By Rev. Crystal Schmalz
About twice a month I have the honor and privilege to preach in a local nursing home. This ministry is an important service to those in my community. Nursing homes can often be places where people are forgotten. Feelings of abandonment and loneliness surface for the elders in these communities. The responsibility of care is often great, and sometimes families are not ready to take this step of responsibility. As a minister, I never want to forget my elders. Part of my call to the church is helping those who have been forgotten, abandoned, and those who are in need of spiritual refreshment.
I want to tell you about my experience this past Sunday, and give you an idea of what nursing home ministry can be like. I typically have someone who does the music, and either I or my husband preaches. We try to trade off, so as to share the responsibility. This week the woman who usually does the music had to go out of town, and two other people were going to be there. Some communication was lost, and we found this out early Sunday morning. I say this not to place blame, but to let you know anything can happen in nursing home ministry and you have to be prepared and ready to go with the flow.
As I arrived to the nursing home, I realized the activity director was not present. This meant that she would not be wheeling the residents to the dining area for the service. The scripture about going out into the highways and byways became going out into the hallways and corridors to find those who might want to attend the service. I walked through the halls and asked residents if they would want to come to the service. Some of them were alert and oriented, while others were confused, sleeping, or not mentally aware of their surroundings. Others were awake, and happily said they would like to attend the church service. Almost all of those who came to the service were in wheelchairs, and were dependent on help to get to and from the service. Part of preaching, speaking, and being a part of nursing home ministry includes helping the physical needs of these residents. We should be willing to go out and reach people. We cannot expect people to come to us. We have to change church culture, and meet people where they are at.
We finally wheeled everyone into the TV room, and started our service. I quickly planned a service order and we proceeded. Usually, you could plan a service order and have things prepared. Due to some unforeseen circumstances, we had to plan in the moment. It is always best to plan ahead of time. We opened the service with prayer. I introduced two of the new guests, and then we proceeded into song service. Usually, our song leader prepares the songs and brings copies of the words for the people. This week, we had to go from memory. We began our first song “Jesus Loves Me.” Most of the people knew the song, and sang along. We didn’t have any piano accompaniment. My voice was so-so, because I had a cold the previous week. We sang the songs, some of the people awake and others were asleep. You could see smiles in some of the faces. We then sang Amazing Grace, and many of the people knew the words. We concluded with the song What a Friend We Have in Jesus.
After the song service, we said the Lord’s Prayer. Most of the people, despite their different denominational backgrounds knew this prayer. We then had a time of public and silent confession. We created a small space in the service for silence. Then, it was time for the preaching.
I stood at the pulpit and read Psalm 33. Different people in the audience made verbal cues as they listened to the scripture, others remained in silence. I read the whole Psalm, and proceeded with the message. As I looked out across the elders, I could see their faces. Many of them heard some of the words I spoke, and heard about the love, grace, and mercy of Jesus Christ. Many of them were encouraged by the Holy Spirit, and reminded of God’s care and intention to be in their life. I concluded the message with a visual illustration. I pulled out a box of hearts. I talked about the different layers of our heart, and what our response should be toward God. I talked about God’s response of love toward humanity. When I got to the fourth heart box within the other heart boxes, I had prepared several small cut out hearts to hand to the congregation. I told them about the scripture in Psalms, where God draws close to those who have a broken heart. I gave each one of them a heart, as a visual reminder of God’s presence and love toward them. A woman in the front nearly cried, because at first glance one might not assume she was cognizant of her surroundings. She heard the message, and felt God’s love. It was a beautiful time, but it didn’t come without its challenges. When you preach in a nursing home, you have to preach quick and short. You need to be aware of your voice, and speak loudly. You need to use many of the same good preaching techniques as in other services, but need to be very intentional about using illustrations, applications, and proper exegesis. You are usually preaching to people who are much older than you, and you need to speak with respect and conviction. You need to teach, but also be aware of your age and the age of your elders. Speak the truth in love. Respect your elders, and always thank them for the opportunity to speak to them.
In conclusion, nursing home ministry is a great service to the community. We have the opportunity to serve and love people who are sometimes forgotten by society. We have the opportunity to bring their humanity and dignity back to them by treating them like our elders and heroes. We can love them, listen to them, and speak words of life through Jesus Christ into their situations and circumstances. If you don’t have a nursing home ministry at your church, pray and think about starting one. It is a great way to serve and get preaching experience. Imagine what our world would look like if we preached to “the least” of our society. Imagine what the church would look like if we went to the places Jesus Christ resides, one of which is our nursing homes.
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