I wonder if others observe a phenomenon I think I see in many churches: people clustering with others in their generation? The 20-somethings spend their time with other 20-somethings talking about 20-something concerns. The young families hang out with other young families, hosting play dates and trading parenting tips. It seems to me that 60-somethings tend to flock together with other 60-somethings. There are notable exceptions, of course. There are those older men and women who become pillars in the church by investing in younger men and women. And there are the younger persons who seek to serve young families or older members. But by and large, people seem to spend the bulk of their spiritual energy and time with other people in the same stage of life.

There’s much that can be said about this–its scope, causes, benefits, and so on. But one thing that strikes me today is that segregating into enclaves based on age and life-stage tends to weaken the future of the church. What do I mean?

Well, it’s clear that God intends the faith to be taught and passed down from the older generation to the younger. Paul’s words to Titus are perhaps the most well-known words to this effect:

You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine. Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance. Teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God. Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled. In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us. (Titus 2:1-8)

But what happens when this vision of body life doesn’t materialize in a widespread way because we cluster into our demographic groups?

Well, 20-somethings tend to learn mostly from other 20-somethings. They’re cut off from the perspective and wisdom gained by being a generation or two older. They develop 20-something solutions to what will likely either be 40-something foundations or problems. They make courtship and dating decisions that look really cool at 20 but turn out to be short-sighted at 40. They make purchasing decisions that seem life-giving at 20 that turn into major burdens at 40. I think I see lots of 20-somethings (guys in particular) running the race without self-control, self-control that older members could and should help them gain.

Meanwhile, the 40-somethings work through marriage, parenting, and career issues without the longer view of 60-somethings. As quiet as it’s kept, knowing how to be a husband, wife or parent doesn’t come to us by osmosis. We have to be taught how to love a wife, how to respect a husband, and how to raise our children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. And sometimes those callings get as nuts-and-bolts as learning how to cook, how to discipline, how to argue and how to make up. During this period, our 30- and 40-somethings develop or continue habits that either help or hurt. Sadly, many will do so without the wisdom that comes from more seasoned experience. Consequently, they take the same lumps others could have helped them avoid. Or they “make it” through that middle-age season via a series of trial and error experiments.

This, of course, affects the temperature and vitality of the church. We have congregations of people “trying to figure life out” largely alone. Great amounts of time get invested in helping young people negotiate the choppy waters of early adulthood, middle-aged people work their way through challenges of marriage, family, and career, and older persons figure out meaning late in life sometimes without much-loved spouses, declining  health, and shrinking numbers of living peers. Pastors and elders mistakenly think they must become masters of each stage of life, counsel people through every opportunity and difficulty, and be there in every circumstance. But, actually, the Bible instructs the pastor to teach the congregation to be there for one another and does so by tying the generations together so that the built-in expertise of old age gets leveraged for every younger generation. It’s a beautiful thing.

In this way older members of the local church become the front line of discipleship and care. They brighten the future of the church by teaching younger members how to live out the faith, how to avoid mistakes, seize opportunities, practically apply the word of God to their lived realities. As that store of wisdom, maturity, and experience gets passed on and received with humility, the spiritual, emotional, and volitional maturity of the congregation rises considerably. The more mature the young persons in the body the brighter the future of the church. We sometimes act as if older members have no role vital to the future of the church. But actually they are absolutely essential, indispensable.

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28 thoughts on “How Older Members Brighten the Future of the Church”

  1. john says:

    Good point. I think this problem of segregating into similar demographic groups is exacerbated by ministries that are dedicated to specific age/life areas. So, you have singles ministries, elders (age-wise) ministries, youth ministries, young professionals ministries, etc. Not that such things are necessarily wrong, but they need to be put in their proper context. What ever happened to the unity of the church coming out of diversity? We may be preserving the diversity but not promoting unity when we have a culture of people looking for “people who are like me” with appropriate demographic ministries when choosing a church.

