When I go to Cracker Barrel, water aerobics or a Baptist meeting, I look fairly young. But at church, people my age are considered past their prime. The older we get, the less credit we get.
When thirtysomethings join the church, members rush to say, “It’s so encouraging when young families join the church.”
They are right. It is encouraging.
When seventysomethings join, we do not usually hear these same members say, “It’s so encouraging when old families join the church.”
That would be right, too, but the applause is never quite so loud — except in the hearts of thoughtful pastors.
Ministers are delighted when anyone chooses to be part of the congregation, but in general, ministers have a minority opinion on which age group makes a greater contribution to church life.
Seventysomethings — and this is a huge generalization — work harder, give more money, complain less and are more likely to still be around in five years.
(If you are a young person who wishes you were reading another column, feel free to walk away. Don’t send email. I know that many people in their twenties are wonderful. My children are in their twenties, but they are not going to read this, and you might enjoy reading something by someone closer to your own age.)
The ageism of our culture can work to a church’s advantage. Some churches are more attractive to people after their faith matures. When the median age of a church rises, it might mean that the church is growing stronger in its understanding of faith and thus attracting more experienced Christians. Some churches tend to be wonderful church homes for beginners in the faith, and others are especially good congregations for those who are more mature.
A common lament in church circles has to do with the number of “gray hairs” who show up for church events. A room full of old Christians is often understood to be a bad thing, while a room full of young people would, presumably, be interpreted as a godsend. The common assumption is that youth equals growth, while old age means decline.
Yet when you look at the demographic situation in the United States, in many ways the opposite is the case. Senior citizens represent the fastest growing segment of the population. The current total of 40 million Americans who are 65 or older will grow to more than 71 million by 2030. To put it in crassly commercial terms, older adults represent the most promising “growth market” for the church.
The “graying” of the population — far from being something to lament — represents a potential benefit for congregations that use the gifts and talents of older adults.
Churches with older populations can embrace their strengths and be one of the minority churches that pays attention to older families, welcomes baby boomers, and celebrates gray hair.
Why do churches across the street from retirement centers hire youth ministers instead of senior adult ministers? Why do more churches build gyms than gardens? Why are there more church softball teams than church bridge teams? Some of our churches need to cater to the fastest growing portion of the population.
At some churches, all of the bulletins should be large print. Wednesday night suppers could start at 4:30. The volume on the organ could be turned down and the volume on the pulpit mic turned up. Committees could meet in the afternoon. Congratulations could be offered in the church newsletter when members get their AARP card.
While our culture idolizes youth, we recognize that the Bible is a fan of old age: “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life” (Prov. 16:31). When we look around the sanctuary and see gray we should give thanks, because, “Gray hair is the splendor of the old” (Prov. 20:29).
We need to recognize the gifts that come with age. Old age offers perspective. When we move slower, we see more. For many senior adults, forgiveness comes easier. Prayer seems more natural. Recognizing that we do not have forever helps us appreciate each day.
We should be encouraged that the future of the church is gray. We can continue to adore young adults, but it should never be at the expense of anyone who has used a rotary phone. NFJ
By Brett Younger
—Brett Younger is pastor of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, N.Y.