Seniors need Jesus
If the church is prepared and flexible, the silver harvest will be bountiful
A few days ago when I opened the door to accept a delivery, a smiling man in his seventies handed me a parcel, got my signature, and then jogged off. I wasn’t surprised at all; energetic septuagenarians are not rare in Japan. We see silver-haired men and women walking, biking, running, and working.
Of course, there are also many elderly people who struggle with daily life. Next to our apartment building there is a private home with a small flower garden where an elderly woman used to live. She was frail and moved slowly, but she enjoyed spending time outside when the weather was good. I always greeted her and sometimes stopped to chat when she was near the gate. Each time we talked she proudly announced her age; the last time we talked, she was 102. Knowing she is gone now, I feel a twinge of loneliness when passing her house. I regret not making more of an effort to talk to her about Jesus.
Two years ago, I celebrated my own sixtieth birthday, called kanreki in Japanese. Kanreki is thought to mark the beginning of a second life. It is a time for reflection and for new beginnings, and many people retire or make other life changes. Special kanreki celebrations with gatherings of family and friends are common.1 As Japan ages, more and more people are entering their post-kanreki second lives. Already, government statistics show that 35% of the population is age sixty or older.2 This raises the question: How can we share the gospel effectively with seniors? There are no easy answers, but here I consider a few stories of seniors coming to Jesus and some insights we can glean from them.
Seniors coming to faith
When we hosted our first summer team, we paired each short-term worker with a local church member to knock on neighborhood doors. They introduced themselves, presented a Digest Bible as a gift, invited everyone to a barbecue in the park by the church, and said thank you before leaving. No effort was made to talk longer unless asked to—this left people curious, and it distinguished our church from cult groups. Almost 2,000 Digest Bibles were given out, and about 20 people came to eat free hot dogs from a grill and chat with the short-term workers and church members. People came and went freely, but those who stayed until cleanup were invited into the church for ice cream and to enjoy singing a couple of songs. One of those who stayed was Mrs. Yamada.3 She lived only a block from the church but had never thought about visiting it until Maggi, a college student from Panama, and a church member knocked on her door and invited her. She came for a hot dog and to talk, stayed for the ice cream and singing, and then began to attend church regularly. Six months later, after studying with the Japanese pastor, she was baptized at Christmas. Mrs. Yamada was in her sixties and had never been in a church before.
Mrs. Yamada was a frequent user of the lending library at church, and she shared the books and things she learned at church with her husband. Not long after her baptism, her husband’s cancer relapsed. When the pastor visited him at the hospital, Mr. Yamada said, “Tell me about this faith my wife has.” Minutes later, he accepted Christ and asked to be baptized. The pastor visited him again the next day and, after again confirming his decision, baptized him. Mrs. Yamada wept with joy knowing that she and her husband would be together in heaven. Mr. Yamada died in the hospital. While he never set foot in the church, we look forward to seeing him in heaven.
Some years later, while pastoring at Osaka International Church, I was in the church office when a 59-year old Japanese man knocked. He introduced himself as Tommy and said he would like to be baptized. I asked him when he had believed in Jesus, and he said a long time ago. In fact, he continued, he had asked for baptism 20 years ago but was told that he needed to study more before being baptized. Since then, he had been gradually learning more about the Bible and faith. After more discussion of his beliefs and understanding, I got out my calendar and we chose a date for his baptism. He was radiant when he came out of the water, and from then on, Tommy joyfully attended church as often as his work permitted, occasionally bringing family members with him. A couple of years later, he called and asked if I could visit his mother-in-law, Fumiko, in the hospital.4 I agreed, and my wife and I, along with Tommy and his wife, gathered at the bedside of the tiny 86-year old woman. We were all surprised to learn that she already believed in Jesus. She explained that when she was in grade school, a friend sometimes took her to Sunday School. Ever since then, she had believed in Jesus in her heart but had kept her faith a secret for more than 70 years because of family opposition. Knowing that she might pass on anytime, I asked if she wanted to be baptized. When she said yes, I baptized her on the spot.
I recently did a funeral for the father of a church member named Yumi. She had led him to faith just two weeks earlier. She knew he did not have many days left, and when he made a clear confession of faith, she baptized him herself. I was proud of her—she had been helping with the Alpha Course, and in training, I had encouraged her to ask the Holy Spirit to lead and then to be bold in ministering. Yumi was a little nervous that her pastor might disapprove of her doing the baptism herself, but, like me, he was filled with joy that she had been confident enough to lead her father to Jesus and baptize him. We are praying for the rest of her family. I know Yumi’s witness and the joy and hope expressed at the funeral made an impression, but the most powerful testimony was the father’s decision to ask for baptism and a Christian funeral. When a family patriarch makes these choices, it releases the rest of the family from their obligations to Buddhist practices and family traditions.
Well-known ways to reach out to older Japanese include English or cooking classes, light hiking trips, and hospital or nursing home visitation. The stories above provide a few additional simple insights. In Mrs. Yamada’s story, pairing short-term workers with church members to invite neighbors to a fun event proved effective. In Tommy’s story, simply being available at the church office on a weekday and taking the time to listen sympathetically was a key element. In the case of Yumi’s father, releasing a lay person into ministry was essential. I doubt that her father would have wanted a visit from a pastor he had never met, but he was happy to talk with his daughter, whom he loved and trusted.
The above stories include three hospital-bed baptisms—one by a Japanese pastor, one by me, and one by a lay person. Three different churches are represented, and each time baptism was administered immediately to new believers who had never attended the church. Two of these churches normally baptize by immersion, and one usually required a study program before baptism, but all of them set aside their usual church practice to minister to people in immediate need. This flexibility allowed these elderly Japanese people to experience the wonder of salvation as expressed in baptism and the joy of being welcomed into the church. Further, they were enabled to leave a Christian legacy and witness to their families.
Another common thread in these stories is Japanese people reaching out to their families. Mrs. Yamada shared with her husband, Tommy shared with his mother-in-law, and Yumi shared with her father. Japanese Christians are often hesitant to share with family, especially if their family criticized them when they were baptized. Yet, with support and encouragement, Japanese people can learn to pray for the Spirit to give them opportunities and the courage to be bold when opportunities come for effective witness.
A silver harvest
Older Japanese can and do come to faith, sometimes even very quickly, when they hear the gospel at an opportune time. The time before and after kanreki, when Japanese reflect on their past and think of beginning a “second life,” can be a favorable season—it was for Tommy and perhaps for Mrs. Yamada as well. Crises, especially illness late in life, can be a time when people are surprisingly open to Jesus, especially if a family member or close friend shares the gospel. If the church is prepared and flexible, the silver harvest will be bountiful. When we see the white hair of seniors, let’s think of John 4:35: “Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest” (ESV).
1. For example, 「みんなで祝おう還暦式」 https://m-kanreki.jp (accessed Sept. 10, 2020).
2. Calculated from Excel file “Population Estimates by Age (Five-Year Groups) and Sex,” https://www.e-stat.go.jp/stat-search/file-download?statInfId=000031973096&fileKind=0 (accessed Sept. 10, 2020).
3. All Japanese names have been changed to protect privacy.
4. Part of this woman’s story was previously shared in: Daniel Ellrick, “A Time for Decisions,” Japan Harvest, (Summer 2018).
Photos submitted by author