Do not cast me away when I am old; do not forsake me when my strength is gone. Psalm 71:9
Iconic Rolling Stones rocker Mick Jagger is now seventy-two years old! For those of us who grew up listening to the Stones in our youth, this comes as a shock. How is it that this once vibrant, virile, symbol of youth culture become a septuagenarian great-grandfather? Yes, you read that correctly. Great-grandfather. Mick has led quite a life, producing seven children with four women, having had untold lovers, fame and fortune and now…he is an old man. I doubt a gig at the Chumash Casino is in his future, but his life is changing as the years tick by. Mick Jagger makes me think about my generation, the baby boomers, because we, too, are growing old.
The demographics of the United States are changing rapidly and as a consequence, so is the church. For the first time in American history those over sixty-five now outnumber those age eighteen and under. As the baby boomer generation ages, every twenty seconds or so, someone in America turns sixty-five. The Social Security Administration will be receiving about ten thousand applications per day for the next twenty years! And people today are living much longer, averaging about two decades more of life than their predecessors at the beginning of the twentieth century. Because of this, family structures are also changing. What was once the common three-generational extended family is now, more often than not, a four-generational family. My own extended family is a good example for our church. They all are members of SBCC (they have to be because I am a SBCC pastor!). My parents are in their mid eighties, Donna and I are younger, our children Krista and Kori with their respective husbands, Matt and Brian, are in their thirties, and together they have five children ranging from one to eleven years old. Four generations are worshipping and serving in the same church family.
As America grows older, there are some new twists in the aging process. Many people are growing old with an amazing physical and mental vibrancy that was unheard of not long ago. Sixty-five is the new fifty-five, or even forty-five. Retirees are running marathons, cycling long distances, surfing big waves, learning to play the piano, reading and writing, or extending their work lives. Due to unprecedented health, seniors are not only living much longer, they are living much better and they have much to contribute. Regardless of the gym workouts, healthy eating, brain-sharpening Sudoku exercises, and the help of drugs that do everything from lowering our cholesterol to enhancing our sex lives, the realities of aging will eventually catch all of us.
What does all of this mean for the church? And in particular, what does it mean for SBCC? It was the sixteenth-century German Reformer Martin Luther, who said, If you preach the gospel in all aspects with the exception of the issues which deal specifically with your time, you are not preaching the gospel at all. This means that the church, SBCC, must face the reality of aging members with all of the opportunities and challenges that aging brings.
A bit of SBCC history is in order. There was a time in our church’s history when we were very unbalanced with regard to age. Put simply, for many years we were a very, very young church. I can remember twenty-five years ago, when older people visited our church, they’d tell me they loved what we were up to, and would love to join with us, but felt they could never be a part of SBCC because there was no one in their age group or demographic. These people were usually about forty-five years old! I can remember people referring to SBCC, good naturedly (I think), as Saint Adidas. In the early days, we actually prayed for more age diversity and the spiritual richness we knew that would bring. God has answered our prayers. Today, SBCC is well-balanced when it comes to generational diversity. This is a good thing for the health of any church, and we are enjoying the well-rounded maturity this brings to our church family. Let’s return, though, to my question for this essay. What are some of the opportunities and challenges that come with an aging church? Here are two of each.
Homegroups, which are at the center of our church life should attempt to stay age-diverse as much as possible. Age diversity in our homegroups are an opportunity to help us be more mature spiritually regardless of how old we are individually. Of course, we all like to be with people who are in a similar season of life because it is so easy to relate and find common ground. Parents of young children group together socially because it is easy. Everyone understands that the kids will be crying, diapers will need to be changed, and the children need to get home early for bed. Conversations will naturally and appropriately drift to nap times, food choices, discipline and potty-training. Parents who are in what I call the AYSO/soccer years, will also find it easy to be together. The kids need to car-pool to the next game and we can all sit on the sidelines together pondering which of our children will get a college scholarship or eventually play professional soccer. (Most parents are completely and wonderfully unrealistic about their children’s soccer abilities!) Single adults will find common cause in spontaneous late-night pizza and conversation because they are unencumbered with a spouse (who hates pizza) or children that need to be on a schedule. Senior citizens, I have found, rather enjoy discussing their latest aches and pains, visit to the doctor, minor procedure, and the frustration of navigating the prescription drug maze. There is nothing wrong with spending time in fellowship with people who are in a similar stage of life. It is good and important. But if we limit our homegroups to age homogeneity we will miss out on the richness that comes from a perspective of various ages.
Speaking personally, my own homegroup starts at nineteen years old and goes to eighty years old, with all but one decade in between represented. This diversity enhances my life. The differences in age, lend a fuller understanding of the Bible and the Christian life to our conversations. Those who are older can insist that the younger members pray louder so we can hear them! I personally gave a gentle scolding to a young member of our group telling him that even God couldn’t ever hear his prayers because they were so quiet! The younger members are more in tune with contemporary culture and can help those whose last concert was Barry Manilow understand how the times are changing.
A second opportunity that comes from having older people at SBCC is the wisdom that may be gleaned through time-tested experience. The wisdom discussed in the book of Proverbs is all about learning to live a God-pleasing life from our elders. Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching. (Proverbs 1:8). But Unfortunately, many Christians think this means we occasionally ask an older believer for a dash of wisdom about this or that, assuming all they have to offer is a sentence or two of Holy Spirit-inspired sagacity. As an age-diverse church, we have an opportunity for so much more. In most churches, a seniors ministry means a ministry to seniors rather than from them. At SBCC, we have a wonderful opportunity to not only love and care for our older members, but to receive from them as they appropriately use their gifts in serving the church family. If we really believe in every-member ministry, (and we do), then let’s figure out ways for our seniors to function, giving and serving in the church as they use their gifts wisely.
There are also challenges that come with an aging church. The first and most obvious challenge is the reality of death and the dying process. It used to be that I mainly officiated at weddings, with the rare funeral. Today at SBCC, that is changing and I find I am participating in as many funerals as weddings. Many Christians who are trusting in the resurrection of Christ and hence their own hope of heaven and their future resurrection, are appropriately less afraid of actual death than the frustrating journey of dying. The potential of progressive suffering, mental deterioration, lack of autonomy and even self-worth is what worries older Christians. This presents a very practical challenge for SBCC. When a young mother gives birth at SBCC she is often blessed with meals and practical help in this exciting season of life. When an eighty-nine year old widow contracts a life ending disease is the church as quick to bring a meal and a helping hand? When we cease to see someone at Sunday worship because they can no longer make it, do we forget that they are still a member of our church family, albeit with limitations?
Along with the challenge of death is the challenge of loneliness. The elderly often find themselves isolated from family, friends or a spouse who is already in heaven. I have witnessed many in our church family who slowly fade from vibrant fellowship. They can no longer drive to church (or drive at night), mobility is difficult in a crowded sanctuary, hearing is a problem (What did he say? Why does she talk so fast?), and the good days and bad days blend together. Loneliness makes friends with depression. It is a bitter partnership.
Opportunities and challenges go together and SBCC has the God ordained privilege to embrace them both. Church, this essay is a call for us to have a vision for ministry to and from older people. Let’s not be a congregation that ignores reality or possibility. From birth to death together we can press on to be the complete family of God.