When you look at recent literature on attracting and retaining church attendees it almost entirely focuses on the millennial generation. ChurchDesk is itself guilty of that bias, and with good reason: 35% of millennials do not identify with any religion at all. If this trend continues, without intervention we are increasingly likely to see empty church buildings and a diminishing number of congregations managing to survive. It must be written about, and action must be taken. However, this doesn’t mean we should focus on the younger generation at the detriment of older, loyal members. Technology is a great tool for spreading your message and engaging a younger audience, but it shouldn’t be used in such a manner that it shuts out your senior parish members.
Slow and Steady Wins the Race
Admittedly, you don’t need to be an expert on technology to know that it is the younger generations who have embraced it most fervently. Yet the senior citizens are catching up, and fast! In the UK, women aged 75 and over have seen the largest rise in recent internet use in the last 5 years, up 169%. In total 74.1% of above 65-year-olds have used the internet recently. The story is similar in the US, where 77% of seniors have a mobile phone.
Given the (understandably) slower rate of initial adoption, this change of pace is extremely encouraging for the church. Just like the hare and the tortoise, although the former is sluggish at the start, it is they who reap the final benefits. Within our societies, senior citizens are the mostly likely group to be lonely, and suffer health problems (especially with hearing and sight) - these are issues technology can bridge. By developing a technology strategy that addresses the needs of the older generations, the church can improve their congregation’s lives and their relationship with the church.
How can you help?
There are many ways you can help make technology a positive influence in a senior citizen’s life. The pointers below are just the tip of the iceberg….
Encourage volunteer support:
When it comes to getting a new phone, using social networks or even just venturing online, many older people may feel uncomfortable trying to figure out the technology by themselves. But they are very willing to learn. Recruit volunteers who are willing to take the time to guide them, gently addressing any problems that may arise. You could create a buddy system, with one-on-one pairings, or create weekly classes where everyone can learn together.
Topics covered in these sessions could range from setting up a Facebook account to syncing their church calendar to their personal calendar - it can all be tailored to their individual needs. Research shows that most seniors who are active on sites like Facebook tend to have more social interactions, both in person and online, than others in their age group - it would be great to make that a priority.
Print physical support guides:
Though most of the technology your congregation will use is simple (Facebook, email etc.) it may take people a while to pick up. Printing physical how-to guides will help them feel comfortable trying to engage in this way, especially when they are alone, and give them the confidence they need.
Tailor your communication:
At ChurchDesk we often preach about tailoring your communication - but that’s just because we’ve seen what amazing results it can have. This is especially true for senior citizens. Whilst those adept at email communication will know what to look for in an email newsletter - where the links are, what to pay attention to, who to reply to etc - senior citizens might want something suited to their more basic needs. Instead of filling their newsletter with too much information, keep it light and easy to digest. Don’t add too much colour or lots of pictures, it could be distracting. Their eyesight might be poor, so make the text slightly bigger than average - and ensure your links say “Click here” (otherwise they might not realise). These little adaptations can make a big difference.
Similarly, you should keep your website looking clean and functional. This makes it much easier to read across multiple platforms (phone, laptop, tablet etc). If possible, add accessibility settings. This will help any seniors with dexterity problems.
Videos and Subtitles:
Some members may suffer with poor mobility. Those who are ill, injured or housebound may want to participate in church life but be unable to attend your services in person. Record your sermons and post them online, or have Skype calls with these members each week. There are so many excellent ways you can remotely include these members.
Seniors who suffer from hearing difficulties might appreciate you uploading your sermon online before you start (or sending it to them via email) so they can see what it is they should be hearing, and not feel left out. If you upload videos, make sure you add subtitles so everyone can enjoy them.
Provide the equipment.
Though it is increasingly popular for older people to be able to use technology, this doesn’t necessarily mean they own it. Often they might go to the local library to use their computer, or borrow their families’ smartphones rather than having their own. Thus, if you want older adults to use online resources, you may need to provide the equipment. Ask other members of your congregation to donate old technology they would otherwise throw away, or set up a regular afternoon where members can come and use a communal computer to check their emails and keep up with church news. Even giving a list of suggested places they can get internet access could be useful.
Keep it simple, and to your mission
Of course, these are just suggestions, and the best way to help your congregation adapt to technology is to ask them where their interests lie and what it is they would like help with. Ultimately, your goal is to help them stay healthy, happy and included in church life. Community-oriented technology can do this.