Remember the Aged

Carol Howard Merritt has another thoughtful post on young adults and the church.  There’s a lot to be mined from this article that will probably be another post, but for right now I want to share what I wrote in the comments.  One of the things that I felt was a running undercurrent in post and in the comment was this anger concerning older generations.  Read the post and the comments to judge for yourself, but here’s what I shared (I’m responding to a comment by Presbyterian pastor Shawn Coons:

I would agree that we need to be willing to use more technology in church and that most churches have been way too slow to use it.  Before I came to my current call, the church had a horrible website and nothing much else.  And we should consider using multi-media in worship as well.   But I also suggest a bit of caution.  There was a time when I would have said some of the same things here about how the old generation holds on to power and all that.  There is a lot of truth in this.  But I worry that we start to see our older folks as the enemy or as an embarrasment that best be kept off to the side.  My knock against some of the more growing evangelical churches that do use multi-media and other forms of technology is that it’s so geared towards youth, that older folks have been written out of the picture entirely. I want our churches to appeal to youth, but not if it means ignoring our elders.

A lot of my experience of late has come from working with older folks at First Christian and the fact that at my tentmaker job with a Presbytery, the stated clerk is 78 years old.  As the communications/techonolgy guy, I have to balance being high-tech with the fact that one member of our staff doesn’t pick all this new stuff so easily.  She’s not a luddite, but it is hard to teach a old dog new tricks.  I think she tries the best she can to keep up.

You are correct, Shawn, that we can’t please everyone and we shouldn’t try.  If our churches are going to live we as pastors have to be more agressive in placing young folks in positions of leadership.  But we have to do it in a way that honors the elderly in our midst as faithful servants and doesn’t simply push them aside to make way for the new.

Of course, I think mainline churches have to be more open to change, especially when it comes to technology.  I also think that churches need to be more proactive in placing young folks in leadership positions.  Being part of a church that is declining, I get that and live that.  But I worry that we are so worried about trying to get that target demographic that we will overlook the older folk in our midst.

It’s really easy to look at the “blue hairs” sitting in our churches and view them as dead weight, the thing that’s keeping our churches from advancing.  Sometimes they are stuck in the past.  Sometimes they are the ones that keep the church from moving forward.

But sometimes, they can also be wonderful assets to ministry.  They can remind a congregation who they were and give clues to what that congregation is now.  Sometimes they have an outlook on life that we younger folks just don’t have.

Earlier this month, Ryan Harper wrote a piece on how churches in America use young adults as mascots and push the elderly aside.  He explains:

Let me say at the outset that the idealization of my demographic is due to more than age. Class, race, educational level and gender are pertinent, too. In some of the largest and loudest quadrants of American Christianity, I would be a less-likely candidate for mascot were I not straight, male, white, well-educated and middle-class. But the changes afoot in American Christianity portend at least some hope for individuals outside these demographics. It is increasingly fashionable for white Christians to put ourselves in safe proximity to brown faces. As American Christianity becomes increasingly brown — and as safe proximity accidentally produces real encounters — the whiteness will become less normative. It is even fashionable for white middle-class Christians to put ourselves in safe, beneficent proximity to poor people of all colors. If eventually our objects of charity assert their subjectivity without assimilating the values of their putative wardens, perhaps middle-class values will become less normative.

But it is not fashionable for churches to put themselves in proximity to old people. Seniors as such are not fashionable. They are not wanted — as mascots or as citizens. Even the sentimental softness of the real or imagined kindly grandmother — the avatar of the truly feminine in some Christian circles — is severely qualified by the dogmatic hardness of the real or imagined “old church lady” — the symbol of a stodgy religiosity that even most conservative evangelicals reject. Recently I came upon the website of an evangelical church that lampooned those moribund churches in which “everyone looks like your grandma,” the implication being I would not be forced to pause over such post-menopausal specters were I to attend their worship service.

He goes on to say that the quest for being “relevant” might mean accepting a few wrinkled faces:

American churches like advertising themselves as “relevant to the culture.” But we must push for specifics. To whom and for whom is our church relevant? Doubtless, the answer varies. But judging by their programming and congregational demographics, most churches that self-consciously adopt the discourse of relevance seem to have in mind people like me. Relevance to “the culture” usually means relevance to my culture — to people who look like me, who spend money like me, who are reading this post on a sleek, colorless i-Device like the one on which I compose it, who soon and very soon might father a child who will inherit his father’s uncritical consumptive habits and with this inheritance uncritically consume his father’s aging, inconsequential body: teeth set on edge, the protestant patricide on the communion table of the free market.

This version of me, like the version of “the culture” of which it is representative and by which it is constituted, is largely lifeless — inattentive, inorganic, juvenile, hypermaterialistic, ossified in its addiction to youth. Sure, I hope there is another version of my culture and myself that has more redeeming qualities — and that sees that it needs to be led toward fuller redemption. But a community that claims a tradition that regards the marginal (the poor, the eunuch, the alien, the orphan, and … the elderly widow) as supremely relevant should think twice before it seeks to build on such shifting sand as me — the young, heterosexual, white male with disposable income and functioning genitals. It may turn out that it is irrelevant for the church to be relevant to such an irrelevant population.

There may be more relevant criteria for relevance. Some possibilities: A church with no wrinkles is irrelevant. A church that has not buried a member in the last two years or so is irrelevant. A church that advertises itself as “not your grandma’s church” is irrelevant. A church that is staffed exclusively by guys who look they were pulled out of a Decemberists audience is irrelevant. A church that claims it must grow or die is irrelevant. Such a church is more irrelevant than poor, “dying” churches that cannot perpetuate themselves through time by birthing new members. After all, the ageless local congregation existing in earthly perpetuity is no less an illusion than is the ageless individual existing in earthly perpetuity. Imminent institutional mortality may better equip people to deal with eventual personal mortality. No robust Christianity can exist where death is absent. It is time for American churches to learn how to die.

Please don’t take this as me wanting to forestall needed change in the church or that we should ignore the young.  What I am getting at is that we don’t try to stuff old folks in the closet as some kind of embarrasment.  That, and young adults are not all that they are cracked up to be for all the reasons Ryan talked about.

Mainline churches have to find ways to renew themselves.  We need to plant new churches that can speak to younger generations.  But we should never do that at the expense of the faithful folks who make up the bulk of our existing congregations.

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About Dennis

Dennis is the Pastor at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, MN. He is the husband to a wonderful man named Daniel, staff to two cats, lover of cars, the Detroit Tigers and all things Star Trek.

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