Ministry-minded ageism?


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!

1 ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’.

5 thoughts on “Ministry-minded ageism?

  1. Many thanks for the reflections, Claire – very helpful. I’m 100% with you on the older-with-younger thing. And if that’s the case, surely the biggest concern is not with conferences and websites (though they’re certainly a concern), but the trend towards age-specific congregations – especially the ubiquitous “youth service”. That’s where it hits our regular diet of teaching and relationship.

  2. Thank you for your essay.

    Some congregations ignore the young or ignore the old. I believe a genuine pastor will care about the spiritual welfare of people of all ages. I was formerly a member of a church where the pastor decided that the desires and needs (which are different, but often confused) of those over about 45 didn’t matter. He told the old people that they should not selfishly insist on their preferred style of worship, but he insisted on his own preferred style. An alternative, more traditional worship service, or even an occasional piece of traditional music was forbidden in the worship services.

    That pastor wasn’t just short-sighted. He refused to be a pastor of those who were not sufficiently contemporary. Such thinking is wrong, and would be just as wrong if it were freezing out the young instead of the old. Where’s the unity of the body of Christ?

  3. Thanks Claire! Just the other day a friend and I were reflecting on the blessing it had been to hear 3 older women speak about their identity in Christ. Their wisdom was clearly fruit of lives spent loving our Lord, listening carefully to his word and seeking to serve him in the ups and downs of each day. Their words genuinely gave us courage to press on!

    On the other side of the age ‘fence’ my highschool girls Bible study group spurs me to work hard at knowing what I believe and why. Teens don’t let you get away with much!

    ‘Ageist’ congregations miss out on the encouragement and vitality of older and younger saints alike. Yet beyond that, the world of ‘ageist’ (or ‘stage-ist’) congregations leaves some feeling excluded or unwanted: those who don’t fall into the ‘traditional’, ‘family’ (ie children under 16-ish) or ‘youth’ designation. May the power of the gospel and our unity in Christ (despite age, stage and music preference) be seen in our congregations to the glory of God.

  4. Over the years I have often been the ‘older woman’ in the Bible study group at church. It’s been a privilege to have my ideas challenged and to receive encouragement and rich fellowship in spite of the age difference. It’s never seemed to matter that I was nearly 20 years older than some of the group. I now find myself texting bible verses to various friends as they walk the path that God has prepared for them.

    In the last few years I’ve been involved with an older group of women who’s vision is to win the families of the nation for Christ by strengthening and encouraging Christian family life.I’m now almost the young one! But they haven’t lost their zeal and fervour for the gospel in spite of their grey hair and often physical fraility. I’m humbled by their faithfulness and prayerfulness.

  5. Dear brothers and sisters – thanks for your comments. I agree with them all!

    So, let me take some of them up and push them a little further.

    a. If the current model of age or stage-based congregations works against us experiencing the diversity of familial relationships that God intended for Christian fellowship, is that loss offset by the benefit of being culturally relevant to different groups and thereby preventing the distracting and destructive arguments about style that so often occur?

    b. What can we do to foster richer relationships across different age groups in our churches?

    c. How do we go about challenging and correcting ministry-minded ageism when many of those who might challenge it can be dismissed as old and irrelevant, and it is apparently being done for the sake of the gospel – and when our society is so strongly ageist?

    Any thoughts?

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