    Having said that, though, I have three fingers pointing back at me – I like people who are like me. :)

  2. Rachael Starke says:

    My goodness, how this post hits to the heart of a recent experience I had! I got the opportunity to visit a new, exploding church plant near our house, and I confess that challenges in this very area at my own church (age-focussed informal segregation) had my sort of wondering if maybe this new church plant might be a better fit for us. But what I walked in to see was three hundred people with an age range of 22 to 30. When I talked with someone later, they confirmed that the oldest child in the entire church was 10. Again, because I feel the lack of older women influence in my own church (Oh, how those points about trial and error in marriage resonate!), I thought that this church would be different. Instead, I was, well, surprised is one word, that I would be considered the older woman there. At 41. I drove home with a strong sense of “these things ought not to be”.

    I guess the obvious question is “what should churches in this situation do?” Wouldnt’ it be ironic if church’s suddenly started waking up to their need to bring in the old folk (instead of the young folk) – going back to wearing suits and playing the Gaithers. Or in my case, Sandi Patti? ;)

  3. Lynn says:

    You know, I have seen this assertion on quite a few Christian web sites and I get the point – but I’m not certain that I completely agree with it. Perhaps “agreement” isn’t the right term — perhaps it is more accurate for me to say that it doesn’t resonate with me.

    My parents are my role models and my source of advice, and I feel that they fulfill the “instruction” portion of my Christian life. Granted, I recognize that not everyone has Christian parents, and that in modern society many young adults live in cities away from their families of origin — but, I just struggle with seeing this issue as problematic — at least not to the degree that many bloggers/authors seem to suggest.

    I don’t want to sound as if I am against fellowship across generations or life stages. However, I am not convinced that it is that big of a problem. It is not clear in these posts just **how much** cross-generation/life-stage interaction is suggested (e.g. weekly, daily, acquaintances, best friends??) — but I feel as if there **is** cross-generational interaction in most churches.

    I believe that when people are actively involved in the life of the church, they’ll naturally meet those who are different (unless the church itself is entirely homogenous on these dimensions). For example, I serve with the hospitality ministry in my church. In that capacity my primary duties are to greet congregants before services, answer questions and provide directions to first-time visitors, and count the offering. Every 1st and 3rd Sunday, I carry out these duties on teams with other members of the ministry. The ministry is comprised of people of all ages, life-stages and walks of life – and we interact regularly as we serve together. That said, my deeper friendships and choices for more frequent interaction that go beyond Sunday service tend to be with those in a similar life stage with similar interests. I’m not sure how/why that is wrong — and/or what I’m missing.

  4. Jeff says:

    Older Christians are far more likely to be Arminian and dispensational in their theology.

    1. B. Warshaw says:

      Can we assume sarcasm here, (hopefully) before 73 opposing replies come?

    2. Mark B. says:

      “Older Christians are far more likely to be Arminian and dispensational in their theology.”

      Arminian? All the more reason to like them. :)

    3. Kathy W. says:

      Woah Jeff! Down boy! As a 53 year old woman, I am offended by your statement saying my demographic is more likely to be Armenian…SO WHAT, throw us over the cliff!? I found Reformed Theology via The Holy Spirit–just like you whipper snapper, so too can my peers.

    4. Probably true because the old cultural religion was basically Arminian and dispensational (as far as they had any theology at all). As the cultural religion fades away into secularism, what is left are the serious believers, who are usually Calvinistic — for the simple reason that, as C. H. Spurgen said, “Calvinism is just a knick-name for the gospel.”

  5. Craig says:

    Pastor Anyabwile,

    Great post, and I agree with the need for the body of Christ to interact and connect across the spectrum of life-cycles and stages. I do have a question though, that you and maybe some of the other commenters might be able to assist me with.

    As an aspiring seminarian/pastor (by God’s grace), my expectation is that the area of ministry I encounter might lead to several older members who come to the faith at late stages in life. I’m speaking particularly of folks who may be in their mid 40’s or maybe even 50’s or 60’s who have a wealth of life experience generally, but not necessarily gospel-centered or Christ-centered life experiences. My question is, do the life experiences they have, although not explicitly defined and shaped by gospel motives, still bring considerable value to fellow congregants who may be younger and in different life stages? In other words, how watchful or careful should we be when there is a 65 year old who has had a life of alcoholism or drug addiction, or homosexuality or atheism, secularism, feminism, or ________fill in the blank, and is a new Christian themselves attempting to interact and perhaps instruct younger Christians in the context of the local church?

