USE BY DATE?

(September 11, 2017) Dr Jim McClure, straight-speaking theologian, asks a pertinent question…

What’s the difference between me and a can of beans?’ The answer is that the can of beans carries a ‘Use by’ date while I do not!

So many products contain a ‘Use by’ date – and that’s good because it may prevent food poisoning.  It is also helpful to indicate the period in the life of the product when it is at its most effective. But when it reaches a certain age, it’s better to discard it.

However this method of consumer evaluation fails miserably when we apply it to people – especially to Christians in the life of the church.  When we become Christians, God doesn’t give us a ‘Use by date’! But it often seems that others do – and we can begin to believe that.

Changes in the church
When I was young, the prominent and powerful people in the church were of the older generations and while the presence of younger generations was acknowledged, their voice and ideas were rarely heard.

There was a phrase often used to describe young people in the church – they were the ‘church of tomorrow.’ The implication, of course, was that it was the older generations who really were part of the church of that day and for whom the church existed.

However well-meaning the phrase ‘church of tomorrow’ was, it was wholly wrong – the younger generations also truly are part of the church, not of ‘tomorrow’ but of ‘today’ and always have been.

By around the 1980s there was a significant shift in thinking.  Younger men and women and even teenagers were increasingly beginning to play more significant, upfront and leadership roles in the life of the church. No longer were these positions the domain of older and more elderly people. In many ways this was a change in the awareness of what the church actually is – it is a family composed of people of many ages.

This change in the understanding of the nature of the church was healthy. It emphasised the fact that all people are important from the very young to the very old.

But … (and it’s a significant ‘But’) … as time passed and the new concept of the place and role of young people in the life of the church continued to evolve, an unhealthy perspective on the role of different generations’ began to emerge. The situation in church life has largely turned 180 degrees in the past three or four decades. Although the term is not used – at least, I have never heard it being used – the sense that older church members are seen as the ‘church of the past’ is often evident in many ways.

The sad reality is that many older Christians now feel that they no longer fit in. There are various reasons for this. For example, worship styles have changed – as has music, preaching and pastoral styles! Let’s briefly examine these…

1. Worship styles
A previously favoured formal approach to worship has changed to one that is more laid-back. There are no reasons why worship styles should not change.

There is nothing sacred in a particular style, even if it had remained unchanged for centuries.  Whether we like an old style or a new style really boils down to personal preference – not because ‘our way is the right way.’

The problem with the ‘old style’ of worship is that its formality can create an atmosphere of non-involvement for the congregation. On the other hand, the informal style of worship can detract from a sense of the holiness and awesomeness of Almighty God, and worship of God can be confused with our personal entertainment expectations, that is, whether we ‘like’ the service or not.

2. Music styles
The familiar, centuries-old hymns of Charles Wesley, John Newton, Isaac Watts, Philip Doddridge and others, and the popular and much loved gospel songs, written in the late 19th and early 20th century by people such as Fanny Crosby, are rarely heard today. Hymn books such as Sacred Songs and Solos by Sankey and Moody and Redemption Songs are relics of the past.

Also, the instruments and volume used in modern worship songs have changed. Church organs have been replaced by guitars and drums and a variety of other instruments. And choirs have been replaced by singing groups composed of mainly young people.

There are, of course, some old hymns that have stood the test of time, such as Amazing Grace and How can it be, but, frankly, I believe that many of the old hymns, which have served to assist worship in earlier days, should be laid to rest! Furthermore, the ‘good old hymns’ were once new hymns and some people complained about them!  To their credit, I would say that many of the old hymns were more theologically sound and profound than many of the modern worship songs we sing today.

And as for the instruments that are used to lead the singing – there are some churches today that do not believe in the use of even an organ or any musical instrument in worship. Such churches normally sing only the metrical psalms for which the congregation is given the first note by a tuning fork!

