By Sharon Mager
Mike Fillis, the pastor of Fenwick Island Baptist Church (FIBC) in Selbyville, Delaware, remembers a seminary professor’s teaching that the church population should reflect that of the local grocery store. He reflected on the thought while shopping at a local store. “I walked through Food Lion and saw a lot of grey-headed people. That’s a good sign,” he laughed. Over 80 percent of FIBC’s membership is 55 and older.
While some stress the need for babies in the church nursery as an indicator for church health, Fillis says it’s okay to have a church that has a lot of older people. “You can have a vibrant ministry. Senior adults are a significant asset to the community. They bring time, wisdom, and resources,” he said.
Fillis, who has served as the senior pastor of FIBC for over 12 years, explained that Fenwick is a resort area that draws many older adults who are seeking comfortable retirement communities. Sixty percent are “full-timers” and the remainder enjoy summer homes.
To accommodate their membership and as part of their outreach strategy, FIBC remodeled their building and gave it a facelift late in 2020. With a Baptist Foundation loan, the church installed dove gray vinyl siding. Also, they upgraded bathrooms, making them handicap accessible, and added an
outside wheelchair ramp. Additionally, they widened the entranceway and foyer. They are currently working to enlarge the side entrance and will work on the sanctuary during later phases.
Fillis said the church is on the main route from Selbyville to North Ocean City, with high visibility. Passersby took a second look when the building was under construction, noticing the different color and texture change, and asked what was going on at the church. “It’s a launching point and gives you a chance to talk to people. We would like for the community to not only know we’re here, but that we’re a church that cares, with people who are praying for them,” said Fillis. Members are also rejuvenated with the changes.
Church attendance has also been positive, with 70 in attendance in February, almost maxing out COVID-19 restrictions.
The pandemic forced the church to shut down for a period last spring. When they reopened in June, Fillis said all were very excited.
For a church in which 85 percent of the members are 55 and older, FIBC is busy with Bible studies, fellowship, and outreach.
On Wednesdays, about 40 people gather for a time of fellowship and Bible study. Sunday evening Bible studies are more informal and draw about 25. The church also has a women’s study.
The fellowship is critical. Fillis explained, “Younger people have jobs to go to, or they’re Zooming. Some of our seniors don’t have computers. Part of health is having something to look forward to.”
In September, the church wanted to participate in Franklin Graham’s Prayer March 2020 but did not want to go to Washington D.C. So, they did their own prayer walk through the community. “We had about 40-50 people turn out and not just from our church. Other churches heard what we were doing and joined us,” Fillis said.
Before COIVD-19, church members ministered in a local assisted living home and at a group home that cares for ten handicapped individuals. “We did Bible studies, sang, and befriended them,” Fillis explained.
Hymns are especially comforting when ministering in the assisted living homes. Fillis said one woman they used to visit had Alzheimer’s and was progressively worsening. “She knew all the verses in every hymn. As she declined, she became unresponsive, but when we sang hymns, we would see her smile, and we would see her mouth move,” he remembered. That was encouraging.
The church is anxiously awaiting the further easing of COVID-19 restrictions so they can return to these ministries.
Spiritually, the church is growing in depth. Fillis says he sees many coming from denominations that have become very liberal and from churches that teach tradition and legalism. “They are really hungry for the Bible. Some find they were never saved, and though they were baptized as babies, they now choose believer’s baptism,” Fillis says.
So how does a church ministering to seniors continue? Fillis says that as aging saints leave or pass on, others will continue to retire in Fenwick Island, bringing spiritual gifts, wisdom, resources, and hunger for God’s word.
Cover photo: Members of Fenwick Island Baptist Church cheer on families of wounded warriors during the Seas the Day parade each fall in Bethany Beach, Delaware. (photo by Beth Fillis)