Two conversations I had this week set me thinking about a troubling trend in society and in the church.
Recently I was speaking on Skype to my brother who lives in Ireland. He is in his late 70s. He told me about waiting at a bus stop with a friend (who is in his 80s). The schools were ‘getting out’ and many schoolchildren joined them at the bus stop. When the bus arrived, the schoolchildren pushed ahead to board it and get a seat. When my elderly brother and his older friend (who had to walk with the aid of a walking stick) boarded the bus, there was standing room only. Not one of the schoolchildren offered their seat to the elderly men.
I was reared to show consideration to the elderly and to offer my seat on the bus to them if necessary. That practice of consideration has evidently has been dropped!
This was with a retired Baptist pastor in a church I was visiting. He had exercised successful ministries in his city for many years and had enjoyed much respect as a preacher and teacher and caring pastor.
He is in his late 70s and admitted that he has now been made to feel that he was long past his ‘use-by date.’ He felt discarded, useless and irrelevant – and that’s in the church he attends!
Ageism in the modern church
Ageism is rampant in the modern church! The cult of youth has come to the fore.
What is ageism? It is a word that is normally used to refer to discrimination against the ‘elderly’ (and that in itself is a vague term), and its affect is dismissive, destructive, demeaning, discriminatory and damaging to a sense of self-worth.
Contemporary culture, fed by the media, has created the belief that the ‘younger generation’ is ‘with it’ and older people are clearly ‘without it’ and a burden on society. Sadly in recent decades the church has more and more bought into this pejorative philosophy.
There was a time when the roles were largely reversed in churches, a time when older people held the reins and younger people had very little influence in the life or management of the local church. Let me state that that was not a good state of affairs.
But roles have now been reversed and the older members of a congregation are usually sidelined and made to feel redundant.
While many churches try to include something for seniors in their programs, those ‘somethings’ are generally designed to keep them away from what is ‘really important’ in the church’s life.
The operating ageist philosophy is understood in various ways, for example: Young people are…
- Needed and valuable; old people are expendable.
- Fresh and vital and ‘with it’; old people are past their use by date.
- The important age-group, old people are superfluous.
- Worth spending time, effort and money on; old people can be ‘sent out to pasture.’
Along with this is the belief that while the church needs to do all it can to attract young people and ‘make it relevant’ to them, it does not need to spend much time or effort on the elderly or make it relevant to them for they have had their day. Furthermore, the best image projected for a contemporary church is that of having lots of young people, while the worst image is having a large number of older people.
A congregation with many young people is usually regarded with high approval while the term ‘aging congregation’ is used negatively of a church that is considered to be quite irrelevant.
Contemporary culture glorifies youth at the expense of discounting the elderly.
But what is the biblical perspective on the question of the place of the elderly?
The theologian R C Sproul has made this comment, ‘When I last crossed a decade barrier in my own aging process, God was good enough to grant me this small bit of wisdom – the Bible honours age, not youth. I came to understand that the disappearance of my youth was something God thought a good thing, and if I were wise, I would agree. Now a decade later and I have been given this bit of wisdom – easier said than done.’
Is Sproul right? It is clear that the Bible teaches that children and young people are precious to God.
- In Matthew 19:13-15 we are told about the little children who were blessed and prayed for by Jesus.
- The young boy who brought his lunch to Jesus played a significant role in the miracle of feeding 5000 people (John 6:9).
- In Zechariah 8:5 we read that a sign of God’s blessing for Zion was that the streets would be ‘will be filled with boys and girls playing there.’
- The youth Samuel was used by God to give a warning to Eli the high priest and judge (1 Sam.3).
- Daniel and his three friends, who refused to compromise with their faith in God as they stood before the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, are described as ‘youth’ (Daniel 1:4).
- And David was only a young man when he stood against Goliath.
Clearly the Bible does not sideline young people or suggests that they are irrelevant, but neither does it elevate them to the place of highest importance. Rather a study of the biblical comparing youth and elderly shows that Sproul is right when he says, ‘… the Bible honours age, not youth.’
Let’s consider some significant biblical characters who would have had no role in the contemporary church because of their age.
- Abraham began his ministry when he left Ur at the age of 75 (Genesis 12:4).
- Moses was called into his ministry at the age of 80 (Exodus 7:7. Note that Aaron was 83). His job was to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and then to lead them in the wilderness for another 40 years! (Deuteronomy 34:7).