Personally I am glad that there has been a shift to a more contemporary style in church music – my main problem is, as I have already indicated, that many modern songs have some dubious or shallow understandings of doctrinal truth.

And admittedly the sound volume that some music-groups in church worship project is questionable – but I’ll say more about that later.

3. Preaching style
Preaching style has changed from a declaratory manner to one that has a more conversational tone. Inevitably, preachers, if they are true to their own personalities, will have their own styles and not be carbon copies of other people – however much they may admire them.

When you examine the messages of the prophets (preachers) of the Old Testament, you also discover something of their very different personalities. While their essential message was the same, how they communicated that message was through the vehicle of their different personalities. For example, we discover that Amos had a fiery type of personality while Hosea, who followed him a few years later and who spoke to the same people, proclaimed the same message in a gentler way.

God used both types of personalities that he had given them  to call the people to repentance. So preaching style does not bother me as long as the preacher:

(i) Does not seek to glorify himself instead of the Lord – remember what John the Baptist said, about Jesus, ‘He must become greater; I must become less’ (John 3:30).

(ii) Does not use the scriptures to support his theories but rightly exegetes the biblical passages.

(iii) Uncompromisingly preaches the ‘word of God’ without fear or favour.

(iv) Is articulate and can apply the scriptures in a way that is meaningful and relevant to us today.

4. Pastoral style
The image of the shepherd caring for his flock is often repeated in the Bible. God himself models the role of the shepherd: ‘He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young’ (Isaiah 40:11).

And in describing an essential aspect of his ministry, Jesus said, ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. … “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me’ (John 10:11, 14).

The Greek word poimen means shepherd or pastor. The eastern shepherd had a role of great responsibility for the care and security of his sheep and he was personally involved with each one. The biblical image of the shepherd is not so familiar to urban people in the 21st century, nevertheless we have no problem understanding the concept.

One of the core ministries of the pastor used to be that of giving regular pastoral oversight to his people – especially the sick and the elderly. Today pastoral style has changed in many churches with the pastor less involved in pastoral visitation.

Of course, some churches are very good in practising pastoral care – but the biblical model of the shepherd’s role has been largely set aside in favour of a business model where the role of a ‘shepherd’ leading a flock has changed to that of a ‘CEO’ leading a business. Consequently many pastors today hand over pastoral responsibility to others and as a result many older people in churches feel abandoned by their pastor and sense that they are irrelevant in the life of the church.

Certainly, if a pastor has a large church, others must help him in the pastoral oversight of his people, but a neglect of pastoral care is a disregard of what Jesus taught and what other writers of the New Testament counselled!

While we are living in a vastly different culture from the dominant farming culture of Judah in the 1st century, we must be careful to avoid ‘throwing out the baby with the bathwater.’ 

Mutual respect and tolerance
One thing I notice that is in short supply in the church today is mutual respect and tolerance between young and old. Interaction between age groups is often missing. Sometimes the youth sit on one side of the church and older people sit on the other. Sometimes one refuses to acknowledge the presence of the other even when walking past each other. Sometimes the interaction between age groups is practically non-existent.

  • Perhaps this divide is based on misunderstandings.
  • Perhaps the young think that the elderly would be boring to talk to.
  • Perhaps the elderly assume that the young have no interest in what they have to say.

I believe that respect and tolerance is a two way thing but it needs to be worked at.  Take an example that can be an issue in many churches – worship music. Drums, guitars and a variety of amplified instruments played through the sound board where the volume switches are set at high may strongly appeal to young people but not so much to the elderly. But it doesn’t help when some older people constantly wear their ‘grumpy old man/woman’ face and continually whine and complain! Such complaining can become a habit, so that even when the music isn’t loud, there are those who mutter that it is. The Bible has some strong words to say about people who mutter!

The fact is that the style of church music today is different from what it was when we were young. And frankly, I personally like a lot of today’s music and the volume doesn’t particularly bother me, especially when it is appropriate for the theme of the song.  Sometimes we can be much too critical – and needlessly so. 

