Since my wife and I moved to Portland, OR, in late 2009 we have seen some really creative, energetic churches fueled by the vision of younger evangelicals (twenty-somethings and early thirty-somethings). These churches resonate with an age group that usually does not find itself attracted to Christianity. Some of them are quite large and the others are growing. For the most part we can consider these groups as very successful.
Yet I found myself with one concern. Ageism.
At lunch yesterday I was talking with my wife who is studying at Portland State University where many of her classes address sociological subjects (e.g. race, socio-economic class, gender, sexuality) and it appeared to us that we were seeing something in the church that is all too common in our post-industrialized society. We are seen as economic beings. Our ontological worth is often dependent upon our contribution to the machine of which we are part. Once people become elderly they are seen as unable to contribute much further and therefore they are burdensome to society’s progress.
The same may be said of children or college students, but our society sees them as “the future”. We can give to them now because it is an investment. We often see the elderly as having already come and gone.
This language has crept into many churches even if it is not explicit. We talk about the “next Christianity” and the “next Christians” and “emerging churches”. While this talk may not always lend itself to the idea that our parents and grandparents are old fuddy-duddies it often does just that.
In many societies around the world, and in most societies in history, the elderly contributed something that was absolutely necessary: wisdom. No, not all elderly people are wise, but it isn’t a stretch to say almost no young people can claim that title (though some are wiser than their peers). Also, the elderly give us perspective. They have seen life. They have made the journey.
We have settled in a church that has some older people. I am talking about in their eighties and nineties! These saints are amazing people to be around and their voices are important to hear. So while I am thankful for what the churches that are reaching my generation are doing, I think there is something missing. We need people who have been through economic woes, cultural changes, challenges in their marriage, the death of loved ones, and so forth.
If the gospel is good news that brings down barriers one of those barriers is age. It will help us see the wisdom and worth of those who are no longer “cutting edge” and “progressive”. If you church just happens to be young that is fine, but we should always be careful to avoid modeling our culture’s disregard for those who have come before us. What they lack in singing, in the arts, in their contributions to planning new ways to engage your culture, they make up in wisdom, in the ability to see the dangers in certain trends and fads, and perspective on life that we need.