Why I’m thankful I grew up in an elderly church

3 ways older saints cared for me

May 25, 2021

“How many funerals have you officiated?” I asked my dad as I rifled through the “Funerals” folder in his office filing cabinet. He thought for a few seconds, sat back, and sighed, “Over 80.” 

I was preparing to officiate my first.

As I thumbed through the pages, I started to recognize certain names within the stack, and memories of those individuals rushed to mind. 

My dad, now in his 36th year as a pastor, has always pastored elderly congregations. Some of my fondest memories from my childhood are of joining him on pastoral visits to shut-ins or nursing homes. Even today, I can hear Harry tell me the story of meeting his wife at the 1935 Chicago World’s Fair, remember the way it felt to shake Gerry’s four-fingered hand (he lost his pinky in WW2), and name the passage Evelyn would recite to herself if she woke up nervous in the middle of the night (Isaiah 43). 

Youth idolatry 

Youth is powerful in the hands of the Lord and is to be commended (1 Tim. 4:12). Yet, I’m so thankful that I grew up in an elderly church. 

That’s not a common refrain today. Instead, in many churches, there seems to be a fear of “age” — a dread of looking out of step with pop culture. There is a gravitation toward the new, the popular, the young. From the music we sing to the books we read and recommend, it seems that the church is smitten with youth. Many congregants are duped into believing that a vibrant church is synonymous with youthful vigor. 

And this isn’t really a church problem. It’s a culture problem. At one point in Carl Trueman’s book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, he comments on our age’s “cult of childhood and youth,” saying, “the Western world of today generally credits youth with wisdom and sees old age as corrupt, myopic, or behind the times.”1Trueman, C. (2020). The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution., (Wheaton, IL: Crossway), 127. That sentiment is certainly pervasive, almost subliminally so. 

In my previous role as a college pastor, I had a front row seat to the perspective of youth toward the elderly. In general, the belief was that elderly people — their beliefs and wisdom — are relics of a bygone era. This is a tragic and unbiblical perspective (Prov. 20:29). 

How the elderly cared for me 

That incorrect sentiment is far from what I experienced. I count myself blessed to have grown up in an elderly church, hearing their reflections on life and surrounded by their genuine care, comfort, and encouragement. 

My experience is part of the reason why I decided to write this particular article. Throughout the pandemic, I’ve heard the constant charge that we must care for the elderly. And that’s true, right, and good. But today, I’d like to flip the script and reflect on some ways the elderly community in the church has cared for me. 

  1. They shared their rich wisdom.

It may be true that the elderly Christians in my church growing up didn’t possess a detailed knowledge of pop culture or its trends. But they were skilled in knowing how to please God. That skillful wisdom hadn’t come naturally; it was the product of learned faithfulness and repentance over a prolonged period of time. Nor was their wisdom shallow. These were men and women who knew life and loss, joy and sorrow, sickness and health, wealth and poverty, success and failure. They could speak firsthand of the joys of faithfulness, of the consequences of sin, and of the beauty of restoration. The Lord’s mercy, comfort, and discipline were their friends. 

It was this perspective and experiential knowledge that allowed elderly Christians to speak with stinging clarity into my life. Rather than seeming out of touch with today’s world, they applied their wisdom to my circumstances with precision. More often than not, the wisdom would come in the form of a five-minute conversation at church between Sunday School and the worship service, but that’s all it took for right and wrong to cut through a sea of gray.

  1. They taught me how to pray. 

“Stephen, the older people pray,” is one line my dad repeated while growing up that will stick with me throughout my life. He proved it to me by dragging me along to Wednesday night prayer meetings. 

At that age, it was difficult to keep my eyes closed for the entire hour, but now as a father myself, I understand why my dad brought me along. He did it so that I’d be shaped, not by the moment, but by the pattern of prayer (and to give my mom a break). My enduring memory is that the older people dominated attendance at those prayer meetings. And though I don’t remember the exact words of their prayers, their model of faithfulness was formative. They didn’t pray because they were strong; they prayed because even at their age, they were needy and dependent upon the Lord for provision. 

  1. They never seemed too busy to care for me.   

One of the things I try to guard against in my own pastorate is needlessly adding activities and expectations to church members’ plates. People always seem to be busy, myself included. There’s always somewhere to be and something to do. And unfortunately, in the chaos of it all, it’s easy to forget to take time to care for one another.   

Busyness affects everyone, so the elderly aren’t immune to distraction or looking past people. But, at least in my experience, the elderly Christians seemed to have developed a greater sense of the importance of slowing down. 

In my early teens, I went back to visit “home” and walked through the church my dad previously pastored. While there, I ran into Pastor Roy — a 95-year-old retired minister — in the hallway. Incredibly, he stopped his day, invited me to sit down, and, though he had a hard time hearing, spent the better part of an hour talking to me. He didn’t have to do that, but he did. He showed me that sometimes caring enough to talk to someone for an hour is more important than going to the grocery store. 

What a vibrant church looks like

Due in large part to the wisdom, encouragement, and prayers of elderly saints, I knew better how to please God in middle school, high school, and college. They taught me neediness is a sign of maturity and that dependence upon the Lord for provision never ends. And though I’m not particularly skilled at slowing down and caring for others yet, I’d like to be. Their examples challenge me every day. 

An elderly church may not be what comes to mind for most people when they consider the characteristics of a vibrant church. Maybe it should, though. Our churches — the leadership and congregations — would benefit greatly from their prayers, listening ears, and wisdom. 

Stephen Johnson

Stephen Johnson serves as a pastor at Summit Church in Southwest Florida. He earned his B.S. in Finance and M.B.A. from Florida Gulf Coast University. Stephen is married to Ashley, and they have two children. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24