|Gene Williams, 79, a member of Victory Assembly of God in Richland Hills, Texas, shows Cindy Sheridan, 53-year-old wife of Pastor Randy Sheridan, how to use an iPad.|
What's the best way for folks in the "second half" of life to connect with a grandchild? John Heide, an Assemblies of God missionary to those over 50 - he calls them "second halfers" - suggests something very young: Send a text message using your cell phone. If it's a smartphone, so much the better.
"Your grandkids are probably never going to answer the card or letter you send them," says Heide, 61. "But they'll answer your text message pretty quickly. They connect right back and respond."
But how do you get someone whose high school days occurred when Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House to start texting? Or, for that matter, using a computer or a tablet device? Those who've never had exposure to computers can find the devices intimidating, Heide notes.
It's a paradox. At a time when a lot of technology is more accessible to those in the "builders" generation - the people who built much of modern American life during the "baby boom" years and beyond - it's sometimes difficult for these people to grasp the workings of computers and similar devices. While tablet computers such as the iPad may be more appealing because they lack the keyboard and disc drives some find intimidating, there's still a lot to learn.
The number of people who might benefit most from "senior tech" isn't small. In May 2011, the U.S. Census Bureau said there were 40.2 million Americans over the age of 65, which represents 13 percent of the nation's population. If they didn't use computers during their working years - and many did not - moving into the brave new world of digital technology can be as daunting as it is potentially exciting.
For Assemblies of God congregations, the answer might be a "computers over 50" class, which has the advantage of community outreach as well. Heide, an admitted tech booster, says one congregation in Arkansas did just that, with surprising results. The 50-plus crowd responded in droves.
One surprise was the pent-up demand.
"We put an ad in the paper, and the phone rang off the wall," Heide says. People didn't want to go back to college, but they wanted to learn about computers and how to use them, he added.
Youngsters in the congregation taught the older-than-50 members, Heide says, with instructors cautioned beforehand to be patient with folks whose videocassette recorders may still blink "12:00." Eventually, once first-time senior computer users discovered how to find old friends, newspaper articles or health information online, it opened up a range of possibilities.
"That's where churches have an opportunity for reaching out, not only helping their own people, but also connecting young people with older ones," Heide says. "It is an opportunity for interaction."
And it's an opportunity for much more as well. Shut-ins with a computer and Internet access can watch church services via video streaming. Others can participate in evangelization or Bible study online. Heide says he's "reached back" to those who contacted him online to say they've accepted Christ as Savior. It's a particularly rewarding ministry for homebound seniors, he adds.
Heide, who travels the nation in his ministry, tells of Laberta Bible, an 82-year-old Californian who, with her husband, sang with evangelists many years ago. Heide helped the couple set up their new computer, and now they are watching videos on YouTube of the preachers with whom they worked.
Randy Sheridan is the pastor of Victory Assembly of God in Richland Hills, Texas. The congregation has a dash of technology - 65-inch flat panel televisions instead of larger projection screens - but it also has a 79-year-old "resident theologian" who plumbs Scriptures via his relatively new iPad.
Gene Williams, Sheridan says, will follow points with online references during a Bible study.
"Lickety-split, he's got information on his iPad," Sheridan says. "He stays on the cutting edge."
Having a digitized disciple doesn't faze Sheridan.
"I think it's intriguing and a blessing that these guys are staying up with the times," he says.
Williams has plenty of enthusiasm for the iPad, a device that's already undergone three iterations in less than two years on the market. Williams says he has installed five different Bible applications.
"I'm real strong on the King James Version, but I've got 30 other versions that I can compare with the King James," Williams says. "If the pastor is using a certain Scripture, I can find it almost immediately on an iPad, but it would take me a little longer in print."
Williams says it's also a blessing to be able to adjust the screen display so type is larger, something impossible to do with a printed volume.
Having a tablet computer that's connected to the Internet has its own advantages, according to Williams.
"The other day, there was a missionary who came from a certain island in the New Hebrides," Williams says. "He was telling about different things on the island, and I called it up on the iPad and it showed the particular rite they do on this island. It was right there on the iPad. I had never even heard of the island, and it called it right up."
According to Heide, helping seniors across the digital divide is a plus for congregations.
"There's an opportunity for the church to reach out and bring that group into technology," Heide says. "People still want the personal touch; you can never replace that. But I do think it's an opportunity for the church to reach out and bring them in."
Author: Mark A. Kellner, Pentecostal Evangel