I am reminded of the account in 2 Samuel 6 of David’s rescuing the Ark of the Covenant from the Philistines. Verse 5 says, ‘David and the whole house of Israel were celebrating with all their might before the Lord, with songs and with harps, lyres, tambourines, rattles and cymbals.’ They must have been making quite a noise!  Then verses 14 and 15 comment, ‘David, wearing a linen ephod, danced before the Lord with all his might, while he and the entire house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouts and the sound of trumpets.’

That must have been quite a sight and the volume of the music would have been very loud. Of course, someone had to complain! It was Michal, David’s wife, who stepped forward and said sarcastically, ‘How glorious was the king of Israel today.’ David replied, ‘I was dancing to honour the Lord… And I will go on dancing to honour the Lord’ (GNB).

That’s the key! Not the style of the songs, nor the instruments that are used, nor the volume they make, nor even the dancing they may evoke but the One for whose honour and praise and glory of it is offered.  If it is truly offered to God as an act of worship, who are we to mutter and make complaining comments?

Victims of a cultural shift
I was in India about 8 years ago doing some teaching for Bible college students. One of the things that impressed me was the respect they showed me.  They met me at the door, carried my briefcase, got me a cup of coffee at break time, and so on.  Some cultures embrace the principle of respect for older people. And we did too at one time. But times have changed. Contemporary culture, fed by the media and advertising, has created the cult of youth. Fired by consumerism, mass advertising seeks to stress the over-riding importance of youth.

Thinking that the ‘younger generations’ are ‘with it’ but older people are clearly ‘without it’, and that the younger generations are a bright light in society but the elderly are a burden on society, has secured a sound foothold today. Sadly in recent decades the church has more and more bought into this uncomplimentary and untrue philosophy of the cult of youth.

That subtle shift in cultural values has been creeping into the church for decades. Some churches today even deliberately promote the fact that they are youth oriented, and that their goals and programmes are youth focused, and that their mission and ministry are youth targeted. Sometimes a ‘meeting for seniors’ is included in the programming as a kind of concession.  The thinking seems to be that the elderly have had their day; they have passed their ‘Use by’ date, so they can now move over and let the young people show how it should be done!

Now I have painted something of a caricature, an exaggeration to make the point, but there is a strong element of truth in it. Sadly older people in churches now believe the myth that they have little to contribute to the kingdom of God. And that is a lie!

  • We are not redundant!
  • You are not redundant!
  • I am not redundant!

You are never too old to serve the Lord!
What we need to grasp, internalise and affirm is that, while the Bible teaches that children and young people are precious to God, it particularly honours older people! Here are some examples:

  • Abraham began his ministry at the age of 75 (Genesis 12:4).
  • Moses was called into his ministry at 80 (Exodus 7:7) and his brother Aaron was 83.
  • Joshua was around 60 when he took over the leadership of Israel and led the people for 50 years.
  • Caleb was still a leader at the age of 85 (Joshua 14:10).
  • Daniel was around 70 or 80 years old when he was thrown into the lions’ den.
  • Simeon and Anna were an elderly couple who had a prayer ministry in the temple at the time of the birth of Jesus and were the first to recognise who Jesus was. Anna was 84 years old.
  • Paul was around 60 when he was still planning hazardous missionary journeys!

There is no ‘Use by’ date stamped anywhere on your body! Don’t let the devil convince you that you are redundant, irrelevant, without value.  Don’t be a victim of a cultural shift, be a victor in God’s army. And never give up until you hear his voice saying to you, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have served me well.’

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 Dr Jim McClure, author of several books and Bible study series, welcomes questions from Christians seeking enlightenment on biblical perspectives.

Recommended is Looking for Answers in a Confusing World, available in electronic version in EPUB, Kindle and PDF formats with hyperlinks and offered free. Link for orders and questions: jbmcclure@gmail.com

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