boomer Generation.’
“Yet, they are all classified as ‘senior adults.’ When you consider the fastest growing age group in our country is among those 85 and older it is easy to understand how conversions could be on the increase since their remaining time is short,” Drace said.
“However, I remember witnessing to a gentleman a few years ago who was 87 at the time. I asked him why he had not confessed Christ as his Lord and Savior before now. His answer was, ‘I still have plenty of time.’ I thought as I left his home, ‘I have met either the foremost fool, or the ultimate optimist in my life.’ ”
Drace, who also is pastor of Friendship Baptist Church, Friendship, observed that many senior adults have come to the fall and winter months of their lives and feel empty and alone even though they may have substantial retirement funds.
“The Builder Generation and the Baby Boomer Generation are as much in need of salvation as Generation X, Generation Y (millennials), and now Generation Z. It is very evident from the past numerous years of conversion statistics in the SBC that all generations need the Lord,” Drace said.
Evangelism among senior adults has its challenges too.
Junior Hill of Alabama, a vocational evangelist for 50 years who has often preached in Tennessee, 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.
He told of one older woman who came forward after he presented the gospel and said she wanted to be saved and baptized.
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.”
— Lonnie Wilkey, editor of the Baptist and Reflector, contributed to this article.