In calling out a people to salvation God does not limit himself to a singular demographic, ethnicity, or age group. A healthy local church will bear at least some reflection of the breadth and diversity of backgrounds which a locale enjoys, and this is a blessing as it precludes the generational exclusivism which marks so many other social activities. Being a member of a local church means that I don’t get to settle for comfortable connections with people who think like me, and whose date of birth lies within a 5 year radius of my own. My challenge is to work for unity in the breathtaking diversity of people whom Christ redeems, and to rejoice in the degree of fellowship which can be realised across traditional barriers.
This is expressed most profoundly in terms of ethnicity and perceived social class, but it is also vitally true in relation to the church being an inter-generational body. A church which caters to a certain demographic, young or old, may have much to celebrate, but the intermingling of the vitality of youth and the wisdom of age is not one of them. As a Pastor I spend a considerable amount of time in the presence of older Christians, and from that experience I want to explode 3 common myths about elderly believers – I offer this article with the prayer that it may inspire and liberate younger Christians to connect with the senior elements of their church community, and receive the blessing that this inevitably entails:
1. Elderly Christians are difficult to relate to: one of the big barriers to inter-generational fellowship can be a fear on our part that we won’t be able to relate to older Christians in a comfortable or helpful way. Won’t their life experiences be so removed from ours as to prevent meaningful conversation or interaction? How can I understand their world, and how can they understand mine? Those kinds of questions can debilitate our good intentions with regard to engaging with older believers, and can make us feel deeply self-conscious about taking initiative.
This view might be common, but it is almost entirely mythical. Of course there are cantankerous old people, just as there are arrogant and cantankerous young people, but that feature is not the norm. Most older believers are profoundly engaged with their world, and are eager to meet with people younger than themselves. I once visited a Christian man who had just turned 93 and had been moved into a residential home. When I asked him how he found the place his response was, ‘It’s ok, the only thing is it’s full of old people!’ Imagine for a moment that many of the older people in your church would be keen to speak with someone outside of their own age group, and would benefit from you listening to them, and them learning about your life too.
2. Elderly Christians have arrived: older Christians need fellowship, but they also desperately need discipleship. White hair (or no hair!) can be a sign of wisdom, but it is no essential measure of spiritual growth. Many of the elderly people with whom I have had contact dwarf my faith and my understanding of God (see below), but this is by no means universal. Many of the older people in your church will be spiritual giants, but many of them won’t be. Older Christians need discipleship, they need the grit of interaction with others to see where they can be sanctified, they need instruction in righteousness – in short they need all of the same things you do in order to mature. We spend a lot of time emphasising to younger Christians that they cannot develop spiritually in isolation, and then we expect that people over a certain age will do just that.
For me, one of the breathtaking aspects of pastoral visitation is to see the clear spiritual development that a man or woman can experience in their 80s and 90s. Their reading of Scripture can deepen, their prayer life can widen, and their understanding of God can be powerfully shaped on the anvil of adversity that advancing years inevitably represents. To be present for this, even to be instrumentally part of this, is an unspeakable privilege – and that ought not to be the sole preserve of pastors and elders.
Older Christians can also be frequently depressed. The failure of once-enjoyed physical capacities, the diminishment of one’s circle of friends and families, and the sheer isolation that immobility brings are massive trials which any of us would struggle to face. Older people need to be encouraged in the trials they face, they need to be carefully listened to, and fervently prayed for.
In short, you are responsible to sharpen, help, and disciple the older Christians in your church. Are you praying for them? Are you engaged with them? Are you helping them along the road toward eternity as you might concerned to with your peers? Those are searching questions, they are often unspoken questions, but they are utterly crucial.
3. Visiting elderly Christians is a one way street: if we approach caring for our elderly brothers and sisters as a task, as a chore, or even as a kind of patronising mission into the colonies of advancing years, then we are missing much of the point of how fellowship works. It takes time, it requires patience, it places demands on a younger person, to visit with an elderly Christian, but the rewards far outstrip the costs. When the Apostle Paul contemplated travelling to the city of Rome, his view of fellowship was that he could be mutually encouraged by the Christians there (Romans 1:12), and this is true in any context where two Christians come to the point of sharing with one another about Christ.
Visiting with elderly brothers and sisters has been a gracious, God-given, means of discipleship in my own life. At times it has been hard, at times my motivation can be low, at times I have to be a sounding board for some of the difficult experiences that elderly Christians need to articulate. I have, however, learned from their experiences, I have rejoiced to see their growth in grace, I have been disarmed by their candour (about life and death), and I have walked the little paths from their homes with something new to think about and live as a Christian. If all of your friends are your own age they can tell you little about the path ahead, at best they can reflect only a little more deeply than you can on the big issues of life, but an older Christian has walked your road, has tripped and fallen and recovered, and can bless your heart.
The greatest argument for better understanding older people is to visit them. The following questions might help to clarify the steps needed to make inter-generational fellowship a reality in your life, and by extension in your local church:
Who could you connect with in your local church?
Who would be blessed (and be a blessing) were you to sit with them this weekend and talk to them after the service?
Who has been unable to gather with God’s people on a regular basis for the past while?Could you get their address from your elders or pastor?
Could you afford to visit that same person once every eight weeks, for one hour at a time?
How does your connection with other Christians reflect the sheer diversity of the body of Christ and your place within it?