According to TS Eliot, you know you’re old when you wear the bottoms of your trousers rolled.1 But in Christian circles, it seems, you know you’re old when you start thinking older people haven’t passed their use-by date. It would appear that I’m old, and perhaps that’s why I’m noticing just how much ageism has snuck into our ministry mindset and fellowships.
Just recently, I’ve been hearing about women’s conferences that will have no-one older than 45 on the platform. I’ve been hearing about a website that was dismissed because “no-one wants to listen to two old blokes talking”. I’ve been hearing about conference organisers being disappointed at the number of grey-haired delegates, and seen women’s Bible study groups that are more interested in recruiting young mums than older saints. And I have been guilty of similar thinking.
Now, there is some wisdom in the homogeneous unit principle, which targets specific subcultures with culturally specific ministry (cf. 1 Cor 9:19-23). But while that makes good ministry sense when it comes to ethnic or interest-based subcultures (and, arguably, this should be a mission-strategy, rather than a fellowship-shaping ideology), we are robbing ourselves of something rich and vital if it is allowed to marginalize or segregate different age groups in our churches.
Despite modern attempts of medical intervention, age (like gender) is one of those unchangeable aspects of personhood. (Well, our age changes, but we can’t resist the change!) Age is a God-given part of human identity, and it brings a richness to our Christian fellowship that is also God-given.
Although the gradual creep of death is a consequence of the curse, long life is still a blessing from God (Prov 3:16, 10:27; Isa 65:20)—and long life spent knowing Jesus is valuable time spent serving him (Phil 1:21-24). While youth does not disqualify people from ministry (Job 32:1-9; 1 Tim 4:12; Titus 2:1-2), teaching eldership is usually for those who are ‘elder’ (1 Tim 3:2-6; Titus 1:6; 1 Pet 5:1-5)! Moreover, we are explicitly told that older women are to teach and model what is good to younger women (Titus 2:3-5), and there is nothing to suggest that older men are not to do the same for younger men (cf. 1 Pet 5:3b). Indeed, only the fool despises the wisdom of age (Prov 4:1-4, 23:22).
But we lose something even richer if we are ministry-minded ageists: we lose the blessing of knowing, learning from and being loved by our new grandmothers and grandfathers, mothers and fathers, and brothers and sisters in the Lord who became our closest kin when we followed Jesus (Mark 10:29-30). And if it is a disgrace for us to deny our blood relatives (Mark 7:11-12; 1 Tim 5:8), how much more serious an offence would it be for us to despise the contribution of those for whom Christ died—those whom he has given us as a gift for growth of his church!