“When are you planning on having children?” a church member demanded in the middle of a congregational envisioning meeting. “As the only young, married people here, it is your responsibility to re-populate the church.”
The church member had said this like it was a joke, but there was an audible note of seriousness behind her words.
I don’t remember how my husband and I responded, but I do remember feeling incredibly uncomfortable. We had been married for three months, were living in a small apartment in a so-so neighborhood, and had very little money to spare. We were not ready to raise a child, and both of us knew it.
But our church was largely populated by aging members, and many churchgoers feared that our church could die out altogether in a matter of decades.
That was nearly five years ago, and our congregation is looking more vivacious than ever. A “Children’s Church” has been established every other Sunday, and sometimes there are nearly 10 kids up front to hear the “Children’s Story” before the sermon. And you know what? None of them are mine. The church grew through nurturing its existing members and lovingly reaching out to new people, not by pressuring one couple with the continuation of a congregation.
While the sustenance of a church is important, it is equally important to appreciate the value of the members you do have.
Bible professor and blogger Denny Burk writes in Why our churches need more gray hair that older men are especially valuable to churches today, even though we tend to cast them aside in search of young families.
See Titus 2:2 (NASB):
“Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness.”
This verse is seeking out a specific kind of older man to lead the church. This man is knowledgeable and honorable. He conducts himself well, and is a role model to others. He speaks with kindness and gentleness, and is strong in his faith.
From there, Paul writes about the qualities of a godly older woman:
“Older women likewise are too be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, so that they may encourage the young women to love their husband, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, so that the word of God will not be dishonored.” (Titus 2:3-5 NASB)
Perhaps your church, like mine, has made the mistake of forgetting to acknowledge the gift of elderly men and women in the church who exude Christlike behavior.
Burk explains, “Proverbs 20:29 says that ‘The glory of young men is their strength, but the splendor of old men is their gray hair.’ This verse means that young men are not noted for their great and profound wisdom into life. The main contribution of young men is their ability to serve others with their physical strength and vigor.”
He continues, “But as the years accumulate strength diminishes. And as strength diminishes, guess what begins to accumulate? Experience and wisdom. And gray hair represents the accumulation of wisdom and sensibleness about life and about what needs to be done. And this is an old man’s splendor and contribution to his neighbor. And it is supposed to be his contribution to the body of Christ.”
Perhaps we should stop worrying about the slow death of our churches, and instead learn from the older members while they are still here to teach us.
Yes, young people are necessary for the church to be sustained for generations to come. But do not idolize their youth. Instead, teach them in the ways of the Lord.
Burk writes, “The world puts the old people on the shelf and the young people on the podium. But it really should be the other way around. Every believer should aspire to the crown of splendor—to the honor that is due to those who have learned to live well and faithfully to what God has called them.”
Crosswalk.com contributor Dr. Julie Barrier offers helpful advice for both young and old people to avoid ageism in the church.
She tells young people, “Now is the time to show appreciation, affection and affirmation to the elders in your life. They won’t be around forever… When you are seven, your birthday seems like a century away. When you are old, you rack up birthdays like poker chips. Make every moment count. Love deeply… like Christ loves you.”
And Barrier advises the old to become spiritual mentors: "Use your influence to empower and encourage the young… Entering someone’s world builds trust. Be the hands and feet of Jesus to the next generation."
Carrie Dedrick is an editor of Crosswalk.com. When she is not writing or editing, she can usually be found teaching dance classes, running marathons, or reading with at least one adopted dog on her lap.
Photo credit: ©Thinkstock/Photick/Eric Audras