Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Who Wants Old People in the Church?

In our age, it is quite common to view the elderly as passé and unequipped to respond to new trends like development in technology, emerging ideas and shifting values. Youth and vitality are prized against the wisdom that can come with age. It is the cult of youth, and you can find it in the church. The push today is for young pastors to revel in being unbalanced towards Generation X or younger. It is sad when church leaders then set no goals in correcting the imbalances as if older people are poison to the church.

All things being equal in the Biblical mandates for a church, young people typically choose young people to be around. Even a church meeting the Biblical marks can turn younger people away if too much gray hair is present. But can we be more balanced and see value of every generation? In this post, what I would like to do for the reader is commend to them why elderly are vital in the life of the church today.

In full disclosure, I am nearing thirty two years of age and I pastor a church where half to two-thirds of our regular members and attenders are old enough to be my parents or grandparents--with more tilting towards the latter. I also used to be a youth pastor so I still value raising up the next generation of Christians.

Let me suggest several things that a church with an average age of fifty or older can offer. I will call this an older generation church or OGC for short. In no particular order:

(1) Opportunities for mentorship. In Titus 2:3-4 older women are to train or encourage the younger women. Older men likewise have experience that may equip them to mentor other younger men. The reality of life is that no matter how much things around us change, they stay the same. Raising a family may present twenty-first century challenges but more often the concerns and the ‘how to’s’ remain the same. For example, the distractions of an age may change but the reality of needing to spend time with your kids and love them for who they are is an enduring concern. Wisdom, insight and life experience abound in an OGC to which young people can avail themselves.

(2) Mutual care for one another in the body. Specifically I have something more in mind that just mentorship. Experienced elders can be good at counseling the distraught and needy. Older members often understand the hurts of life and are a shoulder to cry on in an hour of need. On a number of occasions in my church I have received a call to the hospital at which I immediately head out only to arrive at the hospital to find I have been beaten there by caring elderly members. Once when three people from my church were all on the same floor of the hospital we had so many church members come through for a visit that nurses on the floor were asking where in the world we all went to church. With time of their hands and years of cooking experience they can be exceptional at hospitality or cooking meals for the needy. While OGCs are far from perfect, I marvel at God’s grace shaping the body to care for its members.

(3) Opportunities for younger generations to use their gifts. Let’s face it--an older generation cannot get around as much or as fast. OGCs can always use more people my age to serve especially for deaconal type ministries.

(4) Children treasured as a gift. Sometimes elderly do find children annoying and ‘under foot.’ More often, in a church where God’s grace abounds, the elderly long to see children hearing the gospel, singing children’s songs and coming to love Jesus. As a result of having fewer children, OGCs often cherish the ones that come identifying and praying for them by name. Sometimes families, especially those far from extended family, find that their children inherit extra grandparents from inside the church family. These relationships can last a lifetime.

(5) Prayer warriors and encouragers. I know the stereotype is that old people grumble and complain but in all honesty I’ve seen youth do just as much. If the congregants have been Christians for a long time, OGCs tend to have folks who have been shaped by the trials of life into having a steadfast spirit. They often know how to encourage a person in struggles or how to pray for them. Even more, once people become more homebound sometimes they become greater prayer warriors. We once had a lady who would arise and pray at five in the morning. Only after she had passed did her husband discover journals that were the fruit of countless hours of prayer and Bible reading.

(6) A Bible that is alive. I have people in my church who have been reading and applying God’s Word twice as long as I’ve been alive. They fall in love with it more everyday. For them it is a living book and they know from hard fought experience that it is the only book with the Words of Life. They respond not  to me as authority but to the authority of the Word of God as I minister it. It is a blessing to teach such hungry and knowledgable souls. I once knew an elder in his seventies who although without any formal Bible training he could teach the Bible with unparalleled spiritual force. If I were a betting man, I would bet on his Bible knowledge over any recent college or seminary grad in a heart beat. On Sundays he sat in a front pew and once told me: “Pastor, I close my eyes when you preach so that I can focus on your words.” He wasn’t lying to cover for sleeping because his face would always tighten up in earnest concentration when his eyes closed. This kind of love for God’s Word is precious.