- Joshua died at the age of 110 (Joshua 24:29). Biblical chronology indicates that he was in the Promised Land for 50 years. This means that he was appointed by Moses as his successor when he was around 60 years of age and exercised an impressive leadership in his later years.
- Caleb was 40 years old when he went with Joshua to spy out the land of Canaan (Joshua 14:7). At the age of 85 he was still in leadership (v10).
- Daniel was a young man (probably around 16 years old) when he was deported to Babylon. While in Babylon he continued faithfully to serve the Lord, often in the face of discouragement and threats of death. Although most illustrations of Daniel in the lions’ den depict him as a young man, in fact he would have been around 70 (or even 80) at the time this event occurred.
- Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, were ‘well along in years (Luke 1:7) but Zechariah was still ministering in the temple.
- Simeon and Anna were an elderly couple (Anna was 84 years old – Luke 2:37) of deep faith and a committed prayer ministry. They spent much of their time in and around the temple living in the hope of seeing the coming of the Messiah. They were the first to recognise and witness to the fact that the 8-day old Jesus was the promised Messiah, the Saviour of humankind.
- Paul the apostle described himself as ‘an old man’ in the ninth verse of Philemon. At that time he was around 60 years of age but was not thinking of concluding his ministry. He had more people to reach with the gospel, more mission work to do, more teaching of the early Christians to undertake.
Note this – nowhere in the Bible do we read that older Christians should retire from the work of the kingdom and to hand it over to the younger generations! God nowhere suggests that there is a retirement age for his people.
The Bible encourages that honour and respect should be shown to the elderly
There are many instructions given in the Bible regarding the showing of respect to the elderly. For example,
- ‘Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the Lord’ (Leviticus 19:32).
- ‘The righteous will flourish like a palm tree … They will still bear fruit in old age’ (Psalm 92:12,14).
- ‘Grey hair is a crown of splendour; it is attained by a righteous life’ (Proverbs 16:31).
- ‘Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat … older women as mothers …’ (1 Timothy 5:1-2).
The church is a mutigenerational family
Jesus clearly intended that his church should be composed of believers representing different generations – and each generation is of equal value and is equally important. The enthusiasm and energy of youth is clearly greatly needed.
But no less needed are the experience, insight and gifts of the older generation. All generations need each other! In the economy of God, when all generations respect each other and work together in the work of the kingdom, God is both honoured and his work is better done.
Do old people complain and find fault? Of course they do! Do young people complain and find fault? Of course they do! Muttering is destructive regardless of who does it. And isolating one generation from the life of the church not only disadvantages the church, but it also has an emotionally harmful effect on those who are excluded. Such a fault-finding attitude is the consequence of disrespect.
Paul’s metaphor of the church with a human body is very relevant to this argument.
In 1 Corinthians 12:18-25 (JBP. Emphasis mine), he wrote: ‘God has arranged all the parts in the one body according to his design. For if everything were concentrated in one part, how could there be a body at all? The fact is there are many parts, but only one body. So that the eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” nor, again, can the head say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body which have no obvious function are the more essential to health: and to those parts of the body which seem to us to be less deserving of notice we have to allow the highest honour of function. The parts which do not look beautiful have a deeper beauty in the work they do, while the parts which look beautiful may not be at all essential to life! But God has harmonised the whole body by giving importance of function to the parts which lack apparent importance that the body should work together as a whole with all the members in sympathetic relationship with one another.’
Ageism should be alien to the church
Differences of opinion and preferences will always exist in a church that is composed of different generations and that sometimes leads to tensions or a sense of exclusion by one generation or another.
But that need not be. Those differences and preferences should be recognised as a good thing, and part of God’s arranging, and mutual respect between the generations is essential. A willingness to listen, understanding, and a preparedness to compromise where possible, are needed by both young and old.
Ageism should have no place in the church. A dysfunctional church family in which only the wants and supposed needs of the youth are paramount is demeaning of the elderly saints and, above all, dishonouring to Christ and his church.
Dr Jim McClure, author of several books and Bible study series, welcomes questions from concerned Christians.
In his well-researched Grace Revisited he reveals grace as having a strong active meaning and is like a many faceted diamond out of which shines a greater understanding of the great God we worship. Normally $35 but obtainable from the author for $25 (plus postage). Link/orders/enquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org