    I ask these things sincerely and as an individual who did not come to faith in Christ until past the age of 30.

    Soli Deo Gloria,

    Craig

    1. Kathy W. says:

      VERY good questions Craig. I’m a 53 year-old woman and I can tell you that not everyone in my demographic is headed towards spiritual maturity (in this life anyway.) I do believe that the purity of the Gospel message is to be protected at all costs. I mean, when men are being considered for Eldership, they are questioned at length. There should be some way to ascertain the gospel-fitness of anyone who is in a teaching/mentor position. The Lord knows that I have a wealth of life experience, but the power of my testimony in how God’s Grace has transformed my heart and is empowering me to live with the consequences of my past sin. If there is no “But then God…” moment in an older-persons life, then quite frankly all they are is a secular Life Coach, and not a suitable Christian Mentor. I don’t have the answers. I just wanted to say I understand the questions. You’re wise to consider this ahead of time.

  6. Kathy W. says:

    As a member of the Older Folks group, all I can say is that my heart aches with the desire to be VALUABLE in the body life of my church. It is so sad that many, MANY churches place enormous emphasis on the Young Families being the end-all and be-all of the church’s future. I tend to feel forgotten (not by God, for sure, but by the leadership of the local church) much of the time. Thank-you Pastor Anyabwile for addressing this issue.

    1. rocdomz says:

      Like this post?

  7. All true, but let’s be careful of encouraging the Family Integrated Church movement which I believe to be divisive and subversive to the church.
    See: “If the Family is Central, Christ Isn’t”, The Christian Post, http://www.christianpost.com/news/if-the-family-is-central-christ-isnt-92655/

    1. rocdomz says:

      Oops, hit reply to the wrong post above yours… So this was for you:

      Like this post?

  8. Kris says:

    I completely agree. The older people in our midst who have walked faithfully are among the most precious things in our congregations because they have a wealth of wisdom.

    The arrogance and indifference of youth supposes they have need to teach these ‘quiet souls’ zealousness. The prideful, scornful aged will dismiss the youth as being foolish and blind to what they know they will soon see.

    The faithful of many years are marked by quietness. They wait for youth to see and seek. The faithful among the young are marked by humility. They seek from others what they admit they do not know.

    And when these two meet…what a glorious blessing to both!

  9. Danny says:

    This article is GOSPEL – GOLD! Thank you Pastor!

  10. Pat Ward says:

    While there is truth in this article the heart of the issue in any congregation should not be about age segregation or age integration but about seeking to foster a dependence on the Lord Jesus Christ in the way the Lord Jesus depended on the Father. If a young person is walking with Christ, depending on him and sharing what God is doing in his life, he will challenge a person much older than he is to walk with Christ in a fresh way. If an older person is walking with Christ, depending on him, their maturity in the faith will be a challenge to a young person to get to know God in a deeper way. Any person walking with Jesus daily is going to have an impact on others, regardless of age. What we need are young, middle age and older believers who have a vibrant testimony of a living Lord on a regular basis. Genuine Christians are all part of the body of Christ, we need all the parts of the body,regardless of age. Pride is what brings division and separation. It often manifests itself in thinking we do not need others. God condemns pride but looks to those who humbly walk with him. Seek to be in a fellowship with those who are truly walking with Jesus, then all other differences will fade away!

  11. rocdomz says:

    Mr. T,

    Thanks so much for this post. You have articulated what God has placed on my mind and heart over the last three years. There is even a traceable historical root to this problem, but I digress. The main point is that there *is* a problem. One of the main symptoms is a lack of discipleship/mentorship. We’re so busy creating the next fringe/niche ministry for young mothers, that young mothers are drowning together instead of being pulled up from those whom have already been down that road. Extended adolescence is the male symptom. It goes on and on. Time to hit the knees, since the only word left that comes to mind is, “help!”

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Thabiti Anyabwile


Thabiti Anyabwile is assistant pastor for church planting at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC and a Council member with The Gospel Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter.

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