(7) Honesty and familiarity with the realities of the end of life. In anyone's life, death is a regular reality. More vividly it is a cruel enemy that needs defeated. At an OGC, my young girls have already attended funerals and have seen death. It leads to honest talk about why we need Jesus. Illness is another cruel enemy. It can be quite sobering to sit at the bedside of the aged and be reminded by their vibrant stories that they once had more energy, vigor and athletic ability than you. But even more, it is in facing these moments that are the reality of existence that the power of the message of the gospel shines out. It makes one feel like an exile on earth and long for the Kingdom in the New Heavens and Earth. Sometimes young trendy theologians and missiologists quip at churches that are only concerned about saving people to heaven yet they miss that Paul’s goal of ministry was to present people mature in Christ, holy, blameless and complete in that eschatological end (Col. 1:22-28, 29). Carl Trueman once said “it is the job of the church to prepare people to die” and in an OGC that is a pressing reality. 

Don't Overlook a Church with Elderly
This short list is not to argue an older generation church is better. I am not disparaging churches composed primarily of young people or suggesting you will never find these qualities in them. There is no perfect church.

Far too many blog posts have been written on the value of church planting and starting afresh with the new, hip and young than have been written about ministering to those closer to the end of life. Older generations are often rightly challenged to accept the younger in church life while few, if any, issue challenges in the reverse. I hope this post offers a small correction to that imbalance.

I am not naive nor am I trying to brag. Some of the stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason. Sometimes the problems in OGCs run deep covered over by decades of scarring. But that does not excuse us from sacrificially loving people of all generations. Young people can benefit from the wisdom age brings. Older individuals can benefit from youthful exuberance and energy. Old generations, just as much as the young, can be powerfully reshaped by God’s Word if the Spirit is at work. 

All I would ask is if you are in Generation X or Y, or whatever is the next trendy label, consider the value of the elderly in church life. Don’t submit to the bias against age that is our modern church. If you are looking for a church, do not overlook an OGC. If you are in a church, value and do not dismiss the older generation. If you are a Generation X or Y church, consider how you might expand your ministry into every age group. Consider outreach to older generations. Do ministry outreach in a retirement community. And if you are a younger pastor, consider a calling to a church that is an OGC where you may have to shepherd more people into the grave than you shepherd through births and marriages. Are those of an elderly generation as precious to you as they are to Lord?

Feel Free to Leave a Comment or Testimony: What are some experiences that you have had with the elderly in your church for which you would praise God?

(Tim is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary and is now the pastor of Pocono Mountain Bible Fellowship Church. He is married and the father of four daughters. He also blogs theology, Bible and occasionally some Star Trek at The Voyages. You can follow Tim on Twitter: @tim_bertolet)


Maia Dobson said...

They say the older you get the more you become religious. I think it's overrated because people just associate church with old men. We can be religious at any age.

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Unknown said...

You have chosen really nice topic for discussion and according to me people can start becoming religious at any age no doubt, but still elderly people are with more experience and their presence in church feels like shelter on our heads.

Elderly Care

odrareg said...

I see old folks to be neglected in the Bible and in the Christian faith.

So, old folks like myself should take care of ourselves, the ones still healthy and active but already kept out of society will take care of the ones loaded with old age and sickness disabilities.

What can old folks who are Christian do for themselves?

Serve one another, and keep one another company, that is very important since no one not an old folk wants to give company to old folks, that is why modern society keep them out of sight and out of mind and out of heart.

Help one another to be ready and to welcome the passage to the post earthly life existence, and to undergo the passage in dignity, in comfort, and with peace and even welcome.

Old folks should organize themselves into a religious community of mutual care and concern and company, and very important, medical assistance, and above all, of spiritual life.

Now is the time in old age for old folks to really put themselves in earnest into the work for the attainment of Christian perfection.

And they will not be wanting in occasions to exercise all kinds of acts of charity, goodness, accommodation, love, concern, thoughtfulness, service toward one another.

They should even have a Christian senior citizens club with the option to live as residents in the club house.

Where is the financing for all the material utilities for such a club house supposed to come from?

From senior citizens themselves.

The richest people in society today are senior citizens if they are not poor folks dependent on their children to stay sheltered and alive.

You don't believe me?

I am myself a senior citizen and I have more resources than the average church goer in my congregation, but I am not inclined to pass them over to my two kids, because they are already on their own and affluent.

So? So invest them in a senior citizens clubhouse and community.

What do you say?


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